Six months after the occupations began, where is the HK pro-democracy movement at?

This Saturday, March 28 is the six-month anniversary of the beginning of Occupy HK. For all its strengths and gains, the HK pro-democracy movement suffers from the same weaknesses as before: insufficient organization and coordination, poor strategizing, lack of mass mobilization, limited fundraising capabilities

We HK citizens live in a double reality.

On the one hand, the Umbrella Revolution occupations of Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, lasting from September 28 to December 15, 2014, changed nothing. The Partystate and HK government did not budge an inch. The demonstrations appear to have had little numerically measurable effect on public opinion.

On the other hand, the occupations changed everything. HK is not the place it was before. Varsity magazine, in its March 18 edition, refers to a “civic awakening”. That is most surely an accurate characterization, at least for a portion of the population. In particular, 80 to 90% of people under 30 are fed up with the status quo, distrust the Partystate and HK government, and demand genuine universal suffrage. This is the generation the regime will have to contend with for years to come. It is a foundation of permanent resistance.

More than three months after the end of the occupations, a visitor walking the streets of HK on any given day could be forgiven for thinking this is a normal place. Just below the surface, this seemingly prosperous, stable society is in perpetual political crisis. The occupations succeeded in consolidating the view that fake electoral reform would be much worse than no reform at all and would be a step on the way to sealing HK’s doom amongst about half the population. A poll commissioned by the Alliance for True Democracy showed last week that 41% see the National People’s Congress decision of August 31, which essentially set off the occupations, as “tantamount to turning the popular vote in 2017 into a fake universal suffrage”, while only 21% disagreed with that statement. But if indeed the Partystate and HK government’s fake universal suffrage is rejected by the Legislative Council, then 18 years after the handover in 1997, HK will still be stuck in political limbo, and stuck with a political system which is not only unfair in a strictly legal sense (Basic Law Article 39, International Covenant on Civil and Poltical Rights Article 25) but also just so happens to be highly dysfunctional. That’s the uncertain ground upon which the unsuspecting visitor walks, the uncertain ground we HK citizens tread every day.

Given this critical situation, some observers have remarked at how quiet things have become since the occupations ended on December 15. But this is a misperception. It is due to the fact that we’re in a holding pattern at the moment. The ball is in the Partystate and HK government’s court, as they prepare to table the bill on fake electoral reform in the Legislative Council. The pro-democracy movement is simply waiting for the 27 Legco pan-dems to block its passage, and the only suspense is whether the Partystate and HK government will at the last moment dangle some temptation to bolt in front of so-called “moderate” pan-dems, and whether they will bolt, as the Democracy Party did last time around. In addition, the misperception equates lack of mass demonstrations with lack of anything happening.

In fact, one of the most striking things about this post-occupation period is the sheer variety and proliferation of pro-democracy initiatives. Concurrently, many pro-democracy activists question the efficacy of mass demonstrations, whether of one-day July 1 march variety or even the occupations. Below is a brief and incomplete overview of some of the initiatives.

New groups have been set up that have their origin and inspiration in the occupations, including:

Professional groups

· Progressive Lawyers Group

o grew out of frustrations with especially the Law Society but also the HK Bar Association due to their lack of aggression in addressing issues of democracy, rights and law. With a well-written, strongly worded sample letter, they’ve organized a submissions campaign to the second round of fake public consultation on fake electoral reform. They’ve also run a campaign to get the HK government to stop running its political advertisements which are in contravention of the HK law against broadcasts of political ads.

· HK Finance Monitor 2047

o Formerly the Occupy Central finance and banking sector concern group, it published an open letter to Xi Jinping in the Wall Street Journal, calling on him to introduce genuine universal suffrage in HK as well as to respect the Basic Law limitations on the actions of the Central Government vis-à-vis HK and not infringe the one-country two-systems policy

· Médicins Inspirés

o Pro-democracy doctors who succeeded in getting the Legco Medical Functional Constituency representative, one of the swing voters, to say he would vote against fake electoral reform

Youth groups

· Umbrella Blossom

o Former volunteers for Occupy Central who now advocate genuine universal suffrage at street stalls and have plans to run for District Council seats

· Youngspiration

o Plans to run for District Council seats; right now, says it will contest eight seats

· HK Indigenous

o Stands up for the rights, traditions and culture of HK people; has been involved in anti-parallel trade protests and Chinese New Year actions in solidarity with street hawkers against draconian HK government laws that threaten to wipe them out

New actions have been taken

· Scholarism’s on-going citizenship classrooms keep popping up around the city

· Out-going president of the University of Hong Kong Student Union Yvonne Leung filed an application for judicial review of the hardline NPCSC 31 August decision for transgressing constitutional limitations on its actions

· The hanging of我要真普選 (“I want real universal suffrage”) banners and other banners and art with similar messages all over the city.

On-going and new street demonstrations

· Continuing small-scale occupations of Admiralty and British High Commission (the number of tents in Admiralty has grown from 78 in mid-December to 147 on 24 March)

· Civil Human Rights Front’s annual January 1 march, held this year on February 1 (though notable mostly for the lower than hoped-for turn-out)

· Gao Wu “shopping trips” in Mong Kok, which have shown extraordinary staying power, turning out virtually every night since the occupations ended on 15 December

· Anti-parallel trade protests in Yuen Long, Sha Tin and Tuen Mun that have excited a lot of media attention and debate and actually pressured the HK government and Partystate into at least talking as if they might do something about the problem of parallel trade negatively affecting people’s daily lives (not to mention its questionable legality)

In formal politics, pan-dems in Legco have….

· reiterated their vow to block passage of the fake electoral reform bill

· called for a full independent investigation of and accountability for the policing of the occupations

· called for an independent investigation of Chief Executive CY Leung for corruption in connection with the shady DTZ/UGL affair

· blocked and slowed down HK government initiatives, especially through the pivotal Finance Committee, basically torpedoing government plans for a new technology bureau. The message is: No business as usual as long as the HK government refuses to face the people on the issue of genuine universal suffrage. It’s forced the HK government into contortions to try to make progress on its agenda, circumventing Legco with its self-financing plan for a third airport runway, bundling the finance appropriation request to increase the number of Police Tactical Unit officers into the overall budget so as to avoid scrutiny. In doing so, the HK government has appeared more anti-democratic than ever.

Then there is the burgeoning independent news and commentary scene on the internet, including groups that pre-date the occupations such as SocRec and InMedia and groups that grew in prominence parallel to the occupations such as Stand News and Passion Times. This is in addition to the many individual citizen journalists who have made substantial contributions in reporting many issues and events largely absent from mainstream media.

So there’s a lot going on, and this is most surely a far from exhaustive list of initiatives and activities. (Apologies to those not mentioned here.) The same inspiring qualities demonstrated in the occupations have been present in post-occupation period: tenacity, wit, humor, resilience, heart, soul, creativity, ingenuity, fortitude, perseverance, hope, optimism, positivity. And the sheer number of initiatives and activities is all the more impressive considering just how exhausting the occupations were, physically, psychologically, spiritually. Equally encouraging is that a whole host of new actors have emerged from the shadows to lead, while some of the faces that featured most prominently in the occupations have taken a backseat (presumably to recover and get on with the rest of their lives put on hold during the occupations). This is hopefully a sign that amongst the young generation, there are many people to take up the baton. Everyone realizes the fight for genuine universal suffrage and genuine autonomy is long and hard. We need to pace ourselves, and we need new people to take over when those in the forefront get tired.

This is all for the good, and one of the positive effects of the occupations has been to strengthening what has been a rather weak civil society. I applaud the people taking these initiatives, and I’m grateful to them, but as a whole, they can seem a little piecemeal and uncoordinated, taken in too great isolation from one another.

