25 March 2019
People hold yellow umbrellas to mark the first anniversary of the Occupy Movement in Admiralty in September 2015. The movement was one of the most significant expressions of Hong Kong's desire to choose its own leader. Photo: Bloomberg
People hold yellow umbrellas to mark the first anniversary of the Occupy Movement in Admiralty in September 2015. The movement was one of the most significant expressions of Hong Kong's desire to choose its own leader. Photo: Bloomberg

How HK democratic movement has split and also evolved

The 2014 Occupy Central protests, an exhausting effort that failed, have reshaped today’s ideology.

The path-blazing movement unfettered Hong Kong’s democratic bloc from the old, law-abiding dogma, and introduced another form of protest: peaceful yet defiant sit-ins without prior consent from the authorities.

The two forms can be complementary, though most rallies will still be held in the old way.

Benny Tai Yiu-ting and his fellow Occupy organizers have brought new dimensions.

In the following years since Occupy, Hong Kong has seen another two major breakthroughs.

The first one emerged right on the night of Sept. 28, 2014. Protesters’ escalated tactic – intransigent yet still largely peaceful – pushed the police and prompted them to retaliate with greater force, like the tear gas bombardment in Admiralty that day.

The savagery from the government, after protesters pushed the boundary to its limit, can in turn galvanize the public and drive more people to take to the streets, lending further momentum to the movement.

That was exactly how Occupy was launched.

The “fishball revolution” that occurred in Mong Kok in February is the second breakthrough, which has deviated from the proposition of non-violence.

The gloves-off, ferocious approach, put into practice for the very first time, has obviously caught the authorities off guard.

Meanwhile, the election campaign of Edward Leung Tin-kei, an activist from Hong Kong Indigenous who was on the frontline of the Mong Kok standoff, is also a clear indicator that the localist group is not just about violence; it also seeks changes through votes and parliamentary democracy as well.

From lawful protests to civil disobedience, from pushing the envelope to test the government’s bottom line to a more strident manner of confronting violence with violence, we have seen, within the past two years, a plurality of ways forward.

What is evolving alongside is the dichotomy between national identity and alienation.

The divergence within the democratic bloc is already there: while some still insist on the hackneyed, ancestral Chinese identity, those disillusioned with “democratic reunification” now advocate through “apartheid” to ward off interference, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, not a few members have been advocating that Hong Kong, as an independent entity, should break ranks with China to charter its own course.

No one could have envisaged the flurry of changes at the outset, but Leung Chun-ying owes Hongkongers an explanation as to why all these have taken place during his term of office.

Some concepts must also be set straight.

Such divergence is a response to the public’s diverse, even polarized views, amid the government’s stepped-up efforts to contain the democratic movement.

While the middle-of-the-road supporters remain moderate, democratic groups have to listen and react to people who lean toward fiercer strategies.

The divergence is an ultimate equilibrium itself as no approach is more forceful than violence and no attitude is more alien than renouncing one’s Chinese identity.

Given time, different people will find different groups to follow, and overall, public support for the democracy camp as a whole remains resilient.

But the process takes time to finish and it’s unlikely that the friction between old and new democrats will subside before the Legislative Council election this September, a battle that will determine if the camp can maintain its critical minority status.

Thus there’s a reason to worry.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 29.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Police fire tear gas at demonstrators on Sept. 28, 2014. More than 80 canisters of tear gas were fired. Police also threatened to use their firearms. Photo: Bloomberg

Occupy demonstrators carry bamboo poles to form barricades in Admiralty. Photo: Bloomberg

A lightning strikes above the city’s skyscrapers as demonstrators gather outside the central government complex in Admiralty. Photo: Bloomberg

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

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