Hong Kong protests: What happens now?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The student protests that rocked Hong Kong earlier this month appear to be subsiding. Fusion spoke with Michael Kugelman, an Asia expert at the Wilson Center, about what this might mean for Hong Kong's future and it's chance at democracy.

On what's happening with the protest movement now

"Basically I do think that the protest movement, for now, is running out of gas," Kugelman said.


The student-led protests began several weeks ago after government officials backed away from a promise to allow free elections in 2017, but the past few days have seen many young protesters return to school and work.

Authorities in China and Hong Kong have "shown no indication" that they will give into the protesters' demand for free elections, he said.


"In some protest movements," Kugelman added, "this leads to an intensified movement, but in Hong Kong, that's been a factor that's putting a stop or taking the steam out of the movement."

Combine that resistance with the "very basic realities" that people are beginning to get impatient with blocked streets that make it difficult to get to work and shop, and things appear to be fizzling out.

On what that means for protesters' demands for open elections and dialogue

Completely open elections are unlikely in 2017, Kugelman said, as both Hong Kong and Chinese officials have shown "no interest" in democracy. Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung has said he will not heed students' calls for his resignation.


"I really see a lot of intransigence," he added, "and a lack of ability to read the will of the public, the sentiments on the street."

On political and economic impacts

Any broader impacts are likely to be minimal.

There "have always been tension points in the U.S.-China relationship," Kugelman said.  While the White House would certainly be concerned if China escalated to violence in its response to the protests, both Washington and Beijing "have a strong interest in making that relationship work."


The U.S., he continued, is "not going to use this situation as a reason to change the way it goes about dealing with the U.S.-China relationship. It's not necessarily a sideshow, but it's certainly a marginal factor in determining that trajectory."

As far as economic impacts, "it's too early to tell," Kugelman said. But long-term financial implications are doubtful, given how prosperous and vibrant a financial center Hong Kong is.


On why the Umbrella Revolution is no Arab Spring

"Those protests in the Arab world and the Middle East were cases of poor and really disenfranchised and marginalized folks who had a lot of reasons [to continue protesting]," Kugelman said. "In Hong Kong, they have a lot of grievances, but for the most part, they are well-to-do, well-off folks not suffering from dire privation."


In other words, they have a lot more to lose by continuing to protest.

On whether things will slowly return to "normal"

Probably, but not necessarily.

In the past several days, officials and counter-protesters have made it increasingly difficult for students to protest, by tearing down barricades and generally reducing protest areas.


"Some sort of forceful response from authorities could galvanize people," Kugelman said.

The chances of a forceful response reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are unlikely, however.


"I think China has no interest nor desire in having an escalating situation in which China approves the use of force or coercive methods because China really regards itself as a critical international player," Kugelman said. "It's very concerned about global image and I think it feels that injecting itself would make it look bad."

On whether there will be free elections at some point in the near future

"It's hard to speculate and I wouldn't want to," Kugelman said. But he reiterated that Hong Kong authorities have shown "no interest" in democracy.


The generational divide that has emerged, with young people supporting open elections and their parents exhibiting some resistance to their demands, could at some point potentially swing things toward democracy, Kugelman said. But, he noted, the parents of the protesters are relatively young. “Many came of age perhaps in the immediate post-Tiananmen environment," he said. So their resistance, or at the very least, desire to preserve the status quo is "ironic and striking," he added.

The upshot?

"This is a movement that has lost a lot of steam," Kugelman said. "And it could restart, it certainly could, but right now, things are easing."



For a slightly different take, check out Stanford professor and Hoover Institution fellow Larry Diamond's thoughts here.


A small sampling of his comments is below:

This could well mutate into a larger if more incremental challenge to the overall legitimacy of Communist Party rule. And if the increasingly vulnerable Chinese economy should slip into crisis before stability is returned to Hong Kong, then all bets are off. I think the profundity of this crisis in Hong Kong and the blunt and clumsy intransigence of China's leadership in responding to it are two more signs that Communist Party rule in China may be in its final decade.


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.