Editorial: Bad news for public protests


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After months of protest led by student groups in Hong Kong, authorities have taken steps to dismantle the so-called Umbrella Movement, named after the iconic umbrellas the protesters have used to protect themselves from tear gas and pepper spray used by police.

Leaders of the Hong Kong Occupy Central group surrendered to police on Wednesday after several group members urged a crowd to block access to a city government building, which was blockaded earlier in the year when thousands of people filled the streets day and night. In recent weeks, police had established a sort of uneasy ceasefire with the remaining protesters, ensuring access to civic buildings while allowing them to maintain camps in the city.

Now, that truce has been shattered. Police made an aggressive push to dismantle some of the tent camps, and three founders of the protest group turned themselves in in an attempt to avoid further violence. What’s more, the protesters seemed to have lost the public support that they enjoyed in the beginning of the pro-democracy rallies.

The original impetus for the movement was Beijing’s announcement in September that the electoral procedures for the semiautonomous Hong Kong would be subject to the discretion of a central government committee. The three candidates up for election would have to be vetted by this committee, meaning true democracy in Hong Kong would be a farce.

This did not sit well with the citizens of Hong Kong, who are accustomed to a greater degree of freedom of speech and press than their neighbors on the mainland. After a crackdown in late September that injured more than 70, public ire reached its apex. More than 100,000 people filled the streets of Hong Kong. Trigger-happy commentators declared this moment to be the point of revolution, but China seems to have learned a lot from its history of public suppression.

Instead of escalating the situation into another Tiananmen Square, the central leadership under President Xi Jinping opted to play the waiting game. Without instances of police brutality to fan the flames, Hong Kong cooled off. What originally seemed like a tipping point in the movement, in which public streets and government buildings were totally shut down, slowly turned into an annoyance for the majority of the city, and the numbers on the streets dwindled. In the end, the biggest obstacle to the protest’s success was its own methods.

We can draw parallels to other protest movements, even in the United States. The rage in Ferguson over a grand jury’s decision not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown sparked a violent night of riots and conflagrations in the city and detracted from the message that the protests were mostly peaceful and nondestructive. When people tuned in to the coverage, they saw a city in flames.

With both of these protests seeming to fizzle out without achieving their goals, it’s a hard pill to swallow for those that believe in the power of peaceful assembly. The message that the Chinese handling of the Hong Kong protests and the destructive result of the anger in Ferguson have sent to the world is that if you want to avoid a popular uprising, just wait for the protesters to defeat themselves.

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