China's Strategy for the Hong Kong Protests: Wait

Beijing is counting on student protesters wearing out their welcome with the local population.

With images of heavy-handed police responses to citizen protests still fresh in the global mind, China seems to have chosen a new path in dealing with the masses of pro-democracy demonstrators gathering in Hong Kong's Central District: Wait it out.

Just days ago, stunning images of the protests were making the rounds, many of them featuring students clad in masks, wielding umbrellas, and sliding through clouds of tear gas with arms raised. It immediately brought to mind the obvious parallels to recent events from Middle America to the Middle East and their accompanying media black eyes for governments police forces that rough up their own people.

However, the past few days have been relatively quiet, even as the protests carried into a national holiday on Wednesday. This is, in part, a conscious decision by authorities to not engage with the demonstrators.

"Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive, and his advisers have decided not to use force to disperse the demonstrations," Keith Bradsher writes in The New York Times, "but also not to hold formal negotiations with protest leaders for now." As others have pointed out, that tactic of non-aggression leans on two hopes⎯that the cumbersome presence of the crowds will eventually turn the public against the protesters, and that the demonstrators will channel their millennial archetypes and simply give up and go home.


This first hope may be wishful thinking. Hong Kong's protests have been nothing if not courteous, with demonstrators taking pains to avoid becoming a nuisance: handing out snacks and water, keeping off the grass, cleaning up trash, and even doing their homework.

Already dubbed with what is perhaps the least menacing moniker of any recent uprising—The Umbrella Revolution—the gatherings have already been defined by their unrelenting politesse.

As for the second hope, well, a recent historical precedence may be on China's side. Similar movements from Occupy Wall Street to Tel Aviv's #J14 protests to Ferguson have made their impacts, but ultimately fizzled under the weight of their own amorphousness and the drifting attention of outsiders. One difference is that the goals of the Hong Kong protests are specific and measurable. Inchoate progress on social issues like income equality and race are harder to track than a movement set on bringing about free and open elections.