I didn’t expect to see Occupy Central on the streets when I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of September. Like most tourists from the mainland, I went down to Central with a couple of friends for a close-up look at one of the world’s greatest consumer cultures in action, but the protest had been brought forward. On the subway there were dozens of teenagers wearing yellow ribbons in support of the cause. My friend in Hong Kong, who knows a little Cantonese, overheard one of the girls saying the boy she had a crush on had gone to the protest and she wanted to join him. They got off at Admiralty station, close to the demonstration. Love is the handmaiden of revolution. Later on TV we saw the pepper spray and tear gas, and we heard rumours – it turned out later they were orchestrated – of rubber bullets and armoured vehicles on the streets, yet there was calm for the most part, despite the odd flurry of projectiles and an attempt to shove through a barrier. The police reaction seemed guaranteed to bring more people out.

Two days later we were in Causeway Bay where a few thousand people were involved in an orderly sit-down, chanting slogans once in a while. Some of the demonstrators handed out water and vendors were selling fast food: no police in sight. All exits but one at Causeway Bay had been closed: a cab driver wanted 500 HKD to take us to Kowloon (going rate: 60-70 HKD) so we stuck to the subway. I expected the closed-off entrances – and the fact that it was rush hour – to annoy the commuters, who were stuck in long lines, but there was no grumbling about Occupy Central or the inconvenience. A party of students with huge backpacks and bags of food looked as though they were planning to stay overnight. The Hong Kong government was shrewd to call off the police – or perhaps the police were unwilling to patrol the protest. Either way the chances of escalation were reduced.

The inhabitants of Hong Kong want a real election, and you feel for them (or I do). But what real chance is there that Beijing will countenance a separatist candidate? Leung Chun-ying is the most unpopular HK chief executive since the office was created in 1997 and – though he’s their man – entirely expendable in the eyes of the government in Beijing. Leung rose through real estate, which assured a top-echelon connection on the mainland via the clan of the former general secretary Jiang Zemin: there’s no love lost between Xi Jinping and Leung. There are rumours that Leung had asked permission to move hard on Occupy Central, and that Xi told him in the strongest terms to let the protest wear itself out. When the moment looks right, Xi will want to force Leung’s resignation. Hong Kong is not yet a pressing issue for Beijing, preoccupied right now with a drive on corruption. And anyhow a real election in the territory is not up for discussion. Sadly Occupy Central looks destined to share the fate of Occupy Wall Street.

We, the mainlanders, aren’t popular with a lot of offshore people. I’m not surprised. Apparently we’re ‘locusts’ and worse: I heard this from Leung Man-tao, a writer and critic in Hong Kong. Plenty of old fogeys look back lovingly to British rule and can’t forgive the UK for leaving them at the mercy of the mainland. Larger numbers of bona fide democrats think they can live with Communist China but want more autonomy than they know they’re likely to get. Others can work to any arrangement as long as they’re making money.

It wasn’t so long ago, Leung told a small gathering I attended, that Beijing’s special commissioner would arrive in Hong Kong and announce that mainland China really cared about where the population – 7.1 million – wanted things to go. Now when the special commissioner comes to hear what people have to say, it’s: ‘Oh really?’ Once Hong Kong lost its economic edge to Shanghai, it no longer mattered what they thought. In June Beijing released a controversial White Paper: ‘The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) is not full autonomy, nor a decentralised power... It is the power to run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership.’ This appears to flout what most people in Hong Kong understand as the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. About 500,000 protesters came out on the streets. Very instructive: Beijing now knows that diehard democrats in Hong Kong are a brave but insignificant minority: about 7 per cent.

On the mainland the Great Fire Wall has blocked all the moderate websites that worry about the arrangement. Beijing has cleverly ensured that extreme anti-mainland websites are still accessible. Result: mainland browsers enter a dark world of offshore fanaticism and their worst suspicions are confirmed. There is a smell of political cat fight here.

In Hong Kong the tabloid-style broadsheet Apple Daily, published by Next Media, lays into Beijing and denounces the Party line in every issue. The only Chinese paper on my plane back to Shanghai was Ta Kung Pao, produced by the state propaganda department. It contains dozens of pages of ads in support of any and every decision made by the two governments. Most of its recent coverage has been about the negative impact of the protest: shops losing customers, tourists scared away, plunging stock market and so on. Neither paper matches the approach of a newsreel on Shanghai TV, which aired scenes of the protest in Hong Kong and explained that the crowds had gathered to celebrate the PRC’s National Day on 1 October.