Commentary on Joshua Wong’s essay on the next phase of the HK democracy movement

Joshua Wong’s August 2 essay in Ming Pao, “The next phase of the democracy movement: A referendum on constitutional reform and sustainable democratic self-governance” (Chinese original / English translation), is the most substantial vision yet presented by a prominent democracy movement leader in HK on the future. In fact, since the Partystate and HK government’s fake universal suffrage proposal was defeated in the Legislative Council in June, democracy movement leaders have been conspicuously quiet about the way forward. This is understandable: everyone is exhausted, needs a break and time to think. Still, it has to be said, the HK democracy movement hasn’t exactly been blessed by outstanding strategic thinkers down through the years, and you wonder what it says about the movement that one of its best thinkers hasn’t yet turned 20.

Indeed, one of the strongest points of Wong’s essay is that the pan-democrats have largely been strategizing by default, on autopilot for some years now. They’ve been co-opted by participation in a rigged system, and it might be even saying a bit much to characterize what they’ve been doing as “strategizing” since they have been highly reactive, responding to situations and issues as they arise. Wong calls their strategy “fight for every inch” and criticizes it. Among other things, one of the problems with it is that you can be so tightly focused on that inch you’re fighting for that you forget to look and ask yourself, But why am I fighting over this, where will it get me? We should thank Wong simply for demanding that we look up and think long term. One should hope that his essay (and others like it, for example those he mentions) will lead to a wide-ranging, inclusive debate.

The essay represents a development in Wong’s thinking. Already at the time of the demonstrations in June outside of Legco against the fake universal suffrage proposal, Wong was expressing some of the ideas now fully articulated in the essay. It is also quite courageous and forward-looking. He’s willing to dispense with old notions that he considers outmoded or failed, even if they’re his own. Regarding the recent past, he says we should be clear about two things: 1) We failed to persuade the Partystate to fulfill its promise and legal obligation of introducing genuine universal suffrage to HK, and 2) we should have absolutely no illusions that under the hardline framework laid down by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on August 31 last year — which the Partystate says is indefinitely binding — , it ever will. In fact, Wong pretty much concludes we shouldn’t even bother fighting for universal suffrage on those grounds; at any rate, it shouldn’t be our main focus. In this sense, the essay clearly demarcates: One era has ended, and another must begin. But what is the new era? And what should our focus be?

On what Wong calls “the second question of the future” of HK, namely, what will happen after 2047, the end of the “one country, two systems” period. In contrast, Wong says we have just concluded once and for all the period of the “first question of the future”, whether or not there can be such a thing as real democracy in HK under Chinese sovereignty. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision of August 31, 2014 said an emphatic no to that.

In this new period of HK history, as Wong characterizes it, the long-term goals of the democracy movement, and the goals for HK beyond 2047, should be what Wong calls self-governance or self-determination.

After the debacle of fake reform and the refusal of the Partystate and HK government to heed the voice of the people, Wong sees an impasse and what he calls a predicament for the democracy movement. In thinking his way out of this impasse, it is clear that Wong has been significantly influenced by proponents of localism, with his emphasis on self-governance or self-determination. He seems to more or less be saying, I don’t think the localists stand much of a chance of appealing to the mainstream because they’re perceived as too extreme, but I more or less agree with them, and the question is how to take their basic stance, develop it and make it palatable to ordinary HK people. In this, of course, Wong is distancing himself even further from traditional pan-democrats who, as said, have been largely silent since the defeat of fake suffrage, thus appearing to have no road map of their own, and risking appearing to be a spent force (at least in terms of ideas; they will probably continue to elect a significant number of representatives in the formal political system). Wong differs from some localists in that he doesn’t call for independence or even say exactly what the relationship between the Partystate-ruled mainland and HK should be; he appears to think that is for the people of HK to determine. But he thinks that something must be done to encourage HK people to take their fate into their own hands and see themselves as being able to act autonomously from the Partystate. And that something is referendums, and, at a further remove, a later date, deliberations on constitutional amendments or even a new constitution.

Before commenting on Wong’s ideas about referendums, I should mention that it’s striking that there is virtually no mention of the Partystate in Wong’s essay and no discussion of what the relationship between HK and the Partystate should be. Wong merely states that the fake reform process has shown that it’s an illusion to believe that you can ever negotiate in good faith with the Partystate. It seems that, in concluding that, Wong has pretty much written the Partystate off. This is a very interesting stance. At first, I found it peculiar, but then I thought, Yes, why not act as if Beijing had nothing to do with it, as if Beijing’s refusal to grant real suffrage to HK renders it irrelevant in deciding HK’s future. It had a chance to play a role in determining that, and it missed the boat. Now, Wong seems to say, this is between HK people; it’s for HK people to sort out; and we shouldn’t just resign ourselves to the idea that our fate lies entirely in the Partystate’s hands, let alone waste our time bothering to appeal to it; we must grasp that fate in our own hands. We must act as if that is simply the way that it is until that is the way that it is. We will achieve self-determination with or without you; now, most likely, without you. Of course, Beijing does matter — it’s still the gorilla that stands between HK and its aspirations — , but in its refusal to be a partner in HK achieving suffrage, it has rendered itself a bystander. Wong seems to be encouraging HK people to “act as if” — act as if you live in a democratic society in order to realize a democratic society. And his strong advocacy of referendums resembles concepts of the “parallel society”: If the government is unelected, lacks legitimacy and stands in the way of the people’s aspirations, then construct a parallel society, to reject the illegitimate government, to give people confidence in taking their fate into their own hands and help them to learn to act democratically, to prepare for the day when the people will be their own rulers.

