HONG KONG – A week into Hong Kong demonstrations notable for their order and endurance, protesters came under an attack highlighting the fault lines of a city torn between commercial interests and a desire for greater democracy.
After rain poured down on symbolic umbrellas, hundreds of men attacked protesters in the Mong Kok district, dismantling barricades and destroying a temporary shelter. The scuffles reflected an increasingly vocal loss of patience with the students who have shut down streets, disrupting transport and forcing businesses to close during one of the busiest retail weeks of the year.
“There’s a growing backlash against the protesters,” said Stan Hok-Wui Wong, an assistant professor of government and public administration at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There are really lots of people’s livelihoods, in terms of transportation, in terms of business. And there are people in Hong Kong that fear that if you push too hard then you may replicate the Tiananmen incident here.”
The attacks Friday in the district north of the harbor heightened fears of further violence and a crackdown by police as China loses patience with the protests. Opposition to the students and the Occupy Central movement has been fed by concern about the effect on the city’s economy and reputation, as well as the disruption to people’s daily lives. China’s weeklong National Day holidays normally bring hundreds of thousands of mainland shoppers to Hong Kong.
Police arrested 19 people following the clashes in Mong Kok, including eight suspected of having triad gang backgrounds, Senior Superintendent Kwok Pak-chung said at a briefing. At least 37 people were injured. The emergence of organized mob violence against the protesters prompted student leaders to shelve talks with the government aimed at ending the standoff.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students said that talks could resume if the government opened an investigation into the police’s conduct in Mong Kok. The city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, has called on protesters to clear access to the government’s headquarters, setting the stage for another showdown.
Protesters also tussled with opponents in the Causeway Bay shopping district where some retailers have seen revenue slump.
“The longer this drags on, the more discontent there will be from the average Joe,” said Dylan Loh, a research analyst studying Chinese politics and international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “We are seeing normal Hong Kongers start to raise their opposition to the protesters. Their daily lives — sending kids to school, going to work — are all becoming more problematic.”
As the disruption entered its second weekend, arguments, standoffs and scuffles showed the diversity of the interests in the former British colony, where students have demanded Leung’s resignation, and that elections for his post in 2017 be more democratic than the system proposed by Beijing.
“The fight back has started,” said Robert Chow, a spokesman for the pro-government Alliance for Peace and Democracy. “The protesters are very angry about the government but the people are very angry about the protesters. They act as if they own the place.”
James Miu was one of a group of seven people who tried to dismantle barricades on Hennessy Road in Causeway Bay on Friday, forcing protesters to block the road with a human chain. As hundreds of onlookers gathered shouting support for both sides, scuffles broke out and police moved in to separate the two groups.
“Everybody likes freedom and democracy,” said Miu, who said he employs about 400 people in different businesses and has no political affiliation. “The problem is nobody can move. If their demonstration was in Victoria Park or anywhere else where it didn’t cause a traffic jam, I would support them.”
Loh of S. Rajaratnam School said opposition to the protests falls into four groups: moderate protesters who think that forcing the dialog with government is enough without prolonging a deadlock; ordinary Hong Kongers who are getting frustrated with the disruption to their lives and incomes; large businesses that have enjoyed a cozy relationship with the mainland; and the pro-Beijing camp that has opposed wider democratic rights from the start.
“The majority of Hong Kongers do prefer more democratic rights,” said Loh. “What they are opposed to is the massive protests that are currently taking the city hostage and disrupting their lives.”
At the center of many of the concerns is the impact on the city’s businesses, most of which are tied to the mainland market or the thousands of visitors who come from there each week. With China’s government clamping down on corruption, and the mainland’s property market slowing, Hong Kong’s shops were already suffering before the protests began.
Retail sales of jewelry, watches and other valuable gifts have fallen for seven straight months and are on pace for their worst year, based on Census and Statistics Department data stretching back to 2004 and compiled by Bloomberg. The unrest has cost Hong Kong’s retailers 2.2 billion Hong Kong dollars ($283 million), Raymond Yeung, senior economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., said in a research note.
Ronnie Ng said the sports shop where she works on Jaffe Road in Causeway Bay was making only HK$1,000 to HK$2,000 of sales per day, compared with about HK$10,000 normally. Staff were being asked to take their annual leave.
“I used to support the students, but they need to do everything legally,” Ng said. “I can’t support them anymore. To pursue their dreams, they’re robbing people of their livelihoods. You may not like your home, but you can’t destroy it.”
The pro-Beijing groups “will certainly exploit this point that the businesses are affected,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong and a convener of the pro-protest Alliance for True Democracy. “The pro-Beijing United Front controls a lot of media in Hong Kong. They have no difficultly spreading this message.”
At least 18 business and community groups took out advertisements in the city’s main newspapers last week, supporting the police or condemning the protests, including the Hong Kong General Chamber of Small and Medium Business and the Eastern District Industries and Commerce Association. At least two ads were also published in Apple Daily in support of the protesters or criticizing police use of force.
“At the moment there’s a lot of sympathy for the students,” said Cheng at City University. But people “are worried, they want some negotiation. They want a way to step down, to de-escalate the tension.”
The Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a Facebook posting that the government had betrayed their trust by allowing “triads and thugs to use violence to attack peaceful protesters, cutting off the road to any conversation.”
Wong at the Chinese University said Beijing’s best bet may be to wait it out and hope the protests dissipate or that the different interest groups end up fighting among themselves.
“I don’t see there is much alternative for the Beijing government or the Hong Kong government to deal with this crisis,” Wong said. “These protesters have a righteous cause. They are demanding political liberalization, or a genuine democracy.”
While some of the attempts to remove barricades and disrupt protests have been from organized pro-government groups, arguments from angry residents or shopkeepers have frequently flared, with students often happy to engage opponents in discussion to try to explain their occupation.
A passer-by in Argyle Street in Mong Kok on Oct. 3 before the mob attack shouted at protesters: “This is China now! Why can’t you all behave and obey the country’s rule,” hurrying away before the protesters could respond.
“If it doesn’t stop in time, it will be people against people and that is not what we want to see,” Alliance for Peace and Democracy’s Chow said on Bloomberg Television. “It isn’t just financial repercussions you can measure. It’s people’s livelihoods.”
Taxi driver Wong Hong-tak is one of those most affected by the street barricades as people switched to trains.
“The whole city is descending into chaos because of these people,” said the 52-year-old, who tore down anti-Occupy Central stickers that his boss put in his cab for fear of inciting protesters. “What if they break my car? What if they drag me off and beat me? I don’t dare talk politics now with these hooligans on the streets.”