For more than two months, protesters in Hong Kong have been staging a pro-democracy sit-in to demand free elections to the post of the island’s leader in 2017, rather than be forced to choose from a pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidate list. When the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, there was an understanding that Hong Kong would retain a semblance of autonomy from the mainland and would, someday, have universal suffrage. Ever since Beijing raised suspicions earlier this year that it intended to renege on the spirit, if not the letter, of its promise to preserve Hong Kong’s special status, concerned citizens — especially students — have blocked busy arteries for weeks.
Although there have been intermittent clashes between the Occupy Central activists, as they are called, and the police, for the most part, Beijing has appeared content to wait the protesters out. The longer the movement continues, the more resentment over the disruption of daily life is stoked, even among those residents who sympathise with the cause. The Chinese leadership’s refusal to budge has also caused frustration and divisions among the protesters, some of whom are impatient with what they perceive as the ineffectual tactics of organisers based in the district of Admiralty, and advocate escalation by, for instance, surrounding government headquarters — the event that sparked the current skirmish.
The past few days have witnessed perhaps the most violence since the protests began, and the chaotic scenes of baton-charges and volleys of pepper spray indicate that the situation might be coming to a head. Even as support for the protests has dwindled, the police has worked to clear the streets of encampments. Yet, protesters have returned. With neither side willing to back down, the confrontation seems set to intensify. How bloody this standoff gets depends on whether and how soon Beijing can countenance exploring a political solution.