Those predictions have, however, proved to be largely off-point. A consensus has instead emerged—one that does not necessarily condone actions that include disrupting government work, pelting police headquarters with crates of eggs, and leaving dog food behind for officers, but certainly understands why they are being done.
A surprisingly large swath of people here have been “very forgiving and accepting,” says Antony Dapiran, author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, who describes the criticism as “pretty muted.” It has robbed the authorities, he told me, of the public sympathy they had hoped for following the government-building break-in, after which piles of broken glass surrounded the trashed offices. A survey conducted by Francis L. F. Lee, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, found that 83.5 percent of 1,100 people polled during a demonstration this month either agreed or strongly agreed with the notion that it was understandable protesters would resort to radical action if they felt the government wasn’t listening to their concerns.
Officials have instead had to adjust to the new reality that protesters are readying for what will likely be a summer of revolt, their expectations, reach, and frustrations growing by the week. “I think the government were originally hoping for this [public-relations] victory, and when they saw it wasn’t coming, they seem to have backed off rather than digging in,” Dapiran said.
Beijing, too, has largely held back from directly intervening. So far, the Chinese government has backed Hong Kong’s response and reverted to the tried tactic of claiming much of the unhappiness has been fomented by foreign forces. “Clearly China’s authority is being challenged,” Ip said, “but they have shown really remarkable restraint.”
The anger of the protests has been just one example of the normalization of previously radical positions and efforts here. Calls for all-out independence, rather than simply preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy, have grown louder (though remain very much the minority among protesters); demands for universal suffrage, which largely dissipated after the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, have been revived; support for Taiwan’s independence among Hong Kong residents has jumped.
At the same time, issues of democracy have intermingled with more quotidian questions of inequality and affordability. Hong Kong’s housing prices regularly top lists of the world’s most expensive, with recent government figures putting the average cost of a 646-square-foot apartment on Hong Kong island, relatively small by Western standards but family-size here, at $1.45 million. “A lot of people, young people, do not see hope in their future,” says Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker who has been a fixture at protests and who recently joined a hunger strike whose participants have camped out near a busy subway station. “They cannot afford to get married, they cannot afford to have children, they can’t afford to sustain themselves.”