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Occupy Hong Kong's Disorganization Might Kill the Movement

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the Occupy Central movement went from an organized protest with leaders and spokespeople and bullet-pointed demands to an experiment in utopian anarchism. Maybe it was over the weekend, when protestors ignored the plans of the leadership and started the mass sit-in several days early. It could have been when student leaders told protestors to go home, only to have them escalate their actions. Or it may have been on Thursday night, when Joshua Wong, the charismatic 17-year-old student leader and the closest thing the movement has to an icon, told protestors not to block Lung Wo Road, the last open artery running through downtown Hong Kongand they did it anyway.

The Occupy Central movement may aim to establish democracy in Hong Kong, but it’s hardly embracing majority rules. Rather, it’s become a collection of overlapping, loosely affiliated groups, each making its own decisions.

Just look at how the occupation of Lung Wo Road played out. On Wednesday night, protestors—fed up with the government’s silent treatment—surrounded the office of Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung. Student leaders issued an ultimatum: If Leung didn’t resign by midnight on Thursday, they would escalate the protests and occupy even more government buildings. A standoff followed, with only a guardrail dividing police from the protestors in front of the chief executive’s office. 

By Thursday afternoon, tensions were running high. Police were seen carrying containers conspicuously marked "Round, 38mm rubber baton multi,” i.e., rubber bullets. Meanwhile, a police spokesman said that they would not rule out using “appropriate force if necessary.” Rumors circulated that the police could use tear gas again that night, and protesters were told to bring masks and goggles.

By the evening, a small group of demonstrators began to debate whether or not to play their next card and block Lung Wo Road. Until then, the protests had cut off designated sections of the city, but hadn’t paralyzed the whole island. Clogging Lung Wo Road would prevent people from getting to work and to school, and would shut down a major access point to the Kowloon neighborhood, one of the most densely populated areas of the city. According to one group opposed to Occupy Central, it would “kill this city.” Around 8:30 p.m., a group of protestors surged into the road, then retreated again.

As the midnight deadline approached, Leung finally responded. Someone held a bullhorn up to a radio, and Leung’s statement was broadcast in crackling bursts. He announced that he would not resign, but that his deputy, Carrie Lam, would be willing to meet with leaders from the Hong Kong Federation of Students. He didn’t specify a time or say what points she would be willing to discuss. He added that the police were at their maximum level of tolerance—if protestors escalated, they would respond.

Leung’s offer split the movement. Some saw it as a sign of progress, a concession after days of struggle. After the press conference, student leaders Joshua Wong and Lester Shum took the stage and addressed the crowd. “This is a critical moment,” Shum said. He warned protesters not to block the street, as it would only erode public support: “It will backfire, and all the support garnered in the last week will go to waste.” Better to wait and see what the talks might yield. 

As the crowd listened to Leung’s speech in near-silence, someone held up a middle finger. “I’m disappointed, depressed, and frustrated,” said Donald Lin, 25, who works in customer service. “He’s not trying to solve the problem.” Manuel Cheung, a 25-year-old officer at a trading company, summarized Leung’s statement thusly: “Bullshit.” 

Frustrations boiled over after midnight, when a group of protesters once again rushed onto the street, completely blocking the near, westbound lane. This time, they didn’t move. Danny Mok, a 21-year-old computer science major at Hong Kong Baptist University, sat in the middle of the road with a blue facemask pulled over his mouth. “We think Leung’s offer was not enough,” he said.

Fellow demonstrators begged them to reconsider, chanting “Stand up!” They redirected westbound traffic into the far lane, on the other side of the divider, and formed a human chain so that the blockers couldn’t get through to the far side and freeze traffic completely.

Yuen Chi Him, 27, argued that the action was premature. “The government just replied to us,” he said. By escalating too soon, he said, they were only playing into the government’s hands: “They’re waiting for us to block the road, so they have an excuse to clear us out.” 

At one point, a dozen protesters rushed into the far lane and clustered in the middle of the road, trying to block traffic in both directions. But their numbers remained small enough that cars drove around them, and after a couple of hours, they gave up and returned to the sidewalk.

George Wong, a 31-year-old visual artist whose look might best be described as hipster samurai, watched the Thursday night proceedings from a distance. “I’m actually quite neutral,” he said in a slight British accent. He reasoned that the dispute over the roadblock displayed the best of the Occupy movement: its passion, but also its calm rationality. Around us, groups were forming and reforming, circles of mostly young men in black shirts arguing over whether to block the rest of the road or not. Some said that they needed to seize this moment, while the world was watching, to force the government’s hand. Others said they should save the road as a bargaining chip, a possible further escalation. “This is the peculiar thing about this revolution,” Wong said. “It’s a rational debate among groups.”

“I think this is why we’ve become successful,” he went on. “We have no organizers. Police can’t get any intelligence, since even we don’t know what we’ll do next.” Plus, he said, it empowers every person to have their say. There are drawbacks, of course: “It’s harder to make decisions,” he said. “Beijing can decide things very easily. We’re the polar opposite.”

But there’s a flip side: When the protesters need to make decisions bigger than whether to block a road, can they do so with the current organizational structure, or lack thereof? “That’s the disadvantage of the umbrella revolution,” said Edwin Leung, 19, a student at Honk Kong Baptist University. “There’s no leader.”

On Friday morning, as the sky grew light again, traffic on Lung Wo Road, still half-blocked, began to pick up. For now at least, the outcome—a product of long deliberations punctuated by sudden acts—seemed like an ideal compromise. The more radical protesters got to prove their rage. The conservative ones got to preserve the channel for negotiation with Leung, unpromising though it may be. Hong Kongers got to drive to work, albeit through somewhat worse traffic. The city continued to function.