LONDON/HONG, KONG – To catch a glimpse of the ragtag group of students going eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese government, peek inside a room on the ninth floor of the Legislative Council building in downtown Hong Kong.
There, the exhausted, bleary-eyed student leaders who have brought three city business districts to a halt in their demand for direct democracy, huddle around a rectangular table in a windowless conference room. The floor is littered with backpacks and takeout boxes. Two computers stream local news footage of clashes that unfolded earlier across town.
During a two-hour stretch on the Friday night, confusion reigned in the makeshift command center used by the young men and women leading Hong Kong’s protests, the city’s largest in a half-century, and the biggest in China since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in 1989. That evening, protesters in Mong Kok — a working-class shopping district across Victoria Harbor — had been attacked by groups of men attempting to break up their camp. Now, the students were expecting a similar assault on their stronghold.
Walkie-talkies crackled with updates from nine floors below, and when a brief scuffle broke out with the police guarding the entrance of a government building, the students panicked, worried — wrongly, it turned out — that the police were there to break their barricades.
As the scuffle ended, the nearly two dozen students retreated to their rooms, to plot strategy and iron out differences. Separated from the crowds below by security guards and electronic gates, exiting briefly to mingle with supporters and shout speeches from megaphones, this is where they make plans to take on the Chinese government, which has decades of experience in silencing dissent and scattering protests.
The early euphoria of the pro-democracy student movement appeared to be giving way to reality — the need to negotiate with a hostile city government, while fending off physical attacks involving people the police say have links to triad criminal gangs. The shift will test the resolve of the student leaders, the unity among the groups who have coalesced into the “Umbrella Movement,” and their ability to turn street protests into measurable change.
“It seems obvious that they are stretched too thin, they are stretched to the limit right now,” said Willy Lam, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “They need to have a central leadership in command, they need to speak with one voice.”
A statement issued by the Hong Kong Federation of Students after the attacks in Mong Kok reaffirmed the groups’ resolve to battle on: “We will fight till the end and refuse to submit.”
Whether they will succeed in finding that discipline remains unclear. Already, on a frantic night of talks with the city government Thursday, splinters appeared within the crowds of students. When the leaders of the federation and a group representing secondary-school students, Scholarism, emerged into a chaotic scene to announce that they would begin talks with the city, they appealed for calm.
Not everybody heeded the call.
One band of protesters, including Alex Au, 22, rushed to block the last remaining free crosstown road in Hong Kong’s Central business district. As the students tried to stop him, his face was cut after he was pushed onto a railing.
“I’ve been here for days and I don’t think anyone owns this movement,” Au, who works in retail sales, said in an interview. He held his cheek, in a gesture of pain. “If we don’t escalate the situation, then what are we all doing here? I don’t agree with the students on this at all.”
Similarly, many protesters have ignored the student leadership’s calls to abandon smaller camps in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, another shopping district to the east, and bolster their main blockade around the city government headquarters in Admiralty.
The city has tear-gassed students and arrested some of the movement’s leaders, confiscating their mobile phones and laptops. On Friday, pro-democracy demonstrators were violently attacked by groups of men at two sites in the city. 37 were injured, and the police arrested 20, including eight men described as having triad ties.
Organized crime groups have seen income from bus routes squeezed as protesters have blocked roads, according to a senior police official who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“It’s much harder to achieve what they originally wanted to right now,” said Fu King-wa, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. The supporters don’t often follow the student leaders, he said. “It’s quite out of control.”
Already, city leaders are finding it difficult to have conversations, let alone formal negotiations with the students, said Regina Ip, a lawmaker who has tried to meet with the student leadership to broach a dialogue with the city.
“I keep trying to reach out to these key players,” she said. “After all, these leaders are supposed to represent the students.”
Instead of joining her in a debate about their demands — that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying step down and that voters be allowed to choose future candidates for his office — Ip says the student leaders asked her to speak to the thousands of gathered protesters.
“There are tens of thousands of them — who am I supposed to talk to?” she said.
In their makeshift command center, though, the students must overcome something far more likely to derail their movement: their inexperience with rallying a diverse group of protesters, from high-school students to the older, more careful dissenters inspired by a movement called Occupy Central With Love and Peace.
The sudden and unexpected success of the movement has also left them struggling to come up with reliable ways of communicating both with the city administration and with their thousands of followers, who now await word of leaders’ decisions on Facebook, Twitter and other mobile messaging applications.
With little direct communication with the student leadership, city officials and other pro-democracy lawmakers have resorted to a network of middlemen, said Ip and Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy member of the Legislative Council, who lent the students their space in his office suite.
What happens behind the closed doors of the conference room is even less transparent. Lee said that approximately 15 or 20 representatives from the student groups and Occupy Central meet and reach a consensus before moving forward. They don’t vote on decisions, making statements only when all parties have agreed on the wording. When a Bloomberg News reporter asked to enter the room, he was asked to leave the building.
“Yes, they have differences, but they try and work within a consensus,” said Lee, a member of the Labor Party. “What they have built here, and are trying to keep together, is a sort of united front.”
That can lead to complications. On Wednesday, for instance, the decision to start a dialogue with the city government over their demands went down to the wire, Lee said. With no established channels to communicate with the government, the students asked Lee and other legislators to see whether the government would be receptive to talks. These go-betweens started making calls around 6 p.m. on Thursday.
The talks went until about 11 p.m., when the students were assured that the government would agree to dialogue. By then, word had leaked to the crowds outside and within minutes, the students had to hammer out a statement read it out to the crowds, and broadcast it over social media.
The next day, though, when the students shelved the talks, it caught both the government and many protesters by surprise. The students, angered by the show of force by pro-government demonstrators in Mong Kok, hadn’t bothered reaching out to the government.
By Saturday, the network of middlemen was humming again, with the government trying to figure out how to broach the subject of talks with the students again, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified. Hundreds of students milled around Admiralty, awaiting instructions from the leaders high up on the ninth floor.
Just before midnight, word came. The Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a Facebook post it was willing to hold talks once the government met its requests. It demanded the government investigate police conduct after the attacks on protesters, adding that it would only talk to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and two other officials in charge of political reforms.
“We repeatedly appeal for dialogue in good faith,” the federation said. “As long as the government shows goodwill and responds to the above demands, the students are willing to contribute to the dialogue again.”