The images coming out of Hong Kong are staggering. Tear gas and pepper spray met tens of thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong's Central District Monday, leading to the already iconic use of umbrellas to fend off police tactics. The protests have shut down banks, businesses, and schools and show no sign of letting up.
But this weekend may be just a prelude to the unrest to come. On Wednesday, October 1st, China will celebrate its 65th National Day, commemorating the founding of the People's Republic of China and the beginning one of China's two "Golden Weeks," where workers are given time off work and travel to see friends and family. But with unrest brewing in Hong Kong, a day off could mean more protesters. "The authorities in Beijing are anxious about what will happen, " said Masato Hasegawa, a visiting professor of history at NYU. "It’s a national holiday and more people will gather."
In fact, October 1 was the originally planned start date for the mass protests in Hong Kong's central business district. But after a week of student sit-ins and dozens of forcible arrests, University of Hong Kong professor and political organizer Benny Tai announced that "Occupy Central" would kick off early. On Sunday morning at 1:45 a.m. local time, Tai told a large crowd gathered in central Hong Kong: “I’ve got a long-awaited message. Occupy Central will start now. Students and people who support democracy has begun a new era of civil disobedience.”
Even without the potential to spoil a major national holiday, the protests come at an uneasy moment for Beijing. Residents in Macau are rumored to be preparing their own to protest starting Wednesday. Taiwan, meanwhile, saw days of unrest this spring after Beijing attempted to tie the nation closer to China's central economy. This weekend, hundreds took to the streets of Taiwan again in support of those in Hong Kong.
At the heart of the issue is Hong Kong's political autonomy. In August, China announced all candidates for Hong Kong's 2017 leadership election must be approved by a nominating committee filled with pro-mainland supporters. As Hong Kong grows less and less important to China's economy, Beijing seems reluctant to alter its decision, especially in the face of public protest. "If there’s a possibility for Beijing to make changes and revisions, those changes will come very gradually and behind the scenes," says Hasegawa. "I think it’s unlikely to see a public announcement.” Which means comes October 1, many people won't be working and the political situation will remain unresolved.
Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist and director of the Early Warning Project, which analyzes the risk of mass killings, said the current unrest is at a delicate tipping point. "There's a sequence of points where things can turn one way or the other. Will people show up? Once they show up, will more people show up in response? Then you start getting into the state reacting."
With Beijing backed into a corner, Ulfelder says the Chinese government is forced with a choice. "Do they offer concessions or respond aggressively? If China responds aggressively, now that the protests have gotten this big, they’re going have to get really aggressive."
Planned celebrations of China's National Day have already been cancelled in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, according to the South China Morning Post, thousands of protestors were still in the streets at 4:49 a.m. local time and manning barricades throughout central Hong Kong (and, in a charming touch, also picking up trash).
For Ulfelder, he believes the Chinese government can either try to wait the crowd out—"let the local guys have their say"—and hope the movement peters out, or it can get tough. But he says it's very unlikely the crowds will go away before October 1st. "I have a hard time imagining this dispersing this soon unless there’s a successful large-scale repressive effort by the state."
Professor Hasegawa, however, points out that Hong Kong has a long and unique history of peaceful demonstrations. Chinese officials have allowed citizens within Hong Kong to commemorate June 4th, the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre, since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997—something that is still not allowed within mainland China.
Hasegawa adds that he hears from colleagues and friends within Hong Kong that the photos coming out of Hong Kong of violent clashes between protestors and police can be deceiving. "What I’ve heard from them that these demonstrations are largely peaceful and have a great sense of order within the protestors," he says. "And those instances of clashes seem to be the exception at this point to the largely peaceful nature of the demonstrations."