The next phase of the democracy movement: A referendum on constitutional reform and sustainable democratic self-governance

by Joshua Wong (黃之鋒)

This essay was originally published in Chinese in Ming Pao (now paywalled) on August 2, 2015. The original can also be viewed on HK Dash. The English translation below is by Lucas Tse, Lewis Ho and Kong Tsung-gan.

Joshua Wong is one of the most prominent leaders of the HK democracy movement. In this essay, he describes his vision for the way forward for the movement after it defeated the fake universal suffrage proposal of the Communist Party and HK government in June. Some background and context for the essay can be found in this Hong Kong Free Press article. Notes are provided alongside the article to explain key terms. A commentary can be found here.


If we hope to continue along the path of democratic self-governance in Hong Kong and successfully address the “second question of the future” , we must show the will and vision for sustainable self-governance in this age of democratic bankruptcy. Our goal in struggling for self-governance is self-determination, which means that the Hong Kong people have the right to decide Hong Kong’s future, and which also establishes a Hong Kong subjectivity.

In this post-reform period, while the localists have not gained mainstream support, they have put forward an agenda for self-governance or independence and provided a solution to the democracy movement in Hong Kong. The pan-democrats ought to understand that a ‘democratic return to Chinese sovereignty’ is futile, and that endless campaigning for universal suffrage in 2022 is unpersuasive. Yet they have neither offered a new agenda to replace the ‘democratic return to Chinese sovereignty’, nor established short-, medium- or long-term goals for the movement.

Young scholars have suggested constitutional reform. Raphael Wong (黃浩銘) of the League of Social Democrats has suggested the formation of an assembly for constitutional reform. Wong Ching-Fung (王澄鋒) of the Hong Kong Federation of Students has suggested a committee for electoral reform, largely in line with the proposals for constitutional amendment and a referendum for a new Basic Law put forth by Raymond Wong (黃毓民) two years ago. In spite of that, though the Democratic Party listed amendments to the Basic Law and abolition of ‘ballot by group’ in its platform as long as 15 years ago, Emily Lau (劉慧卿) now says that the pan-democrats have not had sufficient discussion of the question of amending the Basic Law.

Still, the immaturity of the movement for constitutional reform ought not be entirely blamed on the self-defeating antics of the political parties. The fundamental problem is that the demand for reform has no foundation. Ordinary people likely do not understand that constitutional reform means amending the Basic Law, and that amending the Basic Law requires the formation of an implausible committee. The people have not recovered from the Occupy movement. In light of that, immediately pushing the democracy movement into the next phase of forming a reform committee and holding a referendum to reclaim the right to constitutional reform without any transition period is likely to confuse and marginalize the people. For that reason, while constitutional reform can be a long-term objective, it is not a viable mainstream political objective now.

Struggle is impossible without an agenda

In his essay “What kind of unity do we need?” Kevin Yam (任建峰) of the Progressive Lawyers Group writes that there is no need to discuss the large ideals, which he believes is ineffective or even detrimental to garnering public support. He suggests acting on more urgent issues, such as opposing the pro-Beijing camp in the Election Committee. Scholar Brian Fong’s (方志恆) Theory of Hong Kong Reform makes broader proposals such as responding to the challenges of the times and awakening the free spirit of the city, believing that Hong Kong needs a new local democracy movement rooted in civil society. He further points out that professional and social organizations, universities, schools, and public and private sectors are all battlegrounds for the defense of Hong Kong values.

And yet, whether it’s Brian Fong’s vocabulary of local citizen organizations and society besieging government or Kevin Yam’s belief that the urgent task is to retain the existing seats in the Legislative Council (Legco) and the Election Committee, the underlying thinking is the “fight for each inch” of the past 30 years; that is to say, the hope to effect qualitative change via quantitative change in various spheres of discourse and politics, which are seen as leverage that can be used against Beijing. Even though the pan-democrats seem to be at a loss, they have done work to increase quantitative leverage in such areas as Kwai Tsing and Sham Shui Po and professions such as education and law. The democratic, localist and pro-Beijing camps have all done substantial work in many sectors. They differ merely in ideology, holding to the hope, respectively, for democratic, separatist and patriotic politics. Thus, “fighting for each inch” is far from a novel suggestion.

Struggle is necessary, but those participating in a democracy movement cannot confuse method and aim. In “Society must face the real and actual politics”, Professor Lui Tai-Lok (呂大樂) writes, “How should the movement continue? Theoretically this ought to be the hottest topic, but most conversations lack precision. What you have is politically correct fluff … They say over and over again ‘persevere’, but few discuss how they are going to persevere. Persevere on what grounds? Persevere and do what work?” This is an incisive criticism of our friends who avoid thinking about an agenda for the future.

