Hong Kong Left Deeply Polarised by Protests: Analysts

Hong Kong Left Deeply Polarised by Protests: Analysts

The demolition of the main protest camp ended a pro-democracy occupation that paralysed Hong Kong for two months, but the campaign has left the city deeply divided both politically and socially, analysts say.

With the world watching, Hong Kong was transformed from a slick financial hub into a hive of political activism in late September as tens of thousands took to the streets in support of the student-led protests calling for free leadership elections in 2017.

It was the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority since the territory was handed over by Britain to China in 1997, and ignited fierce debate about Hong Kong’s future.

Activists occupied major traffic arteries in the wake of China’s declaration in August that candidates for the city’s chief executive would first be vetted by a loyalist committee, a move campaigners said would see a pro-Beijing stooge take power.

The struggle to reconcile the Western ideals of its colonial heritage with Chinese rule has long fomented an underlying division — but the protests have cracked the city in two, say analysts.

While the pro-democracy movement has seen the political awakening of the city’s younger generation, it has also inflamed the pro-government camp, DeGolyer says.

Opponents of the movement held their own rallies throughout the protests and voiced fears over the threat to Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity — a line adopted by the city’s leadership and Beijing.

The split extends beyond politics and into the fabric of society, said Sonny Lo, an analyst at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

With protesters vowing to fight on, analysts predict future confrontations in the face of Beijing’s increasing influence on the semi-autonomous city.

– ‘Flames of nationalism’ –

China has refused to budge on its template for the vote and the Hong Kong administration has not offered any concessions in the face of the protests, which both governments branded “illegal”.

Pro-democracy legislators and campaigners are waiting to see the outcome of the government’s second consultation on the election process — the first-round report angered the pro-democracy camp by playing down the depth of feeling over free elections.

But while analysts say there may be minor concessions — such as making the nominating committee for leadership candidates more representative — they are unlikely to change the bigger picture: that Beijing will maintain a firm grip on Hong Kong politics.

Though a threat to the city’s economic prosperity might spur “a few minor concessions” from the central government, they will only go so far, says Lam.

Analysts agree that Beijing is unlikely to employ harsh tactics to quash the pro-democracy movement, instead opting for a longer game through softer means.

Though plans to introduce compulsory “national education” promoting patriotism to the mainland were shelved after a massive public backlash in 2012, China will still try to influence education in the city, says Lo, pushing for more “Chinese ingredients” in subjects already on the timetable.

– ‘Clear message’ –

The pro-democracy movement will have to be more coherent if it wants any realistic chance of negotiating with Beijing, analysts agree — public support waned over the weeks of protests as the campaign splintered.

Some experts say that could dent support for the democrats at legislative elections in 2016, though others predict a strong performance if the city’s youth goes to the polls in force.

Whatever happens next, the impact of the rallies — symbolised by the umbrellas carried by protesters — will continue to resonate.

And that message has also reached further than Beijing.