16 October 2018
If pro-democracy protests turn violent, Beijing will find it easier to undermine the credibility of the movement. Photo: Bloomberg
If pro-democracy protests turn violent, Beijing will find it easier to undermine the credibility of the movement. Photo: Bloomberg

Why Beijing may prefer radical protesters to moderate ones

Since the 2010 political reform, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has split into two factions: the moderates and the radicals.

The two factions compete with each other and they also cooperate from time to time.

While the two don’t share a common goal and strategy, there is actually no clear-cut distinction between the moderates and the radicals. Within the moderates some are actually more moderate than others, and the same can be said about the radicals.

The goals of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong can be classified into five levels, from the most moderate to the most radical. They are: real choice for voters, civil nomination, priority to local interests, self-determination of the city state, and Hong Kong’s independence.

As far as tactics are concerned, the pro-democracy movement also witnessed an evolution from legal protests and assemblies and negotiation to civil disobedience, scuffles and, most recently, some violent action.

Going the experience overseas, even the most moderate resistance activists tend to turn radical when their demands go unanswered by the authorities. In other words, it is often the people in power who cause pro-democracy activists to turn radical.

Meanwhile, when a resistance movement turns radical or even violent, it might lead to two possible outcomes: either the regime relents and agrees to have dialogue with protesters and offer concessions amid fear that the movement might further escalate and threaten its rule, or the movement itself starts to lose public support because most people disapprove of violent actions.

So, which outcome is likely in Hong Kong?

For decades, social activists in Hong Kong have been adopting a rather moderate approach to fighting for democracy. However, most of their efforts have proven to be futile because Beijing simply doesn’t believe in offering Hong Kong true democracy.

It was not until the Occupy Movement in autumn 2014 that the more radical civil disobedience actions began to take center stage and dominate our pro-democracy movement. In fact the people of Hong Kong won the respect of the entire world by staging a resistance movement of a high quality and non-violent nature against a dictatorship.

Although civil disobedience actions sometimes involve radical elements, they are still largely peaceful. Their aim is to change the status quo by raising public awareness rather than to directly topple the establishment by means of violence.

However, after the 79-day-long Occupy movement failed to change Beijing’s stance, some have begun to argue that a more radical or even violent approach is necessary in order to force Beijing and the SAR government into offering the people of Hong Kong true democracy.

This idea does find an audience among some social activists, particularly the younger ones. The recent anti-parallel trade protests that took place across the New Territories in fact show that the radical approach is gathering momentum.

It remains to be seen whether such violent approach can eventually force Beijing to the negotiation table, but I believe that these violent acts are more likely to take their toll on the pro-democracy movement by alienating the majority of the peace-loving and law-abiding public before the actions can achieve any tangible results.

Therefore, it seems logical to infer that Beijing wouldn’t mind the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong getting more violent, as it would ensure that the movement will lose public support and die down gradually. After all, most people in Hong Kong believe there is no justification whatsoever for any sort of violence.

If we look back in history, we can find that in some places, it is not uncommon for dictators to deliberately nurture some violent thugs or trouble-makers among the ranks of pro-democracy or anti-government protesters in an attempt to sabotage the movements and cause them to lose public support and sympathy.

I believe it is important for our pro-democracy movement participants to stay vigilant at all times against this kind of conspiracy.

In fact the source of power and moral justification of any civil rights movement comes from the insistence on non-violent means and the spirit of self-sacrifice.

The cause of fighting for democracy can only succeed if we stick to the principle of rationality and peace. Only by doing so can we highlight the brutality of the existing regime and the injustice under the current political system, and thereby win public sympathy.

A genuine and ethical social movement never relies on violence to achieve its goal. In fact, it doesn’t need to do so because the more firmly we stick to the principle of non-violence, the more people will identify with our righteous cause, and at the end of the day the people in power just can’t afford to ignore the demands of the masses.

Therefore, the key to success in our journey towards democracy is the insistence on peaceful means. Any deviation from this course is likely to be exploited by Beijing to undermine the credibility and righteousness of the pro-democracy movement.

In fact, it would be naive for Beijing to think that our pro-democracy movement can be sabotaged from within by inciting people to violence and hatred.

The only way for the central government to resolve the current political crisis in Hong Kong is by faithfully addressing the demands for true democracy. Until then, the people of Hong Kong will continue to fight for their rights and will not buckle under in the face of ruthless suppression. Any Beijing official with vision and conscience should be aware of that.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 13. [Chinese version 中文版]

Translation by Alan Lee

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe