Pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Hong Kong are proud to proclaim their movement is a ground-up “citizen’s revolution”, but their lack of a clear leadership could prove a telling weakness as the authorities prepare to play a long game.
Police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons at the weekend against protesters shielding themselves with umbrellas, but have since shifted their tactics to avoid confrontation, apparently hoping the protests will fizzle out.
“We are not worrying about excessive violent from police, as we don’t expect they will repeat it again when the whole world is watching,” said Kenneth Mok, a 22-year-old civil engineering graduate, at a protest site in the city’s Admiralty district.
“We are worrying the movement will lose steam without a clear leader leading. We are worrying that people will go back to normal like nothing has happened.”
The protests, which have drawn tens of thousands on to the streets at their peak, represent the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority in the former British colony since it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
Demonstrators across the city were doing their best to prepare for a protracted stand-off on Thursday, setting up supply stations with water bottles, fruit, raincoats, towels, goggles, face masks, tents and the ubiquitous umbrellas.
Organisers of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), one of the main groups behind the demonstrations, have threatened to take over government buildings if Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader,Leung Chun-ying, does not step down, prompting a warning of “serious consequences” from police.
But protesters on the streets, while united in their calls for full democracy for Hong Kong, are split over tactics.
“We have no organisers here…we received no commands or even orders from Occupy Central leaders,” said Ken Tsang, 30, a coordinator at a supply station on Canton Road, sometimes dubbed the world’s most expensive shopping street.
“Occupy Central is already dead and what’s happening now is the Umbrella Revolution. It is a citizen-involved revolution and it’s not organised by any political parties.”
After a morning news conference that served only to highlight their lack of cohesion, leaders from Occupy Central and student groups also prominent in the protests organised a hasty show of unity on Thursday afternoon.
“Hong Kong people want real freedom and real democracy,” Benny Tai, a law professor and OCLP founder, told the second press conference.
In the densely populated Mong Kok district, a supply station volunteer who gave only her family name, Yim, said protesters there had refused a request from Occupy Central members to remove street barriers, fearing that doing so would make them more vulnerable to attack by triads or pro-Beijing groups.
“There’s no such thing as Occupy Central organisers,” she said. “Everyone came out and occupied the street by themselves.”
On the streets, protesters say they have been organising themselves, monitoring social media to decide where to go and arranging informal “shifts” with friends.
Supplies are dropped off by donors to stations manned by volunteers at the edge of protest sites.
Becky Chan, a 24-year-old financial planner, was working at such a supply station on Wednesday and Thursday, which were public holidays. Like many, she planned to return to work on Friday, but said she would come out in the evenings.
“I am worried, but I am still hopeful,” she said, when asked if she thought the protests would fade away as people returned to work. “We still have the students. We’ll shift the duties, the Hong Kong people will organise.”
The one place where central co-ordination is in evidence is at the first aid stations set up by the Occupy Central medical team at protest sites.
These are staffed by 200-300 volunteer doctors and nurses recruited via Whatsapp and Facebook to work in organised shifts.
One of the co-ordinating doctors, Wong Yam-hong, a cardiologist at Tuen Mun Hospital, said he was concerned about how long they could keep going.
“Our medical volunteers, many of them work in public hospitals and are volunteering in their free time,” he said.
“Their work is very demanding, and volunteering is harsh and physically demanding. This is an issue of physical exhaustion. But we are trying to do what we can.”
(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok and Diana Chan; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)
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