China's 'anaconda strategy' for choking off Hong Kong protests
Beijing's ability to disrupt Hong Kong's local economy is pitting residents against the students
For decades now, each time I come to Hong Kong I make a pilgrimage along the narrow road that winds up the cliffs past ancient temples, far above the teeming streets of Kowloon, to Lion Rock.
Up among the clouds, it is the sort of place you might expect to find a bearded sage contemplating the secrets of the universe.
I go there to visit Michael DeGolyer, who contemplates the secrets of public opinion in Hong Kong. He is the director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, which has been tracking opinion here since the British colonial government planted the first tiny seeds of democracy in the early 1980s.
The extraordinary images from Hong Kong in recent days — especially early on of the crowds of idealistic young students armed only with umbrellas facing down armed riot police in the name of greater democracy — have naturally conjured up memories of the student protests in Beijing in 1989 and the subsequent Tiananmen Square massacre.
Many have wondered whether a similar tragedy might be looming here.
"That's not going to happen," says DeGolyer categorically. "China has every possible reason not to do that, and it doesn't have to do that."
In fact, DeGolyer believes Chinese leaders in Beijing are watching Hong Kong public opinion as closely as he is, and that they have decided on what he calls "the anaconda scenario," after the big, non-venomous snake that prevails by squeezing and stifling its prey.
He bases this view on two things that happened earlier in the week. First, the Hong Kong government ordered the riot squads back to barracks, after they managed to turn student demos into a mass protest when other people here, horrified by the profligate use of tear gas, took to the streets in the tens of thousands in support of the students.
Second, Beijing announced it would halt the flow of mainland tourists to Hong Kong.
Shutting down the flow of tourists was not an attempt to prevent mainlanders from being contaminated by events in Hong Kong, as many believed, but rather a move to swing public opinion back towards the region's beleaguered government.
The roughly 50 million high-spending mainland Chinese tourists who poured into Hong Kong last year are a source of great resentment here. But they also provide about four per cent of Hong Kong's GDP, and about nine per cent of its employment.
And while the riot police have been out of the picture for a week, growing numbers of residents have been scuffling with protestors, urging them to go home.
There are suspicions that some of those expressing opposition to the protests are being paid by the Hong Kong government, or Chinese organizations, to do so. Maybe so, but there is no doubt that the disruption and inconvenience is also arousing genuine frustration.
Members of organized crime gangs known as triads have also been harassing the protestors, perhaps because their own business interests have been affected, but also, perhaps, as part of China's desire to put pressure on the demonstrators.
"People are saying 'I can’t get the kids to school, I can't get to work, I may lose my job if this doesn’t stop'," says DeGolyer. "People are now starting to demand the police do something.
"We may see the police revert to using force and arrests, but it's only going to come after there is overwhelming demand by the public for the police to step in."
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has set a deadline of Monday morning for an end to the protests. He says police will use all necessary measures to clear the streets.
Perhaps aware of the anaconda strategy themselves, some of the student groups have responded by offering to dismantle at least some of the barricades around government offices.
But if DeGolyer is right, the implementation of Leung's threat will depend on the authorities' assessment of what public reaction will be. And a good measure of that will be how many regular Hong Kong residents choose to start their week by turning out to join the students at the barricades.