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Hong Kong's Protests: Six Scenarios for What Will Happen Next

Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

On Sunday, the leaders of the Federation of Students, one of the groups protesting in downtown Hong Kong, outlined their demands for the Hong Kong and central governments: Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung must resign; the National People’s Congress Standing Committee must retract its requirement that Hong Kong election candidates first get Beijing’s approval (Beijing would require that they “love the country, and love Hong Kong”); and the 2017 elections must be one-person, one-vote. They set a strict deadline of Tuesday at midnight. If the Hong Kong government didn’t accede to their demands by then, they’d … well, they’d keep protesting.

Few would question anymore the scale and passion of the pro-democracy movement known broadly as Occupy Central. But the path forward is murky. On Tuesday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung indicated that he had no plans to step down, and that he expected the protests to continue for “a long time.” Chinese President Xi Jinping has not signaled a willingness to compromise, and Chinese state media have condemned the protestors’ actions as illegal and connected to “foreign anti-China forces.” “It’s a game of chicken,” says David Zweig, professor of social sciences at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “You tie the wheel and throw the keys out the window. And I think Beijing’s wheel is tied much more tightly than the Hong Kong students’ wheel.” But they’re both still bearing down. 

Anything could happen. But here are a few possible scenarios—some of them overlapping—that could play out in the coming days, weeks, or months.

Protestors declare victory and go home

Some of the students’ demands may eventually be met, but they certainly won’t be anytime soon. In this scenario, protesters decide to quit while they’re ahead—they’ve still got the world’s attention and public opinion on their side—and resume the fight down the road. How? The organizers might outline a more specific set of demands for the Hong Kong and central governments to meet in the coming months. If the government fails to meet these demands, the students would surge back. “This is my favorite scenario,” says Zweig. It avoids alienating the people of Hong Kong, who may be willing to indulge the sit-in now but could lose patience as it drags on. On the other hand, protesters might worry this would squander their hard-won leverage. 

Wait it out

Leung’s government seems prepared to bide its time in the hope that public opinion will turn against the demonstrators as the economic impact of the protests becomes felt. The leadership of the loosely organized Occupy Central movement has also said they’re willing to stay as long as is necessary. Hence the emphasis on politeness and civility: One note posted to the side of an abandoned bus in the Mong Kok neighborhood apologized to the people of Hong Kong for any inconvenience caused. If enough time passes, some protestors will get bored; others will return to class, or to work. For those who stay, it’s possible that…

Things get ugly

The police already broke the seal on the use of force by shooting tear gas canisters into crowds on Sunday, drawing condemnation. Since then, they’ve hung back. Now both the police and the protestors know that now the first side to lash out will be blamed for whatever tragedy happens next. From the start, protest organizers have urged non-violence. “Keep Calm and Stay Alert,” read a sticker on the arms of some protesters on Tuesday. The Hong Kong police seem hesitant to resort to force. (Even the tear-gassing was half-hearted, followed as it was by a retreat.) But if violence escalated, the Chinese government could bring in the People’s Liberation Army—a solution that, given the cloud of 1989, everyone would rather avoid.

C.Y. Leung steps down—eventually

 Leung is reviled by the pro-democracy faction—protestors pasted flyers with his likeness all over downtown, ready to be defaced—but Beijing isn’t especially enamored of him either. This makes Leung an ideal sacrificial goat. But it can’t happen immediately, lest the government signal that protest works. “He’d contract a mysterious illness,” says Michael DeGolyer, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. (Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa resigned because of supposed health problems in 2005, after explosive protests against a controversial security law.) Without a change to the electoral process, though, Leung’s successor would likely be similarly pro-Beijing.

Reject the election law

The pro-democracy faction of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is large enough that it could reject the plan Beijing has offered for direct elections. If it did, Hong Kong’s 2017 election for chief executive would proceed the same way its 2012 election did—without public participation. As before, the chief executive would be elected by the 1,200-person election committee. Many protesters prefer this to the plan offered by Beijing, which they dismiss as fake democracy that won’t lead to deeper reforms. 

Tweak the election law

Beijing won’t likely give up its right to approve candidates for chief executive. But it might allow an adjustment to the composition of the nominating committee that selects the candidates. (The current election committee would essentially become the nominating committee.) Right now, that committee is made up of 1,200 members, only a quarter of whom are elected by the people of Hong Kong. The rest of the seats are divided among representatives from various sectors of society, from financial services to catering to Chinese medicine. The proportion of directly elected representatives could be raised, to make the process more democratic. The government could also agree to increase the number of names submitted to the nomination committee for selection as candidates. (The number of candidates would still be fixed at two to three.) These measures would fall far short of the protestors’ goal of universal suffrage unmediated by Beijing—but it would be a start.

Given the lack of leadership among the protestors, it could be difficult to steer the movement in one direction or another. Most protesters I spoke with aren’t even thinking about the details of what’s to come. “To be honest, it’s not going to change much,” said Gabriel Li, an 18-year-old high school student. “But we still want them to hear our voices.”