At this point, we should be asking ourselves: What do they all amount to? Where are we at? Is the pro-democracy movement consolidating its gains? Is it using this period before the defeat of the HK government’s fake electoral reform bill in Legco to strengthen itself?

For all the initiatives, no one has really stepped up to provide leadership in addressing weaknesses that have dogged the HK pro-democracy movement down through the years, including during the occupations. What are those weaknesses? Simply put:

o poor organization and coordination

o poor mobilization and outreach

o limited fundraising capabilities

o insufficient strategizing

o lack of mass mobilization

Of course, these are all related to one another.

Ian Rowen compares Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement with Occupy HK and sees the latter’s decentralized structures as a sign of maturity. Rowen refers to the fact that the occupations had no leader; the people were the leader; it was and is a true people’s movement that takes orders from nobody. When the tear gas went off on September 28, HKFS and Occupy Central both asked people to go home, but instead of going home, they stayed, occupied, and spread out to other parts of the city. From that moment on, the occupations were a broadbased, decentralized people’s movement. I agree with him, and also agree that’s a great strength, but distinct disadvantages come with it. Letting a hundred flowers bloom is all fine and well, but if we’re allies, how are we collaborating, and toward what end? What objective and strategy unite our efforts? Are strategy and actions aligned? Are actions chosen to further progress to the overarching objective? How do we know that they’re all not just trickling out into the sand? To a great extent, we can’t know, because HK is a place where the future is highly uncertain, but we should still be asking ourselves these questions as a movement and using them to help plot a united course.

Many of the civil society initiatives both during and since the occupations have been a response to the limitations of the formal pro-democracy political parties which have traditionally provided leadership. They decided long ago to mainly work within the established system, even though it is rigged against them. They have failed to grow and reach out beyond their bases. They have failed to fundraise effectively. They have been decisively outflanked by pro-Partystate parties in District Council elections, and they have even fared more poorly than they really should in Legco elections, considering the number of people in Hong Kong who want democracy. Overall, they have failed to get their message out effectively, failed to broaden their base of support, and failed to reach out to large segments of the HK electorate. They have been too tentative and cautious (or, alternatively, resorted to antics such as throwing bananas at government officials- great the first few times, but tiresome when repeated ad infinitum). It’s telling that in the lead-up to the occupations, the new group Occupy Central took over the lead in the struggle for universal suffrage from the pro-democracy political parties.

But while it’s encouraging that ever more people realize that we cannot achieve our objectives solely by working within a rigged political structure and that methods such as civil disobedience are necessary, in other ways, the new initiatives have simply replicated some of the failings of the traditional pan-democratic political parties.

We need a coordinating body to help the different parts of the pro-democracy movement collaborate towards common ends. The movement needs to remain loose and decentralized enough to continue to promote diversity, initiative and innovation, but there need to be much greater communication and discussion of common ends and how to reach them. Such a body, meeting perhaps once a month, could also discuss gaps in the movement and how to address them. Just to give a single concrete example: There have been numerous initiatives to contest District Council elections, but it seems as if the different groups are hardly talking or even aware of one another. This is surely an area where an overall, agreed and coordinated strategy is needed. Through the summer, major voter registration drives should take place, in which as many pro-democracy groups as possible are involved.

In the wake of the occupations, many groups have recognized the need to “go out to the community”. The movement needs to reach out and broaden its support base. This is a very important recognition, but the gap between recognition and action is great. This is where our weaknesses as political organizers are most clearly shown. And again, strategy is lacking: in “going out to the community”, what end do we hope to achieve? can we quantify it and measure our progress? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the problem with the idea of “going out to the community” is it sounds like we’re missionaries out to convert. Rather than going out to the community, we must be the community.

What this means is that rather than outsiders going to Shun Tin Public Housing Estate and setting up a stand, people who live in Shun Tin are actively recruited to set up their own 我要真普選 (“I want real universal suffrage”) committee. The committee then is responsible for holding activities on the estate to promote discussion and understanding of genuine universal suffrage and for getting people involved in the struggle. People at Shun Tin (or any other public housing estate or neighborhood, for that matter) are much more likely to listen to and identify with their neighbors than with outsiders coming in proselytizing. The goal should be to have an我要真普選 committee in every HK public housing estate and neighborhood. These would be true anchors in the community and help to deepen and widen the base of the movement. And with我要真普選 committees in every neighborhood in HK, all of the city could be better mobilized to participate in various activities, events and initiatives. For example, the six-month anniversary of the beginning of the occupations is this weekend. The committees could call on people to congregate in their neighborhoods and then march to one of the occupation sites where the whole city would congregate. Or the committees can take the lead in getting out the vote for District Council elections.

This would also help to overcome one of the biggest and best propaganda messages of the Partystate — that HK is a “divided society”. The Partystate puts a lot of effort into dividing HK. It knows it can’t openly win the debate on universal suffrage, so instead it seeks to create the impression that HK is divided. The logic is, well, if one side says this and another says this, then in the end there’s no real truth and we can just settle for what we (the Partystate) want. It’s a tactic of relativization. In fact, most people, if they could, would prefer genuine universal suffrage, but the pro-democracy movement doesn’t reach out enough to tap into and cultivate this sentiment. There’s not so much a “divided society” as the illusion of a divided society. The real division is between the Partystate and HK government on the one hand and the HK people fighting for their basic human right to genuine universal suffrage on the other. The Partystate and HK government enlist front organizations, pro-Partystate political parties, tycoons and all the rest to create the illusion of a divided society. Polls and surveys ask questions like, should Legco vote for an NPCSC-decision-based electoral reform package? But that question should be preceded by another that would act as a baseline: If you could have genuine universal suffrage (one-person one-vote, with full rights to run for and be elected to office), would you want it? Then, at least, you could compare what people really want to what some are willing to settle for. By having a standing and constant presence in all of HK, we can defeat the myth of the “divided society”.

Right now, HK suffers from Thomas Frank’s “What’s the matter with Kansas?” complex. Frank sought to understand why voters in Kansas voted Republican even though to do so was against their socioeconomic interests. In the same way, many people in HK public housing estates vote DAB, and the DAB has a strong presence in these estates. 我要真普選 committees would help people to see that the Partystate, the HK government, the DAB are opposed to their socioeconomic interests, to see how grossly unequal HK is, and to see that there is a causal relation between genuine universal suffrage and socioeconomic justice.

The most recent survey from HKU pop shows 61% of those interviewed perceive HK’s distribution of wealth to be “unreasonable”, while only 25% see it as “reasonable”. There is growing awareness of the gross inequality of HK’s social and economic systems. Surely the pro-democracy movement can do a better job of tapping into that.

We must think much more strategically as a movement. If genuine universal suffrage is our goal, how do we get there? If indeed the fake universal suffrage bill is defeated in Legco, what’s the next step, and the next? What should we be aiming for a year down the road, two years, five, ten? And how does what we’re doing now fit into that plan, that vision? Certain individuals are discussing such questions, but it’s not something you hear much discussion of in the wider movement or in many groups, organizations or parties.

Benny Tai is such a moderate guy (woefully so, in some people’s opinion) that the radicalism of some of his thinking is overlooked. After the NPCSC decision of August 31 and before the occupations began on September 28, he spoke of the beginning of an “era of resistance”. He said that in 2017, the pro-democracy movement could hold its own referendum for Chief Executive parallel to the sham official election. He spoke of the pro-democracy movement gradually developing a parallel society, a traditional strategy of long-term civil disobedience movements. I happen to like the idea of the parallel society, but whether you like it or not, it’s this sort of longer-term strategic thinking we need to be engaging in as a movement. If this is a long-term era of resistance, as I and I think many others believe it is, then we have to be planning for the long term. We need to coherently theorize, flesh out and realize the era of resistance. The movement can’t subsist on the bursts of emotion and energy that sustained the occupations; some supporting structures need to be formalized that will allow it to adaptively perpetuate itself over time without ossifying.

The movement’s power will always be the people. It will never have as much money as the Partystate, the HK government and the pro-Partystate tycoons, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get better at fundraising, something the pro-democracy movement has traditionally been quite poor at. (When it was revealed that the Democratic Party was mostly funded by Jimmy Lai, more than anything else it was embarrassing: surely, they have to be better at raising money than that, I thought.) During the occupations, pro-Partystaters made many baseless allegations that the movement was receiving foreign funding. They had no evidence; their reasoning was deductive: The thinking went, how could they otherwise possibly afford all those supplies? Well, we could afford all of those supplies thanks to the support of HK people, who happen to have quite a lot of money after all. But how are we tapping into that potential financial support now; what should we be tapping into it for?

Just to give an example: Earlier in the article, I mentioned that there are a lot of great initiatives in online pro-democracy media, but, hey, most people in HK, excluding young people, get their news from TVB or some free print newspaper they pick up on their way to the MTR. What if the pro-democracy movement had its own free print newspaper that was distributed outside MTR stations? (The Partystate-backed Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao already do this in many areas of the city.) We have to do a better job of fighting the propaganda war. You need money for that, but if we wanted to, we could surely raise it, no? Individual groups can be responsible for their own fund-raising, but isn’t there a need to consider movement-wide fundraising as well, especially for projects such as a pro-democracy free newspaper that need more resources than any individual group can afford?

These are just a few ideas to address the movement weaknesses itemized above. I know there are many other ideas out there because I’ve heard them. If people are our main resource, we need to tap into their great ideas. HK is a society that is strongly influenced by four types of culture — corporate, colonial, communist and traditional Chinese — the quadruple whammy of the four Cs. What all four have in common is that they’re authoritarian and hierarchical. The Partystate vision for HK is that it will remain a hierarchical place and will become more authoritarian. This is what we’re fighting, but over the years, I’ve noticed the tendency in many pro-democracy groups to steep hierarchy and exclusivity. Often, these groups have been quite bad at listening to their own members. This is a tendency that, given the influence of the wider cultural context, is understandable, but one that must be resisted. If we want democracy, we must act democratically. In acting democratically, we realize democracy in the here and now and this improves our ability to fight for it. Only by acting democratically can we maximize our strength — people, and utilize their ideas to the fullest. As much as we have to resist the Partystate, we have to resist the little authoritarian in each of us as well. One of the most beautiful things about the occupations was that, in fighting for a certain vision of the society HK could be, we realized it there at the occupation sites. Just witnessing that gave tremendous hope: yes, it can be done because we’re doing it now. That’s the way the movement needs to be run.

This essay has discussed the pro-democracy movement as if in a vacuum. But the fact is, as we work on improving the movement, Partystate-driven mainlandization is advancing at a rapid pace. (See my article, “Some thoughts on the anti-parallel trade protests” for a list of the many and varied manifestations of mainlandization.) The Partystate believes that time is on its side and that the occupations will eventually be seen, if at all, as a mere blip in the rearview mirror. The Partystate and HK government have decided to simply ignore the pro-democracy movement; full speed ahead with their plan for the Partystate to consolidate control over HK! Since the end of the occupations, the Partystate and HK government have been very busy, especially with attacks on education, one of the areas of HK society that up to now has best withstood the pressure to mainlandize. One last thing we must get much better at: understanding what the Partystate is up to and finding ways to effectively counter and neutralize its efforts. Because while we’re fighting for democracy, they’re mainlandizing, and the question is, as ever, which side will win in the end.

Herman Melville said, The Past is the textbook of tyrants; the Future is the Bible of the Free. I’d like to think so, but it’s by no means certain who will write the future. We need to be strategically savvy, resourceful, organized, effective, and both diverse and united to break out of the textbook of the tyrants and write our own bible of the free.


27 March 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…’

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