HONG KONG — When law professor Benny Tai first came up with the idea of a sit-down protest in Hong Kong to press for democracy, he never dreamed it would snowball into a mass movement that would dominate global headlines.
Yet these days, Tai is sounding increasingly disillusioned by the movement he spawned. The movement, he says, has moved far away from a brief act of civil disobedience and has become a prolonged occupation that risks losing popular support from wavering citizens.
“We have to get the support of those in the middle,’’ he said. “But the more we prolong the stay, the more difficult that gets.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations have hit an impasse. The movement began in earnest Sept. 28 when police used tear gas on a small group of student protesters and more than 100,000 people took to the streets. Numbers, however, have dwindled: Rallies can still attract tens of thousands of supporters, but the barricades are often manned by a only few hundred protesters at any given time.
Now, faced with an unyielding government that simply refuses to make significant concessions, the movement feels increasingly trapped in an occupation that is going nowhere.
“We don’t see any willingness or inclination on the part of Chinese leaders to make any concessions,” said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a professor at City University of Hong Kong who has been advising the movement from behind the scenes. “The remaining demonstrators find it very difficult to seek an honorable retreat.”
Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement has a clear objective — democracy — that unites its members and draws the support of many ordinary people.
But more like the U.S. movement, it lacks undisputed leaders or agreement about the best strategy to achieve its goal. Its spontaneity was its strength in the early days, but a failure to agree on tactics has become a growing problem, organizers acknowledge.
That has complicated the job of finding a negotiated solution.
At the start of the protests, Tai ceded control to a group of younger, more charismatic student leaders, but even they don’t command the support of many of the protesters — people such as Anthony Li, a 20-year-old former waiter who has camped out day and night in the busy shopping district of Mong Kok since the protests began.
“There are no leaders here, only people,” Li said, adding that his decision about when to leave will be a personal one — unless the police throw him out. “If we leave without any result, it’s like we were jokers who came out to give a show. I don’t want that.”
Public opinion in Hong Kong swung behind the protesters in the early days of the occupation, as the police used tear gas but the demonstrators remained resolutely peaceful. Even three weeks into the occupation, one opinion poll showed that more people supported the protesters than opposed them.
That support, however, is in danger of ebbing: A more recent poll showed that most surveyed Hong Kong residents say it is time for the protesters to go home, even if many still back the demonstrators’ ultimate goal. A group opposed to the occupation says it collected 1.8 million signatures from citizens who want the protest to end.
Stanley Chan, a lawyer, argued that the protesters crossed a line when they ignored a court order to vacate the occupation sites, undermining the rule of law, one of Hong Kong’s most cherished values. It is also dangerous, he argued, for Hong Kong to directly confront the Communist Party in Beijing.
“Hong Kong can’t exist without the blessing of China,” he said. “Our food, our water, our investments, our national defense — we rely on China.”
In order to maintain some moral high ground, some within the protest movement have argued that protesters should reduce the number of sites they occupy, or reduce the area of occupation, to mitigate traffic disruptions.
Yet without government concessions, agreement on even that approach has proved elusive. Indeed, faced with an intransigent government, student representatives are, if anything, sounding more strident as the weeks go by, now talking about taking the fight to Beijing and demanding that the Communist Party revoke an August decision spelling out how elections in the territory would take place.
But it is not clear that the authorities are reaping any benefit from the stalemate, either.
“The only way to break the current impasse is for the government to make the first move,” said Anson Chan, a respected figure who served as the territory’s second highest-ranking official immediately after the 1997 handover from British rule.
Chan argues for patience with the students, who she says are fighting for their future. “They are trying to find a real platform to climb down,” she said. “But is the government prepared to give them that platform? It pains me to see the government standing idly by and waiting for instructions from Beijing.”
A number of alternative strategies are being discussed, including getting one or more pro-
democracy legislators to resign — triggering a by-election or a series of by-elections that democrats would pitch as a referendum on democracy itself.
Student leaders have also mulled flying to Beijing and requesting an audience with Premier Li Keqiang. But the first approach is seen by some as unlikely to lead to tangible gains, while the second risks being seen as overly provocative.
At the Admiralty camp, where more than 2,000 tents sit amid artwork, study groups and thousands of supportive messages, rumors abound that police might move in to clear the site once this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing is over.
In a meeting on the sidelines of the summit Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping fueled that speculation when he told Leung that he “fully affirms and supports” the Hong Kong government’s attempts to safeguard the rule of law and maintain social order.
However the movement ends, its supporters insist it has already won many victories — awakening a whole generation to politics in a way that had seemed unimaginable, uniting people around a defense of Hong Kong’s unique identity from Chinese encroachment, and capturing the attention of the outside world.
Entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, whose Apple Daily newspaper has championed the democratic cause, spends every day at the site. The prolonged occupation may annoy some citizens, but it is annoying “the dictators” in Beijing even more, he argues.
“It’s a very long fight,” he says. “We still have to fight to the end, just to keep our dignity. Even if we don’t win, at least we will have tried our utmost."