Q: WHERE DOES THE PROTEST MOVEMENT STAND NOW?
A: From the start, a key feature of the protests has been their amorphous and organic nature. Three groups at the heart of the movement have rallied the crowds and led efforts to negotiate protesters’ demands with the government, but there’s no central leadership. Many taking part say the groups, headed by students and a law professor, do not represent them.
That spontaneity appealed to many supporters, but it’s become clear that the movement is unraveling at the edges and losing its unity of purpose.
As the standoff drags on, factions of more radical protesters are breaking off from the peaceful sit-ins at the main protest zone. For several nights in a row, large, rowdy crowds have stepped up their tactics to gain control of streets, scuffling with riot police. Others responded to calls on social media for flash mobs and what police condemned as "guerrilla tactics," sporadically rushing into traffic to dump barriers in the road before running away.
Most protesters say they want the movement to stay peaceful, and some are frustrated by the divisions among activists.
The video of police officers kicking a handcuffed protester — and images of police dragging activists away and aiming pepper spray at protesters’ faces — have ignited even more volatility.
On Thursday, student leaders urged protesters not to let anger at police distract from the movement’s core purpose, or drive more ugly scenes that would spoil the movement’s public image.
"We came here to protest, not to let out our emotions," Joshua Wong, an 18-year-old student leader, told protesters.
Q: WHAT ARE THE LIKELY OUTCOMES?
A: The Hong Kong government now faces myriad scenarios, none of them particularly palatable.
Both sides could try to move forward on talks based on minor compromises. Officials hinted Thursday that there could be room for maneuvering over how a committee that nominates Hong Kong’s leader is picked, and that changes to elections could take place after 2017.
"If we don’t do it in 2017, we could try to do it in 2022," Leung said.
The students could also be placated by Leung’s resignation, though it’s unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping would allow that, given his hard-line stance on dissent in China’s other outlying regions, such as Tibet.
In the shorter term, authorities could continue trying to wait the students out while police clear more protest zones in surprise raids. The strategy could be used to shut down the third and smallest site, in the Causeway Bay shopping district, where as few as 30 protesters were occupying about 100 yards of road on Friday morning.
But chances of success are less certain at the main site in Admiralty, a sprawling zone filled with tents, banners and protest art.
Vickers said the single biggest risk in the days ahead is the escalation of clashes between the protesters and their opponents, including triads, or criminal gangs who are widely suspected of being paid by shadowy pro-Beijing groups to stir up trouble.
"Police are going to be caught between the two groups, and that is not a nice place to be," he said.