Now that Joshua Wong, former student leader of Scholarism and one of the forces behind the Occupy Central Movement, has started a political party, it may be a good time to look back on what initiated this newest phase of Hong Kong’s politics: the Umbrella Movement.
One imagines that Joshua Wong, Chan Ho-Tin of the Hong Kong National Party, and the other activists of Hong Kong’s protest movement moved into party politics because they felt the previous Movement did not meet its objectives – in other words, that it “failed.”
But did it? The question is not as straightforward as it might appear. Occupy Central did, in fact, succeed in its immediate goal: blocking the Hong Kong Government’s electoral reform package based around the notorious “nomination committee” to select the candidates for the Chief Executive election, a mechanism that many on the left of the political spectrum believe – not without some reason – is designed to prevent them from ever being a candidate.
Hong Kong protests actually have a pretty good success rate, at least when it comes to blocking legislation. The mass protests in July 2003 prevented the passage of “Article 23” legislation, which was to be concerned with “seditious” speech. The smaller protests in 2012 also headed off the implementation of “national education” in government schools, which aimed to teach Hong Kong children how to be good Chinese citizens.
Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement were the direct descendants of these earlier successful protests: Scholarism was first founded to protest “national education” before it adopted positions on other political issues. And, as in 2003 and 2012, the Umbrella Movement did indeed succeed in blocking a legislative change that was least as significant as the other two.
However, the Umbrella Movement, unlike earlier protests, did not just aim to prevent something from happening; it also wanted to force a move towards a “truly democratic” system without any filtering of candidates. Earlier protests sought to preserve a status quo or, in the case of similarly successful protests against parallel traders, return to the status quo before some external change. The Umbrella Movement, on the other hand, wanted to create a new status quo. It has yet to do this.
The Umbrella Movement, by having these two different objectives, is an illustration of when mass action works and when it does not, and thus provides some basis for a model of mass public action in Hong Kong. As the city’s more restricted electoral process limits the way in which popular will can be channelled into policy, mass action may be one of the few mechanisms through which the public’s views are communicated to the government, to the point where attendance at the yearly July 1 protests are a pretty good proxy for the level of general dissatisfaction with the government.
Article 45 of the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s de facto constitution – states that the chief executive would be nominated by “a broadly representative nominating committee.” Thus, by rejecting the nomination committee out of hand, the Umbrella Movement was pushing for a change that looked impossible to accommodate via the existing legislative and constitutional process. One might have been able to design an electoral configuration that was “better” than both the status quo and the proposed reforms, widely-acceptable to Hong Kong’s people, and yet still satisfactory to the establishment and Beijing. That was not, however, what the Umbrella Movement had set its sights on. Instead, the Umbrella Movement demanded that the establishment agree, in principle, to “true” democracy, without really defining what that meant.
There is, as of yet, no reason to suggest that this strategy is working, nor is it clear that an escalation – as some localist parties suggest – would work either. The activists’ strategic choices may have actually made it more difficult to move forward on electoral reform, at least in the near future. First, extended protest and escalation risks putting off Hong Kong’s general population: By November 2014, after two months of Occupy Central, 83 percent of those surveyed by the University of Hong Kong wanted the protests to end.
Second, both the establishment and the democratic parties now have a hardcore contingent that rejects compromise. The more rigid parts of the establishment use the illegality of Occupy Central to reject any potential concession, while most of the democrats refuse to discuss any electoral package, however plausible, that does not provide the system they want all in one go.
This vanishing space for compromise is a problem, as both the establishment and the pro-democrats have an effective veto on any policy. The establishment currently runs the government’s executive branch and is backed by Beijing, so it can’t be forced to pass policies it disagrees with. However, neither can the establishment rule by fiat. The democrats still have enough seats in the Legislative Council to block legislation; they can also rely on mass public support to push back against any unwanted changes by the establishment.
Hong Kong’s political system, with its balanced political forces, is not particularly good at generating forward momentum, partly because of the limited vehicles through which popular will can guide policy. Mass action is one way for members of the public to influence politics, but it is far better suited to blocking things than engendering progress. Mass action can also backfire by closing off the space for compromise.
There is still room for hope. Both the establishment and the democrats agree that the current situation is unsustainable: the government’s electoral reforms, though imperfect, were at least a move away from the status quo. And there is always the threat of further protests to keep the establishment “honest” when negotiating with the democrats.
Mass action has its place, especially in systems with limited mechanisms to communicate public sentiment to real policy. By itself, though, it may not be enough to generate forward momentum: For that, the traditional political system is also required. The two need to go hand-in-hand.
Nicholas Gordon is a researcher at the Global Institute For Tomorrow in Hong Kong. He has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin. The views here are his own.