By Jessica Canchola
“What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes once asked. Dreams of folly, dreams of freedom, dreams of realities within grasp: do they shrivel up? Fade with age? Fly away?
Two weeks ago, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were faced with this question after police forced them out of an occupation zone and the Chinese government invalidated the movement organizer’s travel permits needed for a trip to seek council with Premier Li Keqiang. After months of mobilization, protests, and sit-ins against the Chinese government for their endangerment of democracy, the movement seemed to be at a fork in the road. China’s decision in August to restrict the election of the chief executive of Hong Kong in 2017 to a pre-vetted list when Hong Kong will become fully incorporated into China, initially elicited a nearly 10,000 protester strong oppositional response. Protesters believed such a change would hinder democratic free elections by allowing the Chinese government to restrict the candidate field to its own supporters.
After the initial euphoria of demonstrations wore off and international interest subsided, protesters were confronted with some difficult obstacles. Hong Kong government officials called the protesters’ efforts futile and affirmed their commitment to uphold China’s change to their electoral system. Pro-democracy fighters were also condemned by groups like Silent Majority for Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power which believe the protests go beyond inhibiting the city’s daily functioning and actually cloud its image. This opposition, along with the removal of a major occupy site and the effective denial of student council access with the premier left many protesters feeling uncertain about the future of the pro-democracy movement. What would happen to this dream deferred? Would it explode?
Indeed, the movement seemed to be heading in a more intense direction on Dec. 1, when protesters regrouped, barricaded a Hong Kong government building, and attempted to enter and demand officials change their stance on future electoral policy.
However, their attempts were short lived. Police subdued protesters with tear gas and batons. The struggle became violent and ultimately ended in protester retreat. Now, not only have the protesters frustrated the Hong Kong government and disenchanted their fellow citizens, they have also reached the end of the police’s patience for their civil disobedience. The protesters’ dream of democracy seems to be imploding – but immediate death can be avoided. On Dec. 2, the founders of Occupy with Love and Peace, who began original protests before the movement was taken over by students, called for an end to civil disobedience because of the escalating physical toll on protesters. Instead of continuing occupation and demonstrations, the founders encouraged protesters to begin grassroots and educational endeavors in order to overturn the undemocratic election rules.
Although such strategies are less confrontational, less flashy, and will attract less headlines, the student protesters need to transform their movement according to this vision. Protracted civil disobedience has only alienated Hong Kong citizens and given the Hong Kong and Chinese government reason to dismiss them as disruptive and incorrigible. Such sentiments are only likely to persist with continued civil disobedience. In order to keep the movement alive and achieve their ultimate goal of continued free elections, pro-democracy protesters need to regain public support and achieve some semblance of legitimacy with the government. Without it, this dream of democracy is likely to be stamped out by escalated repression.