26 May 2019
Clashing views regarding the way forward are the latest signs of divisions in the pro-democracy movement. Photo: CNSA
Clashing views regarding the way forward are the latest signs of divisions in the pro-democracy movement. Photo: CNSA

Why a high-riding protest movement has fallen

In a few days, we should know whether a hunger strike by a group of students will move the Hong Kong government into reopening talks on democratic reform.

In all likelihood, it will not budge.

If two months of street protests failed to convince the government to sit down with the students again after an inconclusive first round of talks, the ongoing fast is unlikely to be any different.

After all, the government has been condemned as heartless and unyielding. It’s merely living up to that reputation.

But things could have been different if the protesters had a cohesive strategy that could have made up for the fact that their movement is largely leaderless.

Thus, when the co-founders of Occupy Central, the civil disobedience group that helped inspire the sit-ins, said they would turn themselves in, they did not spark a mass surrender.

Similarly, when student leader Joshua Wong began a hunger strike on Monday, he was under no illusion that his decision will lead to widespread fasting.

Between these developments, Hong Kong civil society and some democracy advocates had urged the students to withdraw from the streets.

In recent weeks, public opinion has been overwhelmingly in favor of an immediate end to the street occupation which has been marred by violence these past several days.

On Wednesday, at an emotional press conference to announce their decision to surrender to the police, Occupy Central co-founders Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming urged the students to retreat and take the campaign to the community.

The call should have been made early on and made to stick as part of a strategy to move the campaign to the next level.

Instead, their decision to “take responsibility for the legal consequences of our actions” appeared self-serving and did the protesters no favor.

The fact that the police promptly released them without charges shows the government does not attach much importance to these actions, and to a greater degree, to their surrender.

If the students who remain in the streets — and those who prefer arrest to surrender — feel abandoned, they can’t help it.

This is part of the wear-and-tear of a campaign that has gone on far too long without a clear and focused plan of action.   

So is the sense of frustration among pro-democracy politicians who are caught between their declared commitment to the cause and a rising tide of negative public opinion.

Already, some have distanced themselves from the protesters after they tried to occupy government headquarters on Sunday, resulting in violent clashes and dozens of arrests.

Meanwhile, the government is winning the public relations war without lifting a finger.

Its determination not to give an inch of ground is growing in direct proportion to rising divisions in the protest camp.

The protesters themselves have said their efforts have been a failure.

That should have been enough to convince them — and all stakeholders in the Umbrella Movement for that matter — to try another tack.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe