How ‘downer journalism’ about the pro-democracy movement misunderstands the political situation in HK

“These are low days for democracy in Hong Kong. A few months back a massive street occupation sought free elections and beckoned everyone to debate the city’s political future. Since then, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the university group that led tens of thousands of people to stand up to riot police, splintered, accused of being opaque and incompetent. Scholarism, another student group that led protesters, has been muted, focused mostly on posting objections to the election plan on social media. Old guard democrats are playing parliamentary games. Weeks from a vote that could give Hong Kong its first direct elections in history — albeit for candidates backed by Beijing — with the city split on the plan, the fire and heat of last fall has been doused.”

The above paragraph is a sample of the kind of misleading characterizations of the pro-democracy movement and the political situation in HK that have appeared with increased frequency in the media recently. I don’t mean to “out” the above article — it’s just the most recent of several, and for that reason, I won’t provide links to others. Just be on the look-out for what I describe. My objective is to alert to this fault in some coverage and perhaps to get some of the people writing ‘downer journalism’ about the HK pro-democracy movement to look a bit more deeply into what’s really going on.

To that end, this article makes four points:

1) If you think the pro-democracy movement is doing badly, Beijing and the HK government are doing even worse.

2) Yes, the pro-democracy movement is disorganized, but it always has been, including during last year’s occupations, so there’s nothing new about that. In some respects, it’s never been more united than now, and many new groups and initiatives are arising. We could still crash and burn, but that’s always been a prospect.

3) The pro-democracy movement is similar to most social and political movements in that large elements of it are primarily “reactive”: when there’s not a strong target to say no to, or a strong sense of urgency, there can appear to be a lull.

4) The current period in HK is an era of resistance; activities and strategies of the pro-democracy movement are oriented, first of all, toward preventing the worst and, secondly, settling in for the long haul, given that the consensus is the goal of genuine universal suffrage is distant.

1. If you think the HK pro-democracy movement is doing badly, Beijing and the HK government are doing even worse

For starters, why is the focus of ‘downer journalism’ almost solely on the pro-democracy movement? Is it in any greater “disarray” or “in the doldrums” than its adversaries, the HK government and Beijing? Zooming out from a tight focus on the pro-democracy movement, how do things stand between the two sides?

Few observers seem to understand how important it is to Beijing to get fake universal suffrage passed. For the first 17 years after the handover, Beijing’s tactic was to postpone indefinitely introduction of the universal suffrage required by the Basic Law. Then it decided it was better to settle the matter once and for all, and it devised what it considered an ingenious plan: We’ll say we’re introducing “universal suffrage” but we’ll redefine it. Once we get fake universal suffrage passed, we’ll say political reform in HK is complete and we’re under no legal obligation to make further changes (which would be true). We’ll turn this obligation to introduce universal suffrage to our advantage, making it part of our endgame for full control of HK long before the 50-year one-country-two-systems period expires in 2047.

Once Beijing decided to “go for it”, it’s invested massively in getting fake universal suffrage passed, but up to now, it’s failed, largely because it’s taken a hardline and refused to engage in any form of good faith negotiation, indeed, any genuine dialogue with Hong Kong people at all. It tried a classic “smash and grab” (or more like a “bait and switch”), gambling that most of HK and the world would look the other way, and it lost. HK people haven’t allowed the CCP to get away with it, this in spite of the fact that most global powers that be have either been willing dupes, like the UK government, or silent bystanders. And unless Beijing pulls a rabbit out of the hat and four pan-democratic Legislative Council members renege on their promise to veto fake universal suffrage (and I wouldn’t put it past them ‘til the deed is done), Beijing’s strategy is doomed.

Looked at this way, the pro-democracy movement has at the very least fought Beijing to a stalemate.

That’s a pretty big accomplishment when you consider that Beijing and the HK government have much greater resources at their disposal. They’ve mobilized HK front organizations and Beijing-allied HK tycoons. The self-censoring media is largely controlled by Beijing allies. Seven out of nine newspapers have come out in favor of the HK government’s fake universal suffrage proposal to the Legco. And the HK government is conducting a massive propaganda campaign, 2017: Make It Happen, advertising in MTR stations and on radio and television, something their opponents are forbidden to do by the Broadcast Ordinance. (Indeed, the HK government is being challenged in court by those who say that the campaign isn’t a “public service announcement”, which is allowed, but political in nature and therefore in breach of the ordinance.) The campaign ads conveniently omit mention of the fact that all Chief Executive candidates will be effectively screened by Beijing, essentially reducing any popular vote to a choice between dictator’s pets, which is to say, little to no choice at all. (Just look at the three duds we’ve had so far for a sample of what would be to come.) Lurking in the background is the constant threat: Accept our offer or else…. We have control of your destiny; we could make things very difficult for you if you do not abide by our wishes.

And yet, in spite of all of those advantages, support for the fake universal suffrage plan has never exceeded 50% in any credible poll (ie, 1) not run by a pro-Beijing organization and 2) conducted according to international standards). Support for it has increased from 29% in September to 44.2% in the most recent poll, versus 40.8% opposed to it, for net support of 3.4% (14.9% are undecided). That joint rolling survey — the most authoritative source of information about public opinion we have — started on 23 April, the same time the HK government’s 2017: Make It Happen propaganda campaign began, and yet since then, public opinion hasn’t budged; in fact, if anything, support for fake universal suffrage has decreased. (The first poll released on 27 April put net support at 9.3%.)

In this light, it seems to me much more journalistic focus should be on the failure of Beijing and the HK government to convince the HK people of the merits of their plan.

Strikingly, neither the pro-democracy occupations of September to December 2014 nor the Beijing and HK government propaganda campaigns have made a particularly large dent in public opinion. It’s consistently been the case over recent years that about 20–30% of HK people have strongly and actively fought for democracy while 20–30% of HK people have been strongly pro-government/pro-Beijing. According to the poll, the percentage of pro-democracy people has increased to 35–45% and the percentage of pro-government/pro-Beijing people to 40–50%.

So, again, rather than the pro-democracy movement being disarray, a correct reading of the political situation is stalemate.

Indeed, the pro-democracy movement has consistently shown pluck and verve and perseverance against great odds. Keep in mind that it’s truly a David against a Goliath, the largest, wealthiest, most powerful dictatorship in the world — membership of the CCP alone dwarfs the entire HK population by a factor of 12; the size of the People’s Suppression Army is over 30% of the HK population. And given that it’s up to that dictatorship and the HK government to convince the HK people of the merits of their proposal, it’s fair to say they’re the ones who are failing, not the pro-democracy movement. Beijing’s being thwarted in a crucial attempt to impose its endgame upon HK.

In an even larger sense, Beijing’s unwillingness to deal fairly and honestly with HK (or for that matter to fulfill its Basic Law and international law obligations) perpetuates a governance crisis. The HK government has no mandate to govern and finds it next to impossible to articulate coherent policy, let alone implement it. That, too, is an enormous failure. Of course, when it comes down to it, Beijing doesn’t care because it would rather have political dysfunctionality than true autonomy and democracy in HK; in the same sense, it would rather see its fake universal suffrage plan fail than to grant HK the real thing. Why isn’t there more journalistic attention to this enormous failure of governance? As a result, according to a great many global indicators, HK is on a downward trajectory.

2) Is the HK pro-democracy movement disorganized?

Yes, it is, most definitely. But here’s a little secret which is no secret at all to anyone who follows HK politics: The HK pro-democracy movement has always been disorganized; it is, alas, virtually our standard operating procedure! So it’s not as if things are getting worse; they’re just as they’ve always been. During the occupations, it was the same, with Occupy Central pulling out and many pan-democratic Legco members urging retreat while many young people and so-called “radical” groups urged escalation, and leading groups like Hong Kong Federation of Students were caught in the middle. So what’s new?

I’ve always been unhappy with this perpetual state of affairs, and I’ve written about it recently, here and here . It’s partly an outcome of the fact that the pro-democracy movement is much more democratic (surprise!) than the Partystate dictatorship and HK government, and democratic procedure and culture often appear messy and ineffectual. It’s partly to do with HK civil society being historically weak and with pro-democracy political parties and civic groups being poor at organizing, mobilizing, strategizing, and many of the core skills of social and political movements.

The recently concluded university student campaigns to disassociate their unions with Hong Kong Federation of Students on five of the eight major HK campuses (with four succeeding) are a good example of this. In one sense, the campaigns are meant to address real democratic deficits within HKFS, in particular that former leaders have a say in selecting new leaders and that makes the federation secretariat less accountable to ordinary students at the grassroots. Now, I think it would be better to address those democratic deficits without smashing the federation as a whole, but the campaigners would argue they tried to do that without success. So, yes, in a sense, HKFS is making a mess of it, but then again, this is also democracy in motion, for better or worse, and if the end result is more democratic and effective student unions and perhaps even HKFS, then great. The main problem is that the campaign organizers don’t seem to have much of a long-term strategy: how will they make disassociated student unions better or more effective than HKFS? The other thing to keep in mind is that HKFS is actually a pretty awkward organization to lead the struggle for genuine universal suffrage. HKFS represents students. While over recent decades, it has been staunchly pro-democracy, that’s one of many issues it works on. HKFS has always been important to the democracy movement, but it was thrust into its leading role during the occupations by the way events transpired. The movement may be better served if lead by single-issue organizations firmly focused on democracy. In that sense, the “turmoil” and “crisis” (to use terms that have frequently appeared in journalistic reports) could be a blessing in disguise.

In certain respects, the pro-democracy movement’s more united than ever before. Last time an “electoral reform” proposal was up for a vote in Legco five years ago, the Democratic Party broke ranks and sided with Beijing and the HK government. That looks less likely this time around. (Again, another disclaimer needed: it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.)

You could also argue that this is actually something of a moment rich in new initiatives within the pro-democracy movement, most with their roots in the occupations. (You can find a list of some of them in my article, “Six months after the occupations began, where is the HK pro-democracy movement at?”) Some of the ones that have gotten the most media attention (as well as much misunderstanding on the part of some commentators) are so-called “radical” groups like HK Indigenous due to its involvement in the anti-parallel trade demonstrations. Indeed, the amount of attention such groups have received is arguably disproportionate, drawn as mainstream journalism is to “clashes”. A lot of initiatives virtually sneak under the mainstream media radar, which, believe it or not, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

For example, last Saturday, May 16, pro-democracy professional groups banded together to denounce the HK government’s fake universal suffrage proposal. There were eleven altogether: 社工復興運動 Reclaiming Social Work Movement, 思政築覺: 建築師政改關注組(Archivision), Progressive Lawyers Group 法政匯思, 杏林覺醒 (Médicins Inspirés), 前線科技人員 (Frontline Tech Workers), 良心理政 HK Psychologists Concern, 精算思政 Act Voice, IT Voice(IT呼聲), 放射良心 (Radiation Therapist and Radiographer Conscience), 護士政改關注組 (Nurses Political Reform Concern Group) and Progressive Teachers’ Alliance 進步教師同盟. None of them existed before the occupations, and only a couple of them, Progressive Lawyers Group and Médicins Inspirés, have received any media coverage at all.

Another example on the micro-level is the “Umbrella group” in my own neighborhood. There are quite a few like ours throughout the city, organized spontaneously at the grassroots. Connected by social media and face-to-face meetings, we keep each other informed, coordinate activities, ensure a democratic presence in the neighborhood and that it isn’t inundated by uncontested pro-Partystate propaganda. When a 2017: Make It Happen group descended on the neighborhood recently, the word went out and we were there to confront them. They ended up slurking away, having hung one poster that came down in the rain the next day. The neighborhood is festooned with “I want real universal suffrage” signs on homes and Umbrella Revolution stickers just about everywhere else. This, in a neighborhood with more than its fair share of reactionary forces — the District Councillor is DAB, the main pro-CCP party. This sort of community work is exceedingly low-key and humble, but it may be a force to change HK culture at a deeper level. A test of whether this kind of grassroots organizing will pay off on a larger scale will be during the Legco vote on the HK government’s fake universal proposal, scheduled for the end of June.

Another way of putting it is, when people say the pro-democracy movement is in disarray, disorganized, suffering malaise, they must have an assumption of what not being in disarray or disorganized or suffering malaise would look like, but at the moment in HK, what would that be? It’s hard to say. We’ve fought Beijing to a stalemate, it looks like we’ve got the fake universal suffrage proposal defeated (cross your fingers), and we’re committed to a long-term struggle — what else do you want? Of course, there are a million and one ways we could and should improve, but as I say, that’s nothing new.

If you look at it that way, then the HK pro-democracy movement, as lackadaisical as it may seem, is in pretty good shape. Look around the world and find examples of pro-democracy movements as vibrant as HK’s — there aren’t many.

3) The HK pro-democracy movement is indeed “reactive”, but this is a general tendency of social and political movements

The HK pro-democracy movement has always been strongly reactive. This is true of many pro-democracy movements elsewhere, and, for that matter, social and political movements generally: It is easier to organize and mobilize in order to say a big NO than to work toward a positive outcome, especially if that outcome appears not immediately attainable. It took Beijing trying to ram through draconian security legislation in 2003 to bring half a million people out on the street, and Beijing trying to ram through fake universal suffrage in 2014 to bring at least that many out in the referendum, occupations and various related demonstrations. What Beijing learned from 2003 was to avoid giving HK people a clear target for their ire and instead slowly boil them alive like frogs. We still had demonstrations with large turnouts, regularly in the hundreds of thousands, but Beijing just ignored them. This is the first time since 2003 that the Partystate decided to adopt a hardline approach and gave HK people a clear object of discontent, first with the White Paper and then with the August 31 National People’s Congress Standing Committee hardline decision, both of which even generally apolitical people perceived as a slap in the face.

One reason it may appear to some that the pro-democracy movement is “in disarray” at the moment is there’s really nothing to rally around. It looks like Legco pan-dems will hold firm and veto fake universal suffrage. (Knock on wood: every time I say that, I fear I’m jinxing it!) So we’ve won that battle… almost (given history, I shouldn’t assume anything yet! — actually, I’ll worry about that right up until the last minute, and if the proposal were to be passed, it would be the death knell of both the pro-democracy movement and HK). And the next battle is yet to be fought.

Surveying political and social movements over the last half-century just about everywhere, one clear similarity is that people rally to a cause and then disperse. That’s how it goes. That’s how it is here. Yes, I’d like more consistent attention given to the cause, but people have jobs (they work very long hours in HK) and families and lives outside of politics.

I remember walking next to Martin Lee, the godfather of the HK pro-democracy movement, during Cardinal Zen’s 20-kilometer-per-day marathon walk through HK to promote Occupy Central’s referendum on universal suffrage last June. I expressed my anxiety that maybe this time, HK people wouldn’t have the stomach for a fight. Martin turned to me and said in a voice almost like a whisper (the man’s 76 years old and the kilometer upon kilometer in the June heat and humidity were taking their toll — I had to crane my ear to catch his words), “Don’t worry about HK people — they always turn out when they’re needed most.” I do worry, Martin, but up to now, you’ve been right.

4) The era of resistance

Post-NPCSC decision, HK has entered the era of resistance. At least in the short term, the strategic thinking is that we will not achieve our ultimate aim of genuine universal suffrage. Therefore, while keeping that goal in mind, we should focus in the near future on resistance. The most urgent priority is resisting fake universal suffrage, but we must also resist mainlandization (a partial list of its many manifestations can be found in this article), resist erosion of autonomy, resist attacks on civil liberties, resist the co-optation of public institutions such as the HK police by the Partystate. In so doing, we strengthen our movement. This entails sometimes lying low, conserving energy (especially after the totally exhausting occupations from which some are still recovering), choosing our fights carefully. For your average editor who wants a scoop or prefers to portray political struggles like football matches (who’s winning? who’s losing?), this may not sound as romantic or sexy or compelling, but that’s reality.

We are close to succeeding in the most urgent resistance, the defeat of fake universal suffrage. If we manage that, what is the next big initiative? Hard to say. Perhaps, amongst other things, the strengthening of civil society and the development of a parallel society (with, for example, parallel elections run according to principles of genuine universal suffrage, a parallel government, citizen oversight of the currently unaccountable police force, and so on). There’s work to do; we shall plod on.

In conclusion: Downer journalism as a sign of a general journalistic weakness in covering nonviolent civil resistance movements

Downer journalism on the HK pro-democracy movement is really a sign of the difficulty mainstream journalism has in covering nonviolent political and social movements. Mainstream journalism does much better covering formal politics (you could even argue it’s set up to do that). It is often mediocre when it comes to covering social and political movements. Because most journalists have little understanding of theories and history of nonviolent civil resistance, mainstream journalism often seems to have the expectation that popular movements will conform to a Hollywood scripted narrative, and if they don’t, then they’re covered with skepticism and cheap verdicts — “disorganization, disarray, malaise”, etc. If success is not immediate (with the obligatory setback or two, of course, Hollywood-style, to bring the drama of the eventual victory into greater relief), then it’s obviously a losing cause. It’s striking how little good journalism there is in general about political and social movements, especially considering how widespread and important they have been over recent decades.

Then again, I suppose we should be grateful. Before the occupations, it used to be that international mainstream journalism saw nothing happening in HK besides business and finance. Now, at least, we’re on the political map, and many journalists have adjusted well to the steep learning curve. It’s just that we’re at the point where our expectations have been raised — mainstream journalism should up its game.

In the meanwhile, I hope new and necessary ventures like Hong Kong Free Press, launching in June, will help us give the world a more accurate picture of what’s really going on in HK.


22 May 2015

Written by

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…’

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store