Wong’s idea for referendums may be part of the way to go about that. It is very interesting and clearly worth debating. But there is also some fuzziness regarding exactly how he sees them working. In particular, it’s unclear what he sees as the relationship between unofficial, autonomous referendums conducted by the people and not recognized by the government, like Occupy Central’s referendum on universal suffrage in June 2014, and official referendums held by the government. He seems to think we should start out holding unofficial referendums. This coupled with other pressures will eventually lead to the introduction of legislation legalizing referendums, leading in turn to officially conducted referendums which will eventually encompass constitutional issues such as amendments to the Basic Law, perhaps eventually even replacement of the Basic Law with a constitution more appropriate to HK (and more democratic than the current Basic Law).

Wong is often interested in how realistic a proposal is — he is quite a pragmatic thinker. On pragmatic grounds, he criticizes simply keeping on pushing for universal suffrage as long as the Partystate persists in declaring the 8/31 decision as in effect once and for all. But applying that same pragmatic criterion to referendums, it’s hard to imagine how we might ever get to the point where the Partystate would allow the HK government to pass legislation to legalize referendums, in which case, referendums could still be held unofficially and could still be an important gauge of public opinion and an important way of encouraging public engagement, but it seems to me that the risk is that, after a while, people will lose enthusiasm when they see that their vote has no effect.

Referendums can be an excellent way to reach out to people who for whatever reason haven’t been participating and get them involved, if there are ways of capturing the interest it takes to cast a vote and translate that into more active, consistent and substantive political action, though the democracy movement has not been terribly good at that up to now. 800,000 people voted in Occupy Central’s June 2014 referendum, numbers-wise probably the largest participation in any political event outside of official elections. But that may have had a lot to do with the timing, coming right after the Partystate’s publication of the White Paper on HK and in the lead-up to the NPCSC decision: It was seen as a historic moment. Previous to that, the 2010 by-elections triggered by the resignation of five pan-democrats from Legco, the so-called five-district referendum, had a turnout of 17%. It was considered a failure. Of course, that too is down to specific circumstances, in particular, the pro-Partystate camp’s refusal to participate. Wong’s idea of tapping into strong public interest in particular issues such as TV licensing and the Northeast New Territories development projects is good but there’s also the possibility that after a while, unofficial referendums come to be seen as hum-drum and, yes, ineffectual. There are few societies that use referendums as actively and frequently as Wong is proposing HK should do. Switzerland is one of the few. It would be great if we could be Switzerland; it’s just very hard to see that happening.

The same goes for constitutional amendments, a constitutional assembly. Perhaps we should use unofficial referendums and other events outside of the official political system to arrive at a consensus within the democracy movement about which articles of the Basic Law need amending and how, or, alternatively, what a constitution that really suits HK would look like. Among other things, this would increase wider public awareness of the flaws in the Basic Law and shift the political discourse, a message to the Partystate that since it refuses to grant the political rights enshrined in the Basic Law, the people of HK are moving beyond it. It would also, eventually, provide a more concrete and specified vision of what we’d like to see. In this sense, the issues of a referendum law and an officially recognized constitutional assembly can be bracketed off: if we ever get there, great, but if not, the unofficial referendums and other activities on constitutional matters can be useful nevertheless in articulating a united and coherent vision of the future.

Wong’s ultimate objectives of self-determination and self-governance seem worthy. It’s just that perhaps he pins too much hope on referendums as the means of getting there. Perhaps referendums can be one of many ways to work towards those long-term objectives. Perhaps we need to ask, What other actions can be taken to encourage HK people to take their fate into their own hands and to work toward self-determination, self-governance? And then construct a strategy, a roadmap based on our answers to that. Wong’s fear here, probably, would be that we get bogged down again in the “fight every inch” strategy which is largely reactive, fighting against the worst rather than aiming for the best. After all, it is often the case that it’s easier to get people to say a big no to an imminent danger (Article 23, fake suffrage, etc) and to get people to focus on the short term than to participate in a long-term project towards a positive end. With that in mind, we should aim to be pro-active, asking ourselves what furthers the aims of self-determination and self-governance and aiming to tap into the huge reservoir of frustration of those who participated in the Umbrella Movement and are looking around to see what we can do now. So much depends, as ever, on how many people — but those who have been involved up to now and those who have not — we manage to convince to be politically active in the struggle — which as Wong emphasizes, will play out in the long term, over the decades to come. Having staying power over the long-term also requires the development of organizations and institutions which outlive individuals, and this is one of many areas that needs greater focus.

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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