Many of our friends continue to repeat “I want real universal suffrage” without revising their strategy to avoid endless argument over political reform. It is therefore unsurprising that the number of people on the streets has not swayed those in power. Any movement for democracy is a long-term struggle. Yet many retain the threadbare fixation on gaining seats in Legco or the Election Committee or champion joining hands with civil society as if they have discovered the New World. Empty “anti-red” and “core values” rhetoric is ultimately unable to identify the concrete goals of political struggle. To persevere for the sake of persevering does not help those who have experienced the disappointment of Occupy. That is why democrats must return to the original point and revisit the big debates in order to move towards five-, 10-, 15-year visions for constitutional reform. Only then can civil society be liberated from its disempowerment.

The motivation for democracy is self-governance in Hong Kong

In the 1990s, the three large parties (Democratic Party, DAB, Liberal Party) all officially supported the realization of universal suffrage for the Chief Executive election in 2007 and Legco election in 2008. To request Beijing’s action in compliance with the Basic Law, Martin Lee (李柱銘), Jasper Tsang (曾鈺成) and Allen Lee (李鵬飛) even believed that the three parties could rotate in governance. Yet in 2004, the Communist Party postponed the introduction of universal suffrage, which caused the DAB to alter its stance and support double universal suffrage in 2012. The Democratic Party was pressured to support initiatives outside of the purview of the Basic Law, including the five-district referendum, civil disobedience, civil nomination and constitutional reform.

If Beijing had not welched in 2004 and had allowed universal suffrage in 2007 according to the principle of ‘a democratic return to Chinese sovereignty’, perhaps today’s radicals would not be so rapidly proliferating on the internet, perhaps a large-scale Occupy movement would not have emerged, and perhaps the various political parties may even have beneficial interactions with Beijing. The recent burgeoning of localist discourse is largely the result of young people’s reaction to the authoritarian politics of the Chinese Communist Party and their belief that Hong Kong cannot practice self-governance under the rule of China. Thus, Beijing’s noncompliance in 2004 has been the catalyst for the tendencies among young people towards independence and separatism.

In other words, the demands of the democratic camp were originally very modest. There was no demand for Hong Kong independence, only the desire to practice self-governance in all matters outside of national security, largely in line with what Hong Kong University students wrote in a letter to Premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984: “Maintain the principle of democratic self-governance in Hong Kong; China will abstain from interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs; and the future Chief Executive will be elected by Hong Kong citizens according to the principle of universal suffrage.”

Deciding the future is necessary for sustainable self-governance

What the democrats have learned in this period of political reform is that facilitating mutual trust with Beijing is an unrequited desire, that implementing universal suffrage according to the existing framework for political reform is a pipe dream, and that the regime’s policy on Hong Kong is changing. “One country” is interpreted as primary to “two systems”; a high-level of autonomy is equated with Beijing retaining control of governance at all levels; the separation of powers misunderstood as the collusion of powers. This all demonstrates that Hong Kong faces the grave possibility of becoming no different from Shenzhen. Even if the Basic Law remains unchanged for 50 years, the future is entirely unknown beyond 2047. Nobody can promise that “one country, two systems” will not become “one country, one system” or that the Special Administrative Region will not become a directly controlled municipality.

If we hope to continue along the path of democratic self-governance in Hong Kong and successfully address the “second question of the future”, we must show the will and vision for sustainable self-governance in this age of democratic bankruptcy. Our goal in struggling for self-governance is self-determination, which means that the Hong Kong people have the right to decide Hong Kong’s future, and which also establishes a Hong Kong subjectivity.

Unless we are willing to accept that, 32 years from now, Hong Kong’s sovereignty, political status and constitution have no popular support and that an independent judiciary and freedom of speech may disappear, those seeking democracy have no other path than to practice self-governance by deciding the future for ourselves. Even if “One Country, Two Systems” continues after 2047, the authoritarian Chinese regime is sure to implement the version described in the White Paper and jettison Zhao Ziyang’s response to the students 30 years ago, “democratic self-governance in Hong Kong is wholly reasonable.”

Self-determination begins with a referendum and constitutional reform

It is admittedly unrealistic to expect the achievement of self-determination within the next stages of the democracy movement. But if the people of Hong Kong are to be prepared to confront the ‘second question of the future’ by around 2030, we must, setting self-determination and the continuation of autonomy as our ultimate goals, work backward to the starting point, the recent failure of the democratic transition in Hong Kong’s return to China, and establish the roadmap for the next 15 years of the democratic movement. Towards those goals, we must foster in Hong Kong the consciousness of a referendum for self-determination.

