While people in the United States were sleeping Wednesday night, the remaining Umbrella Movement protestors prepared for their final stand. After more than ten weeks, Hong Kong officials had decided to use the excuse of a court injunction to clear protests sites on behalf of a disgruntled bus company. Much like the previous months of the protests, the clearing of the pro-democracy bastion was polite, organized, and mostly peaceful. Many photos show people packing up, workers slowly clearing barricades while the onlookers gawk, or the last remaining protestors being carefully led into police vans. A few journalists tweeting the early parts of the operation even called it boring.
The Chinese government has been remarkably restrained in its response to the protesters' challenge of Beijing’s rule over Hong Kong. It settled on a waiting game, and indeed the protestors lost popularity as the demonstrations dragged on. Many Hong Kongers, even those who agree with the protest’s goals, became frustrated with the constant street closures. The narrative from CY Leung, the chief executive of Hong Kong, has been mostly administrative: "The government and the police have the responsibility and resolution to take all actions necessary to resume social order and let the government and all seven million citizens resume their normal work and life," he said in October. Officially, today’s final clearing of the occupation had no political ends: It was simply fulfilling the injunction for the bus company, which bailiffs read before workers tore down each section of barricades. Police officers were ordered to be particularly cautious with their batons.
But the government’s bureaucratic and measured response to the Umbrella Movement is emblematic of China’s self-conscious authoritarianism. Even as President Xi Jinping tightens his hold on the mainland and Hong Kong, the repression is done with global scrutiny in mind. “This is the modern way that Beijing works,” Stanford professor Larry Diamond says. “It doesn’t move in with the [People's Liberation Army] and arrest everyone in sight. It’s much more subtle. If it can work through intimidation, it would rather do that.” The massive gathering of students in the heart of Hong Kong must have reminded the Chinese Communist Party of the Tiananmen Square protests 25 years ago. Back then, the government responded by massacring protestors, leading to global outrage and damaging China's image just as it was emerging on the world stage. Their response to this year's protests couldn't have been more different.
Hong Kong has felt the authoritarian noose tightening for years. It is a part of China, but administered under “One Country, Two Systems” that allows for significant autonomy. According to the Basic Law that was enacted in 1997 when the British gave Hong Kong to China, Hong Kongers would be able to democratically elect their top leader by 2017. On August 31, Beijing announced that the candidates for the 2017 election would first be approved by a pro-Beijing committee, which many Hong Kong citizens saw as a failure to follow through on an important promise. But the political storm was brewing long before August 31, Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch, says.
Hong Kong's press freedom ranking has fallen from 18th in 2002 to 61st today. The July 2014 annual report from the Hong Kong Journalist Association, titled “Press Freedom Under Siege,” details a long list of threats to the free press. In one case, pro-democracy newspaper Ming Pao’s widely-respected editor, Kevin Lau, was suddenly ousted by the paper’s Malaysian owner, who has significant business interests in China. Lau was later attacked by a man with a meat cleaver, in what was widely seen as retribution for the critical articles published under his tenure. In June, a cyberattack incapacitated pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily just before an unofficial referendum in Hong Kong on the democratic reform. IT professionals said the attacks may have come from the “national level.”
Since the protests began, the U.S. has tread carefully in its official statements. President Obama’s first statement on the protests came in response to a question during the APEC conference this November. “Our primary message has been to make sure that violence is avoided as the people of Hong Kong try to sort through what the next phase is of their relationship to the mainland,” he said in Beijing. Last week, during the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the protests, U.S. State Department representative Daniel Russel said that China’s refusal to grant Hong Kong residents universal suffrage did not violate the “letter of the basic agreement.” (Though, with some pushing from Senator Rubio, he agreed that it violated the “spirit of the law.”)
The 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, passed in anticipation of Hong Kong’s handover to China, staked out American interests in Hong Kong: “The human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong.” The act allowed Hong Kong and the U.S. to forge bilateral ties without the invention of China, but it also established that the U.S. would be invested in Hong Kong’s autonomy. A bill called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was introduced by New Jersey Republican Christopher Smith in the House and by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown in the Senate that would reinstate annual reports on democratic conditions in Hong Kong. It would also require the president to certify that Hong Kong is adequately autonomous before the United States makes any agreements that would treat it separately from China. The bill, which will have to be reintroduced when Congress reconvenes, would pressure China to back off of Hong Kong. It’s mostly symbolic. “There’s hasn’t been any congressional attention to Hong Kong in 17 years,” Worden says.
There’s no denying that the United States is in an awkward place with China as it simultaneously courts the rising power economically and cuts deals on climate change while criticizing its human rights record. But Beijing is setting back democracy in Hong Kong, against stated American interests; re-instituting a mechanism to track declining freedoms in Hong Kong would be a start. Though the encampments have been cleared, the Umbrella Movement's significance should not be forgotten—and Diamond believes it won't be, at least in Hong Kong. “It’s hard for me to imagine that Hong Kong returns to normal and this just melts away into insignificance,” he says. “Even if the crackdown on free press continues, people will know and remember what happened.” But for Americans, the pro-democracy protests may just look like another faded moment. That’s exactly what Beijing intends.