The Debate

How to Save Occupy Central

It’s increasingly clear the Hong Kong movement is failing, but there’s still time for its leaders to save it.

How to Save Occupy Central
Credit: Lamuel Chung via

Although the Chinese government has tried to frame the Hong Kong protests as a local issue, the reality is that the key to resolving the recent crisis is in the hands of the leaders in Zhongnanhai, as well as the Occupy Central movement itself. If the protesters can hold their ground, authorities in Beijing (via the local ones) will eventually have to deal with them.

The biggest challenge for the protesters, then, is getting their strategy right. It is increasingly clear that the civil movement will fade away and eventually crumble if it cannot get the support of Hong Kong’s economic elite. From day one, the movement’s core supporters and organizers have been university students. They were later joined by Hongkongers from other segments of society who were appalled by the police’s use of pepper spray and tear gas against non-violent protesters. However, in recent days the movement’s support has been dwindling in the face of the lack of progress and growing fears of a violent government crackdown. Crucially, the movement has also so far yet to win the backing of the Hong Kong’s economic elite, who also double as the city’s political elites.

If history is any guide, this is a recipe for failure. Indeed, historically speaking, successful nonviolent protest movements have shared a number of crucial traits, such as having broad-based support and using highly adaptive strategies and tactics.  A good example is Solidarity, the anti-communist movement in Poland, which in the early 1980s began adopting new tactics like large-scale demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes. These new tactics not only increased pressure on the communist government, but also helped Solidarity to expand its base of supporters to include trade unions, workers and intelligentsia. Ultimately, this brought down communism not only in Poland but also in neighboring Czechoslovakia, which replicated the model Poland had used.

Unfortunately, the Hong Kong protests don’t have a broad base of support and their tactics and strategy have been rather static. The movement’s lack of broad base support is best seen in the nearly non-existent support it has in the business sector. Indeed, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong and the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong have all condemned the Occupy Central movement. Compounding the issue, the protests has hurt many local businesses even as the broader economic environment has been barely affected by them, as evidenced from the quite stable performance of the Hang Seng index.

Unless the movement can woo the city’s economic elite, it’s clear that the current protests will burn out quickly. To be sure, getting the city’s economic elite to defect from Beijing and join the protesters is going to be difficult in light of the mainland’s enormous economic appeal. At the same time, Hong Kong’s elites are well aware that their future fortunes are threatened by the People Republic of China’s effort to transform Shanghai into a prominent regional financial center, which would come at Hong Kong’s expense. Moreover, they also recognize that Hong Kong’s main comparative advantage over Shanghai is its unique combination of openness, commitment to the rule of law, and free society. There is little chance that Hong Kong will be able to remain a prominent regional financial hub, especially in the face of Shanghai’s rise, unless it retains these qualities.

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These realities could be enough to co-opt the city’s economic elite to reconsider its opposition to the Occupy Movement. This will, however, require strategic realignment on the part of the movement. If the key to success lies with the economic elites, they must be drawn on board even if it means sidelining the ideology which drives the Occupy Central activists. The movement can choose between failing alone, or reining in its own radicalism to have a chance of success. The message for protest leaders is simple: tone down the anti-rich rhetoric, focus on the shared values dear to all Hongkongers and engage in an active dialogue with the city’s elite.

Ivana Karásková and Alice Rezková are China analysts with the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based foreign policy think-tank.