We are likely now approaching the end-game of this round of protests in Hong Kong. The latest news involved attacks by thugs on the protestors, which should be highly reminiscent for those that followed the protests in Tahrir Square. As Daniel Davies then vulgarly summarized: "When it becomes a numbers game, there is only one thing that can save you.
And that is, a reactionary citizens' militia, to combat the revolutionary citizens' militia. Former socialist republics always used to be fond of buses full of coal miners from way out the back of beyond, but the Iranian basijs are the same sort of thing. Basically, what you need is a large population who are a few rungs up from the bottom of society, who aren't interested in freedom and who hate young people. In other words, a#$%*@s." Obviously, the larger point about the military not having the numbers does not apply to Hong Kong, but as colleague John Schaus notes, the PRC, sensibly, knows that sending in the PLA will be costly and so they prefer other means.
Dan Levin of the New York Times gives a fascinating history on the triads that are the foot soldiers in the attacks. "According to Sharon Kwok and T. Wing Lo, experts on the city’s criminal underworld at City University of Hong Kong, the triads were originally a patriotic organization founded in the 17th century to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. They eventually contributed to the 1911 revolution, which saw the last emperor replaced by the Republic of China. Patriotism soon fell by the wayside, however." The triads worked with occupying Japanese forces and In 1993, just four years before Britain returned Hong Kong to Beijing’s control, China’s then-minister of public security, Tao Siju, said at a news conference that China was willing to work with triads if they were “patriotic and concerned with the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.”
The People's Republic of China also sometimes has allies against democracy that wear far nicer suits. Back in July the big local branches of the four accounting firms took out an ad against Occupy Central (via Henry of Crooked Timber):
The big four global accounting companies have taken out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests. In an unusual joint statement published in three Chinese-language newspapers on Friday, the Hong Kong entities of EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC said the Occupy Central movement, which is calling for electoral reform in the former British colony, posed a threat to the territory’s rule of law.
That moved was condemned by Amnesty International and even more importantly, as covered by Gregor Hunter, was condemned in a subsequent ad taken out by their own employees.
By Monday, another advert appeared in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, purportedly placed by employees of the Big Four, which admonished the firms’ bosses. In white characters against a black background, the employees wrote: “hey boss, your statement doesn’t represent us”—a double entendre in Cantonese, as “hey boss” is also a mild vulgarity expressing angered disbelief.
This gets to the larger question of what outside observers can do. Ben Carlson convincingly argues in the Global Post that there's very little President Obama should say publicly. James Fallows nicely summarizes the issue: "What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign "interference" or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend."
Instead, for those seeking civil society approaches, I'd say focus on the long game and let U.S. and multinational companies know that collaboration in antidemocratic efforts, in China or elsewhere, will cause them problems in their other markets. As Henry notes:
Of course, this isn’t the first shameful decision made by Western companies looking to build business in China – see Bloomberg’s squashing of a story on corruption among family members of senior Chinese leaders, or, for that matter, Rupert Murdoch’s instruction to Harper-Collins not to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs. But this goes substantially further than quiet acquiescence, to public and active opposition to the pro-democracy movement, and the issuing of threats intended to stifle it. It would be nice to see Ernst-Young, KPMG, Deloitte and Price-Waterhouse Cooper put on the spot by US politicians and journalists about their Hong Kong offices’ unrepudiated public statements opposing pro-democracy protestors.
This was a particularly big deal for technology companies in the aughts. The price they pay for not playing ball with the PRC can be rather large, as recently demonstrated by censorship this summer. I have no problem believing that the ad in the Apple was taken out by employees of the accounting firms and that there are people at most multinational firms active in China that would prefer a first do no harm approach. Pressure from the outside, between crises, can strengthen their hands.
As ever, speaking for myself and not my employer.