17 October 2019
As Hong Kong prepares for a crucial vote on political reforms, divisions have surfaced within the pan-democratic camp. Photo: Reuters
As Hong Kong prepares for a crucial vote on political reforms, divisions have surfaced within the pan-democratic camp. Photo: Reuters

Why we needn’t worry too much about cracks in democratic camp

While pan-democrats in Hong Kong have voiced their unhappiness at the government’s political reform proposal, it is however generally believed that some lawmakers could break ranks and support the bill when it is tabled in the legislature.

A few names are being bandied around as speculation mounts over possible deals and compromise with the Leung Chun-ying administration.

Looking at the situation, it is quite evident that some lawmakers are ready to accept the “fake” election package when certain conditions are met.

As conventional tactics have not yielded any results, the members may have opted for a new stance.

This has promoted some observers to describe the scene as the “conservativization” of social movements and democrats. 

Meanwhile, the divergence and strife over strategy within the pan-democrat camp appears to have spread to the younger generation. One example is the cracks seen in the Hong Kong Federation of Students.

We may feel bewildered by the complexity of the situation and uncertain prospects.

But I see no reason for pessimism in these developments.

We should bear in mind that divergence, cracks and even rifts within the bloc are not uncommon.

Mayer Zald and Roberta Ash, sociologists at Columbia University, agree that conservativization of social movements tends to happen in a stable society. Activists and leaders may grab some political power as well as pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests and advantages for apportion among members within the camp.

Realizing that their ultimate goal — democracy — can’t be achieved overnight, activists may lose some of their zeal and alter their strategy.

But that doesn’t mean the change in stance is irreversible.

Zald and Ash cited the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as examples.

The two leading civil rights groups became relatively conservative before the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, but then subsequently adopted a more “militant” approach in order to win back the hearts of supporters and compete with newer, more aggressive parties like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Similarly, old-line democrats in Hong Kong and their allies were largely marginalized in the Occupy protests when youngsters became the leading light in the movement.

Older democrats failed to attach significance to the widespread localism in recent years, nor did they try to align themselves with the shifting landscape and other changing dynamics. This has led to chasm with young people.

This sort of thing happens along with intensified internal strife and competition but one will be naïve to assume that the activists will lose faith after seeing all the explicit or covert power struggles among different factions.

One should accept that some things may be unavoidable in the real political world. It would be a mistake to look at the democrats with disdain if they choose to make some compromises.

Zald and Ash point out that various factions and schools within the pan-democratic bloc would team up before a showdown with the authorities. But once the crucial moment has passed – just like the post-Occupy era – the bloc would be vulnerable to division and even confrontation within the camp.

Like other forms of dispute and reorganization, internal divisions shouldn’t be a source of grave worry.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 18.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal