5 Lessons from the Hong Kong Protests


With the protests in Hong Kong continuing, analysts and commentators have been filled with the rhetoric of revolutionary zeal. It may certainly be true that we are on the cusp of something new, and it may even portend a change of policy from Beijing. But how much of this is short-term impact and how much will be written into the history books is unclear.

Neither side has covered themselves with glory, resulting in a mixed bag of lessons to be learned.

1. Making the Wrong Friends

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The first lesson is that the Communist Party’s attempts to exert influence in Hong Kong led to some serious long-term errors of judgment. The last week has notionally been about electoral reform but the reality is that very little light has been shed on this matter by either side, or their motivations. What is clear is that we have a generation of young Hong Kong people who are feeling the pressure in a range of quality-of-life issues that outsiders rarely see and which Beijing has ignored for too long. After all, the taxes are low, the public transport is good, and the internet is fast – isn’t that all they need?

But less obvious has been how housing prices are preventing young local Hong Kong residents from starting lives properly, and in this as with much else the fault lies in a government that has existed to serve the tycoons – let us call them the Oligarchs – instead of the people. Beijing has been complicit in this since it decided to use the Oligarchs as a shortcut towards legitimacy after the handover. In colonial times, many tycoons were respected by locals as examples of being able to escape the unspoken racial glass ceiling, but since 1997 these Oligarchs have gone on to really take local people for a ride. Beijing is now paying the price for siding with the rich against the poor for so long. There is a limited amount of time that this can continue before Beijing must begin to change sides.

2. Political Adolescence

The second lesson from the protests is that at heart, Hong Kong society is, like many in the region, still too immature to handle democracy. Of course, protests of any sort, whether in Bangkok or Ferguson, represent a tearing at the fabric of society. But here they are also indicative of a mentality that is altogether unsuited to electoral systems, namely wanting it all, and wanting it now. Although broadly peaceful so far, the rhetoric emanating from the (mostly young) people congregating at Central is one of polarization and extremes. It has not been the level-headed debate of a society engaged in democratic give and take – hence why, until this weekend, the movement has had limited support amongst real people.

Yet actually there have been plenty of opportunities within the current framework of political discourse to get their viewpoints across. Yes, the Legco is stuffed with Beijing appointees who make change impossible, but the platform for articulating the argument has always been there. The problem is that the Occupy Central movement has had no time for using these official paths, instead preferring mass and broadly – according to regulation – illegal protests. This is as much a failure of the mainstream democratic left to incorporate and represent the changing nature of opinion, as it is of the existent system.

3. Forgetting the Third Legitimacy

Another lesson from this again concerns the Communist Party, which is that they have for too long now worshipped at the altar of technocracy. Of Weber’s three types of legitimacy, the Chinese have nailed both historical and legal forms, but have for more than two decades actively hindered the third pillar: charismatic leadership that takes the message to the people. No-one from China has attempted to nation-build proactively since the handover, instead appointing a series of nondescript chief executives and, on the mainland side, hiding behind economic advancement as though that were able to compensate for the hearts and minds battle.

Beijing needs to do better than that – not just for Hong Kong, but also for Taiwan, Tibet, and its soft power in the region. The Party has produced characterful leaders before who have proactively led, not followed, their people: Zhu Rongji for instance, or Deng before him. In recent years however, we seem to have reached an absurd level of fetishization about technocratic progress. The irony is that Mao for sure would have had something to say about the goings-on in Hong Kong, not hiding behind a screen of dignity; perhaps we will see Xi Jinping do the same for the first time in a generation. He at least has the makings of a talker.

4. The Tyranny of Social Media

If public opinion were to be judged on Facebook newsfeed alone, Occupy Central’s revolution would have won already. The dictatorship of social media has become an interesting phenomenon. From the outside looking in, one would assume that the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong represented some sort of enormous, irrepressible groundswell of opinion. Yet prior to this last weekend (since which the situation may have changed) real public opinion – presumably including all those weirdos who aren’t under 35, have a job and don’t spend all day on Facebook – was quite split on reaction to the PRC proposals.

I have previously written about the asymmetric nature of urban unrest in emerging countries, and the extent to which city protests can hold a country to ransom. When we talk of not letting the tail wag the dragon, we should be careful to apply this not only to relations between Hong Kong and China, but also within Hong Kong itself. As usual those in control of social media hold an almost unassailable advantage.

5. A Colonial Question

William Pitt the Elder provocatively told Parliament in 1766 “I rejoice that America has resisted!”, in part making the point that although Westminster considered the issue of the Colonies marginal, across the Atlantic reaction to the Stamp Act  was a central feature of political life. Xi Jinping does not want to be the Chinese equivalent of Lord North, but unfortunately under Jiang and Hu we have had the contemporary versions of Grenville and Rockingham.

This imbalance of priorities is critical. History is full of examples of a dominant power simply not paying enough attention to minor irritants until it was too late. Hong Kong does not currently have a “sovereignty issue” – there is barely any mention of separation. But if matters are allowed to fester, whilst domestic matters such as tackling corruption, impeachment of conservative bed-blockers and reform of the economy dominate thinking, the Hong Kong controversy could still have some time to run.

Regardless of how the convulsions on the island economy play out over the coming days, the takeaways can be useful for all sides seeking a longer term, stable solution to a crisis that has been at the same time surprising yet terribly predictable.

Andong Peng is a researcher at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. His area of focus includes Chinese foreign policy and communications.

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