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Hong Kong protests in disarray as vote on next move scrapped

October 26, 2014

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters were on Sunday forced to call off a planned vote on their next steps — hours before it was set to begin — due to differing opinions about how to move their month-long campaign forward.

Four weeks after tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets demanding free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city, weary protesters remain encamped across several major roads.

But the crowds have shrunk dramatically and their leaders are struggling to decide how to keep up momentum.

With Beijing insisting that candidates for the 2017 vote must be vetted by a loyalist committee — an arrangement the protesters deride as “fake democracy” — there is no end to the stalemate in sight.

The vote by mobile phone had been set to take place on Sunday and Monday evening to gauge protesters’ opinions on what their next moves should be.

But just hours before voting was due to begin, protest leaders told reporters they had been forced to call it off because of differing views on how it should be carried out.

“We decided to adjourn the vote… but it doesn’t mean the movement has stopped,” said Benny Tai of prominent pro-democracy group Occupy Central, adding it was a “very difficult decision to make”.

Organisers did not rule out rescheduling the vote, but were unable to say when it might take place or what it would be about.

– Retreat ruled out –

Protest leaders bowed in apology for disappointing supporters of a movement that has come to be known as the “umbrella revolution”, after the umbrellas wielded by demonstrators in the face of police tear gas.

“There have been a lot of conflicts and different opinions,” student leader Alex Chow told reporters.

Leaders refused to be drawn on the nature of the disagreements, but Chow said there had been concerns over how to verify that only protesters took part in the vote, amid worries that opponents might try to hijack the process.

The vote would have asked demonstrators how to respond to tentative concessions that were offered by Hong Kong’s government this week in a bid to end the sit-ins.

The government offered to file a report to Beijing about recent events, and suggested both sides set up a committee to discuss further political reform beyond 2017. Neither plan met with much enthusiasm from protesters.

Frustration is growing among residents after a month of traffic mayhem caused by the protests, with sporadic clashes breaking out between police, protesters and opponents.

In the latest ugly scenes, four journalists were roughed up by angry pro-government demonstrators on Saturday evening at a counter-rally calling for the democracy protesters to go home.

Police said a 61-year-old man had been arrested over the assaults, which the office of Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying condemned as a “savage act”.

While the pro-democracy movement is under growing pressure to decide where it is headed next, its leaders offered few insights on Sunday into how they would proceed now the vote has been scrapped.

“At this stage of the movement every one of us is exploring which way to go,” Benny Tai told reporters.

A retreat was the only option that was ruled out, with student activist Joshua Wong saying it was “absolutely not the time” to quit the streets.

Surya Deva, a law professor at City University of Hong Kong, said Sunday’s events showed the pro-democracy movement’s leadership were battling a “lack of clarity”.

“It’s the disadvantage any decentralised movement faces,” Deva told AFP, adding that the movement needed to come up with a longer-term civil disobedience strategy.

A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal which guarantees civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.

But concerns have been growing that these freedoms are being eroded, while frustrations have also been building over growing inequality in the freewheeling financial hub.

The protests come as one of the biggest challenges to Beijing’s authority since the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.