The HK pro-democracy movement through the lens of nonviolent civil resistance theory and in global context

The other day, while making dinner, I was listening to BBC Hard Talk interviewing Benny Tai. Stephen Sackur’s questions were exasperatingly facile, and Benny’s answers were far too mild. He was willing to concede Sackur’s simplistic points without much qualification. At one point, the interviewer said (I paraphrase), You invoke Martin Luther King and Gandhi, but isn’t it the hard fact of the matter that they won and you lost, they succeeded and you failed? C’mon, Benneeeee! I shouted while chopping vegetables. Nail it! But he didn’t. Once again, he gave some forgettable mealy-mouthed response. Poor Benny! I wouldn’t have done any better in his place. Ingeniously sparkling repartee is much more easily thought than spoken. And the interview made me reflect how complicated and confusing the situation in HK can seem from afar, how difficult it is to communicate to people elsewhere exactly what’s going on in HK. But still…. While cooking, I composed answers in my head. Here they are.

Failed?! The HK pro-democracy movement has failed?! You gotta be kidding! First of all, we alerted the whole world to the situation in HK, and now everyone’s watching. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be here talking with you, Mr Sackur. Secondly, we awakened the political conscience of many in HK and gave them courage to resist. We initiated an era of resistance that will be on-going, and considering especially how many young people are involved, perhaps even for years and decades to come. The Communist Party is going to have to contend with that resistance into the foreseeable future. Thirdly, we put our foot down, drew a line in the sand, consolidating support for blocking the fake universal suffrage the CCP is trying to ram through the Legislative Council. Fourthly, if you are going to say we failed, then you must say the CCP has failed as well. They wanted to sneak fake universal suffrage by under the noses of the HK people and the world. Now, that will not happen. We have the power to block it in the Legislative Council. We have forestalled the worst, which is a victory in itself, while fighting for a positive outcome, and all of us know achieving that positive outcome entails long-term struggle. So, at most, rather than saying we failed, it would be more accurate to say there’s a stalemate; neither side has the power to realize its desire without resort to brute force, and there are few if any times in the history of CCP rule in China that that can be said.

But really, to answer your question more directly, Mr Sackur: Don’t you know how long it took Gandhi and MLK to succeed? Gandhi returned India in 1915, and independence was achieved in 1947. He struggled for 32 years, and when independence was achieved, he thought he had failed because it also meant partition and the attendant mass communal violence which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. He considered his accomplishment a tragedy. In the case of MLK, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was in 1955. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the Voting Rights Acts in 1965. But starting in those very years, race riots occurred across US cities into the early seventies. Recent shootings of black men by white police and the mass incarceration of black men show there’s still some way to go for true racial equality. So, hey, justice is a long time coming, man, and definitive, pure victories are few and far between along the way. By the yardsticks of MLK and Gandhi, there is still some way to go until one can present convincing evidence that we have failed. Everyone in the HK pro-democracy movement knows this is a long-term struggle and perseverance is key. And we’ve been very busy since the end of the occupations in December. If you haven’t already, Mr Sackur, please read my article, “Six months after the occupations began, where is the HK pro-democracy movement at?”

Still, I thank you for posing the question, for it’s worth asking what could bring about “success” in the sense that you mean, namely, getting the Partystate to honor its legal obligation under the Basic Law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to implement genuine universal suffrage in HK? I mean, we’re not talkin’ revolution here, just trying to get the Partystate to subordinate itself to the law. (Then again, I guess that would be a kind of revolution.)

Back in October, not long after the occupations started, Erica Chenoweth was asked this question. She is co-author of one of the best books on nonviolent civil resistance, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. She’s not an expert on HK, but she knows a lot about what works and doesn’t, globally and historically. Chenoweth said that if everything went right — a big if — , HK stood at best a 50–50 chance of success. She emphasized four factors that generally determine the success of nonviolent resistance:

  1. The size and diversity of the movement: how many people are involved in the movement and whether they’re broadly representative of different groups and social classes.

Chenoweth said that the HK pro-democracy movement appeared to be doing rather well in terms of the first three but not the last, and she identified co-option of elites as perhaps the crucial factor. That seemed a fair analysis at the time, and six months later, it still does.

To take a quick inventory:

Size and diversity of the movement

Here, you could say the pro-democracy movement had initial success but has hit a wall. The size of the movement is arguably larger than ever, but it is not significantly growing. In stalling, the Partystate won itself time to fight back, to implement its divide-and-rule tactics. There is still a significant sector of the population that is either opposed to or apathetic about the movement’s aims. Compared to many other movements, you could argue that the size is proportionately large enough. About 20% of non-minors in a population of 7.2 million are actively involved in the movement, and something like two-thirds support the cause. But from other perpsectives (such as the fact that the size of the Communist Party alone is more than ten times the size of the whole HK population), you could say that the pro-democracy movement’s failure to continue to grow in numbers is a serious impediment and will continue to be.

The movement is also reasonably diverse. While the occupations were often characterized as a student movement or a student-led movement, a Ming Pao survey conducted at the occupation sites in October found that only 26% of those surveyed were students. A wide range of people was involved in the occupations and is involved in the pro-democracy movement more generally. 80 to 90% of young people generally support it. There is strong support amongst many professional groups, especially lawyers, teachers and social workers. But here, too, the movement has hit something of a wall because it has made relatively little inroads into the public housing estates and more generally, lower income groups, which comprise around half of the population. Again, under other conditions, this might not be such an impediment, but in HK, it is.

Staying power

The pro-democracy movement has already been around for decades. The occupations in three key nodes of the city lasted for an impressive 79 days. Since the occupations, many other initiatives have been taken. And the pro-democracy movement doesn’t look like it’s going to disappear any time soon.

If any pan-democratic Legco members were to bolt and go over to the dark side, supporting the Partystate’s fake universal suffrage proposal (at the time of writing, the HK government has announced it will introduce the proposal on 15 or 22 April), that could deal a fatal blow to the pro-democracy movement; indeed, the Partystate originally considered passage of fake universal suffrage as crucial in undermining the pro-democracy movement once and for all. But short of that, it looks to be around for a long time to come. If there’s anything, though, that working within a movement teaches, it is how inherently fragile such a movement can be. So we shouldn’t take its staying power for granted.

Diversity of tactics

Arguably, one of the strengths of the movement is that since the end of the occuapations, a plethora of groups has significantly diversified tactics (again, see “…where is the HK pro-democracy movement at?” for an overview). And while its highly decentralized nature can make it often appear a mess from the point of view of organization and coherent mobilization, it certainly isn’t lacking in new initiatives from a large variety of sources.

Still, amidst all that diversity, one area that has proven crucial in other contexts and has hardly figured in HK is mass boycotts and strikes. There was the one-week student boycott of classes, and once the police teargassed the people, Hong Kong Federation of Students called for an indefinite boycott, but it doesn’t appear that was ever really followed through on. Likewise, the Professional Teachers Union, HK’s largest pro-democracy union, called a strike in the wake of the teargasing, but it appears there was little to no uptake from teachers, and that call faded into oblivion as well. Many have argued that such boycotts and strikes would at any rate not be very effective in Hong Kong. Whatever the case, the lack of large-scale collective action on the part of workers or consumers can be considered a limitation of the movement up to now, especially when the need to escalate arises. You saw this during the occupations. When HKFS declared it would escalate, the best it could think of to do was move on the Chief Executive’s office. What really needed to happen was for a new wave of people to join the movement and act outside of the occupation zones.

Co-option of opposing elites

Back in October, at the height of the occupations, when Chenoweth was interviewed, virtually no progress had been made in this area, and the same can be said today. In that sense, on the surface at least, the Partystate has been remarkably effective in shoring up its support. In HK, the forces supporting and protecting the Partystate include:

· the tycoons and more generally, the business community, including the major chambers of commerce;

· large segments of the media;

· the HK government and police;

· and the many Partystate front orgs.

That’s a formidable list. None has shown the least inclination to budge. Some quietly resent the pressure put on them to support the Partystate and would just as soon stay out of politics altogether, but when push comes to shove, they still see their interests as aligned with those in power.

That’s just within HK. A salient feature of the HK situation is that, structurally, it is really a classical colonial model — the real power rests far away, in Beijing. The mainland economic elites haven’t so much as blinked at what’s going on in HK; it doesn’t even play into their calculations. The Partystate has such a stranglehold on the media that the people on the mainland receive little to no accurate information about the HK political situation, and the result of that has been striking ignorance and antagonism (“spoiled little HKers- we give them everything and look how ungrateful they are”) when, really, our interests are closely aligned. Within the Partystate itself, Xi Jinping is waging such a ferocious battle over control (under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign) that nobody is about to risk crossing him over such a relatively paltry matter as HK. At other times one might have detected a greater range of opinion within the Partystate, but now they’re all in a race to appear more hardline than thou. As for the People’s Suppression Army, it would be hard to find an issue about which it’s less sympathetic than HK freedom.

So, as far as co-option of any of the forces supporting the Partystate, the HK pro-democracy movement has struck out completely. I agree with you, Mr Sackur, we have failed. Indeed, we’ve hardly even tried, so futile have such efforts appeared.

What’s worse, meanwhile, as we consider co-option of forces supporting the Partystate, the Partystate ramps up its divide-and-rule tactics and redoubles its efforts to mainlandize HK society (see “Some thoughts on the recent anti-parallel trade protests” for a full of list of the various manifestations of mainlandization). Indeed, one could argue that it’s far more likely the Partystate will split the pro-democracy movement than the opposite.

The global context

Rarely is it the case, though, that elites suddenly “see the light” and start to support pro-democracy movements. More often than not, they make a calculated decision that it is more in their interest to remove support from the regime. What that means is that if they do so, that might help to shift the balance of power, but the question is whether that shift will be decisive and enduring. In the case of Egypt, for example, the military withdrew its support of Mubarak, causing him to fall, but then waited in the wings to return to power, and three years after the fall of Mubarak, rather than democracy, there is effectively military dictatorship in Egypt that is even harsher than Mubarak. So co-option of the elites is also playing with fire.

The Egyptian example is instructive also because it shows just how illusory short-term gains can sometimes be. Coupled with the examples of the Indian freedom struggle and the struggle for racial equality in the US, the lesson learnt is that freedom struggles are almost always long-term processes. Even decisive victories are not final victories. The struggle goes on and on.

Indeed, the long-term results of “victories” in freedom struggles are a mixed bag, to say the least. Transitions to democracy are arduous.

Most of the former republics of the Soviet Union are not doing too well. The exceptions are the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Ukraine could be coming around, though it’s too soon to say.

The USSR’s former satellite states are faring somewhat better, especially Poland, East Germany and the Czech Republic. But then there are Bulgaria and Romania, which have never fully managed the transition, Hungary which is backsliding, and Slovakia, which can often seem neither here nor there.

In South America, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay have all made impressive transitions to democracy, Paraguay and Peru somewhat less so. But overall, for a region that used to be overwhelmingly dictatorial, it’s made remarkable progress. Central America, on the other hand, continues to struggle with fragile, easily co-opted state institutions.

In East Asia, Taiwan and South Korea have made impressive transitions.

Elsewhere in Asia, there are signs for optimism in Indonesia. The eighties People Power revolution of the Philippines is in some ways unfinished. Post-Marcos Philippines has been plagued by corruption and the retrenchment of economic elites. That might be changing, but it’s still up in the air.

In South Africa, there is much disillusionment with the African National Congress, which has become increasingly corrupt, coupled with the gross income inequality and the exceedingly large number of people still living in poverty. Elsewhere in Africa, you have to really look hard to find any uplifting stories of successful democratic transition.

And of all the countries affected by the Arab Spring, Tunisia appears to be the only one to have turned a corner and made decisive progress toward democracy.

In this global context, HK isn’t necessarily doing that bad at all. But equally, it’s got a long way to go. We can’t count on anything bringing about the decisive victory of the HK pro-democracy movement any time soon. The question is the extent to which it can persevere and strengthen itself in the face of that awareness.

Perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind is that the HK pro-democracy movement is part of a worldwide movement for democracy. While government for the most part sit on the sidelines, remaining silent if not downright hostile, all over the world, people continue to fight for political freedom. We are part of a much larger struggle. Our freedom struggle is bound up with those of Taiwan, Tibet and the Uighurs as well as of people on the mainland. It is related to those of the people of Southeast and South Asia. We should inform ourselves of other freedom struggles. We should learn from them much more than we do. We should work in solidarity with them. While we decry the fact that few governments around the world have supported our struggle, we should be heartened by the fact that many people do. Our existence is important: We stand for a vision of a fair, democratic society, a society far different from the one that now exists. We are a mote in the dictator’s eye. The Partystate stands for oppression; for rule by fiat, not by law; for everything we detest. The really question is: in the long run, which vision will win? This is a question of relevance to the whole world, not just HK.

I’ll leave you with a few of Erica Chenoweth’s aphoristic tweets from the height of the occupations in October last year:

Mvmts that win adopt long-term thinking. They put strategy before tactics. They know when to stand their ground & when to retreat & regroup.
NV mvmts don’t win b/c they are “morally superior.” They win by outlasting or outmaneuvering the opponent.
NV movements that win (1) plan for a years-long struggle; (2) use NV tactics besides just demonstrations (e.g. strikes)
Although NV mvmts face great odds, difficult circumstances do not always predetermine whether they succeed or fail.

Also check out Jay Ulfelder’s “How the Umbrella Revolution Could Win”, an application of Kurt Schock’s Unarmed Insurrections to HK.


10 April 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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