27 October 2016
Student leaders (from left) Oscar Lai, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law plan to shift to a parliamentary struggle. Photo: HKEJ
Student leaders (from left) Oscar Lai, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law plan to shift to a parliamentary struggle. Photo: HKEJ

Why Occupy student leaders are losing touch with the public

The student leaders of the 2014 Occupy Movement are back in the limelight as they seek to pursue the democracy struggle by participating in the Legislative Council elections in September.

However, the public appear lukewarm to their comeback after their reputation has somehow suffered as a result of their failure to achieve genuine universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

The outcome of the 79-day protests, which ended not with a bang but a whimper, may have convinced many of those who joined the campaign that it’s useless to pursue the old methods of struggle to force Beijing to listen to their demands.

Such feelings of frustration and fatigue have given rise to localism, which is now inching its way into the mainstream of political thoughts.

Given this situation, it could be quite difficult for these student leaders to win the votes of pan-democratic supporters in the September polls.

But these student leaders, while recognizing the difficulty of pursuing the struggle within the boundaries of their old associations, feel that the Legco elections present another opportunity for them to carry on the endeavor.

And so Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Oscar Lai have co-founded Demosisto with Law considering running for a seat in the Hong Kong Island constituency and Lai possibly joining the race in Kowloon East.

Alex Chow and Lester Shum, along with other campus comrades, have formed a new alliance with Shum deliberating on a crack at the Kowloon West seat.

But the lay of the land has changed since two years ago.

Demosisto appears to find it hard to win the support of the internet generation, who thinks the name of the new group is strange and “uncool”.

Some even accused the group of copying a Spanish design for its logo. And not a few raised a howl over its chaotic debut press conference and the wrong information provided in its press releases.

All this suggests that their ertswhile supporters no longer regard them with awe, and have developed a critical attitude towards their plans and programs.

Their young supporters, who remain bitter over Beijing’s arrogant responses to their demands, are now entertaining the idea that a more radical approach is needed to pursue the struggle.

That’s why when Demosisto broached the idea of a referendeum in 10 years’ time, the young activists insist that they should push for a vote in 2021 and work at a faster pace for a change of the political status of Hong Kong.

The young activists are also hesitant to support the student leaders who refuse to admit their errors during the 79-day campaign.

Looking back, they now view the Occupy campaign as a wasted opportunity because it lacked a clear direction and concrete goals, as exemplified by the lack of results from the meeting between the student representatives and government officials at the height of the protests.

The mass followers of the Occupy Movement seem to feel cheated because their struggle resulted in nothing while their leaders gained more political exposure and even global stature.

And so while Joshua Wong landed on the cover of Time magazine, the movement dragged on and ended in charges being filed against its leaders and followers.

And so while many of the young activists wallowed in frustration, the luminaries of the movement shed their status as student leaders and became politicians.

That’s probably a natural transformation, but now their supporters will have to look at them, not anymore as firebrands of a political movement, but as politicians whose main objective is the advancement of their political career.

The deluge of negative posts on social media about the emerging political parties suggests that the mass activists are unwilling to transfer their support from the movement’s leaders to the new politicians, even though the personalities involved are the same.

The rise of localism, along with the emerging ideas of Hong Kong independence and the use of violence as an option, does not necessarily marginalize the leaders of the Occupy campaign.

Rather, it indicates that the young generation wants new modes of struggle to pursue the fight for democracy. They want results, not just words.

This new thinking has found expression in the Mong Kok clashes in early February as well as the results of the Legco by-election in the New Territories East, where Edward Leung, a candidate of the radical Hong Kong Indigenous, won 15 percent of the vote.

And so while the localist groups, which are also joining the parliamentary struggle, is targeting first-time voters in the upcoming elections, the new parties of the former student leaders can’t seem to decide what they are standing for.

Finding themselves the targets of the establishment in its efforts to get back at the Occupy organizers, the former student leaders are taking a conservative approach towards the Hong Kong independence issue.

The Occupy campaign is no doubt one of the most important milestones in Hong Kong’s political history since the 1997 handover as hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people, mostly youngsters, occupied the streets to seek genuine universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election, inspired by the involvement of student leaders such as Wong, Chow and Shum.

But the failure of the campaign means its leaders can no longer ride on the protest movement to reach out to the people even as they are losing the support of the young generation.

As such, these student leaders should abandon the baggage of the Occupy Movement and shift their focus to the issue of Hong Kong’s future.

Throwing the ball to the public, as what their proposal for a referendum in 10 years suggests, simply won’t do.

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EJ Insight writer

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