That said, if referendums are applied immediately to complex issues like sovereignty, they will undoubtedly encounter an unprepared populace and will be ineffective in generating consensus. Hence the democrats should set as their short-term goals establishing the mechanisms for referendums and legislating referendum law. While seeking the establishment of a referendum system, the democrats can simultaneously motivate the populace to initiate and participate in unofficial referendums on controversial issues (such as the universal retirement protection scheme and standard working hours). If public referendums can be organized concurrent with deliberations on important issues in Legco such that the public practices proper democratic decision-making while the legislators argue and filibuster, an effective mechanism can be established for the generation and expression of public opinion.

Imagine if in recent years the democrats had organized unofficial referendums on issues deliberated in Legco such as the Northeast New Territories land allocations and the investigation into television licensing practices: This would not only have demonstrated the public’s mistrust of Legco and thus the importance of abolishing functional constituencies and establishing referendum law, it would also have connected the idea of holding referendums with issues of great public interest, thereby strengthening the public’s sense of self-determination.

When the public becomes familiar with the workings of referendums, a full set of voting mechanisms can be established. It might even be possible that, through elections and social movements, referendum law becomes the central means for the democracy movement and the medium-term goal of a constitutional reform movement can be pursued. That involves a committee to go over the existing statutes regarding election practice, and the amendment of inadequacies in the Basic Law through referendums. Indeed, this is very similar to the former Chief Justice Andrew Li‘s (李國能) suggestion in 2012 that “compared to rescuing it in 2047, society might do well to amend the articles of the Basic Law now”.

It is implausible that the Hong Kong government will recognize outright a mechanism for direct civil constitutional amendment. Yet I believe amendments to Article 22 of the Basic Law for the return of the right to decide one-way permits or to Article 74 to allow Legco members to propose motions related to public expenditure would have ample support among both politicians and citizens, as well as among both radicals and moderates. Applying pressure to those in power, mobilizing civil referendums at the same time and initiating a process for constitutional amendment within civil society can further the political movement towards the sort of citizens charter proposed by Professor Benny Tai (戴耀庭). These are opportunities to discuss the more complicated questions in the Basic Law related to capitalism and China-Hong Kong relations and to accompany the 2022 Chief Executive election with a blueprint for governance from the democratic camp.

Democracy is not the business of one generation

Today the hope is that Hong Kong people will understand clearly that there is no feasible path forward under the existing reform framework of the Chinese Communist Party. We must decide the future now and create a path that belongs to us. To return to the point of origin and reconstitute a blueprint is not an easy path, but as Lu Xun wrote, “In reality there are no paths. Where people tread, paths emerge.” In preparation for the ‘second question of the future’ in 15 years and to recover from the failure of ‘a democratic return to Chinese sovereignty’, we should first undertake civil referendums to move towards a mechanism for referendums and achieve a coherent consciousness for self-determination.. That is the short-term goal. As for the medium-term, we should prepare citizens charters and advance the movement for constitutional reform, in the process revealing the insufficiencies of the Basic Law and the ideals of a constitutional democracy. Finally, when it comes time to tackling the ‘second question of the future’ 15 years from now, we must demand through referendum self-determination regarding Hong Kong’s sovereignty and a future constitution. Only then will it be possible to realize the vision for “sustainable self-governance” after 2047.

I have written about how the democracy movement is to move forward in this silent post-reform period because I believe that the political parties and student organizations that have guided the reform movement must admit that we have put ourselves in a post-Occupy predicament. I believe that we must therefore search for an orientation for the democracy movement given the impossibility of a democratic return to Chinese sovereignty.

The organization of a democracy movement ought to be the responsibility of political parties and not students. But I recall what I said on the eve of re-taking Civic Square: “If universal suffrage is the task of this generation, I would like to say to Xi Jinping and C. Y. Leung that we will complete it in this generation and not pass it on to the next.” The students instigated the Umbrella Movement but returned empty-handed, discovering the fantasy and ignorance of believing that a single generation can reclaim democracy and suffrage. In this moment I can only hope that the Hong Kong people will be able to struggle defiantly in the face of the great limits set before us, so that the Joshua Wong of 2047, by then in middle age, will be able to say to the students of that time, “We Hong Kong people have finally succeeded in realizing the ideal of democratic self-governance.”

Author of three books 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