The Global Occupy Movement Makes Its Last Stand in Hong Kong

The city's protest camp is the final torchbearer for the 99%. But how much longer can the Occupiers hold out?

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Vincent Yu / AP

A protester takes a rest next to a tent outside the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong on Aug. 27, 2012

When Occupy protests sprung up on Sept. 17 last year in New York City and spread around the world, there was little surprise that they reached Hong Kong. Like the Big Apple and London, the former British colony is a global financial center that thrives on the kind of cutthroat capitalism the Occupy movement decries. The U.S.-based Heritage Foundation has ranked the city the world’s freest economy for 18 consecutive years and — perhaps not coincidentally — its income inequality, by some measures, is the worst in the developed world.

Remarkably, however, Occupy Central — Central is the name of the city’s main business district — remains the last visible holdout of the international movement. Although Hong Kong has its own political and civic freedoms enshrined in a miniconstitution, there is some irony that a “special administrative region” of authoritarian China, no less, finds itself as the final torchbearer for the 99%. The city’s Occupiers might also feel a certain pride that the site of this final resistance is not a public square (like Occupy Wall Street) or a cathedral concourse (as in Occupy London) but the very heart of Hong Kong’s financial system: the plaza that lies beneath the Norman Foster–designed headquarters of global banking giant HSBC.

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How much longer can the Occupiers hold out? Earlier this month, the Hong Kong High Court ordered them to vacate the site, which is both owned by HSBC and a public passageway, by Aug. 27. The 9 p.m. deadline came and went, and the protesters, mostly collegiate types, reportedly marked its passing in true Occupy style — with a drum circle. In stark contrast to the U.S. last Nov. 15 (when the NYPD forcibly cleared Occupy Wall Street) and the U.K. on Feb. 28 (when bailiffs and the Metropolitan Police evicted Occupy London), there were no riot squads itching to move in.

The tacit grace period extended to the protesters may be about to end, however. Armed with a fresh court order, HSBC, in a public statement to staff on Wednesday, said its steps to take back the plaza “are coming closer to fruition.” At the same time, it is careful not to be seen as heavy-handed. “The eviction process itself will be in the hands of the bailiff,” the statement stressed. Officials could be seen marking out the site on Wednesday, and once they serve further notice on Occupy Central, the protesters will have seven days to leave or be forcibly thrown out. “We’re trying to avoid that,” says Gareth Hewett, HSBC’s regional head of media relations.

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When TIME visited the site this week, a message written on a whiteboard read: “As you may know, Occupy Central has been waging a relentless war against misery, cynicism and boredom since October 15, 2011.” It shows. The camp — around a dozen tents, a table, some chairs, couches and art displays — resembles the student squat that it essentially is: empty food takeout containers and soy-sauce bottles sit among worn books and a small music player emitting a tinny sounding Buena Vista Social Club. A pair of protesters musters the energy to play an apathetic game of badminton. Little else of note seems to be happening. None of the dozen or so young men and women slouched around the table and across the tattered sofas would agree to be interviewed. They claimed the mainstream media has consistently failed to convey their points. “That’s mostly our experience in the past 10 or so months,” said one man in his early 20s. Pressed for specifics on what hadn’t been adequately reported, he directed TIME to their Facebook page.

Workers from nearby offices say they had grown used to the site’s presence and that tents had stood mostly empty until a recent resumption in interest. Bank analyst Ron Ha, 33, showed little sympathy for the Occupiers’ cause — but a similar lack of enthusiasm for any forced removal. “It’s a reality,” he says. “They have a point to protest and Hong Kong’s a free place; they should be free to do what they want.”

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Plenty of theories are put forward to explain why Hong Kong’s camp has outlasted the others. Some see domestic politics as a factor, arguing that Hong Kong’s embattled leaders are unwilling to be drawn into the fray for fear of being seen as Beijing’s stooges in cracking down on dissent. Meanwhile, the site’s private ownership but designation as a public passageway has added complications over who is responsible for clearing it.

Then again, Occupy Central’s longevity might just come down to the relatively small number of invariably well-behaved protesters who have taken up residence. This point is amply illustrated on Sundays, when domestic helpers — predominantly Filipino and Indonesian — swamp the protesters, the plaza and other public spaces on their only weekly day off. Denied permanent residency even if they’ve been in the city the requisite (for other foreigners) seven years, and remitting most of their hard-earned income back to their families, they have more reason than most to protest the injustices of modern globalization. But these migrant workers seem oblivious to or unconcerned with the protesters in their midst as they spread out on mats to eat, chat and play cards. That’s lucky for the Occupiers. If a brigade of determined domestic helpers had any objection to sharing the space with Occupy Central, the protesters wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Joe Jackson is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @JoeJackson. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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