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What Happened to Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement?

Still riven over strategy, tactics, and core values, many now consider the 2014 protests a failure.

Sit In Protest Continues In Hong Kong Despite Chief Executive's Calls To Withdraw
HONG KONG - OCTOBER 1: Student protesters chant pro democracy slogans holding cell phone lights during evening speeches at the protest site on October 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Thousands of pro democracy supporters continue to occupy the streets surrounding Hong Kong's Financial district. Protest leaders have set an October 1st deadline for their demands to be met and are calling for open elections and the resignation of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

HONG KONG – The activists from last year’s massive democracy occupation have splintered. Nowhere is this clearer than on college campuses represented by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the architects of the fall 2014 pro-democracy protests that roiled the Chinese territory. Students at three local universities have voted to quit the league of university students; more vote drives are underway. Critics, some swayed by rising nativist anger, say student leaders’ insistence on passive resistance at the height of the protests doomed the push for open elections for the city’s chief executive, instead of a slate of candidates pre-vetted by Beijing. As the wounded student group tries to shore up its membership, its allies worry that the loss of a united student front will push the already anemic pro-democracy camp closer to irrelevance.

Since February, students at three local universities have voted to leave the federation; balloting at another campus is underway and more drives are expected. The results could re-shape the future of the Hong Kong protest movement, just as the city’s government is debating a new elections law. It would, for the first time, let citizens cast ballots for the chief executive, albeit only among candidates that pass muster with Beijing.

The division among democracy protesters began shortly after police fired teargas at demonstrators in September 2014, during discussions under the tarpaulins shielding protest camps from the rain. Many protesters blamed the federation for being opaque, passive, and shackled to the city’s old guard liberals – the so-called pan-democrats. Some in the sit-in chided the federation’s leaders for taking no action when the government refused to negotiate, and for the student leaders’ “greater-China bias,” a focus on bringing democracy to the nation, rather than addressing Hong Kong concerns.

Today, many participants from last year’s occupation consider the movement a failure. After all, the strike did not achieve its stated goals of toppling the chief executive, C.Y. Leung, or jettisoning the election system in which 1,600 business and trade groups chose him. In fact, the campaign won no material concessions. The federation had kicked off the protest with a week-long class boycott, and has become an easy target for those disappointed. “Students felt betrayed by the federation,” said Leonard Sheung-fung Tang, a political science student leading the campaign to end federation ties at City University. The federation has lost the trust of students, and if it urged people to stand up to the police again, Tang said, most students wouldn’t listen.

Throughout the protest, student federation leaders preached non-violence even as they faced withering criticism for that tactic – especially online and on social media — as a more radical faction grew in prominence, if not number. Months after police cleared the democracy encampments, several veterans of the occupation urged people to join rallies to protect Hong Kong against a mainland incursion. Hundreds of angry people verbally attacked mainland visitors and confronted police. 

Those rallies marked some success; the government in Shenzhen, the mainland city closes to Hong Kong, changed a visa policy that will limit its residents to one Hong Kong visit per week. The protesters who had decried student leaders for being weak crowed online. Government opponents, they said, would need to act more like Malcolm X, and less like Martin Luther King Jr.

Violence, as a tool to creating democracy, isn’t the right tactic, said Alex Chow, the federation’s general secretary. He told Foreign Policy that many students, anxious about the future, were unfairly punishing the federation for perceived weakness. “It is unrealistic to think people could win such a giant change through a single tiny movement,” said Chow, who will graduate soon from the University of Hong Kong. A fractured federation, he said, “will weaken the ability of students to mobilize to counter the government.” If students aren’t united, other organizations, he said, will have to work harder to gain citizens’ trust.

Some undergraduates fume that students lack control over the federation’s decisions and finances. Just as Hong Kong’s residents could only elect their chief executive through proxies, students have had no direct voice in choosing the federation’s top leaders. Chow, like his successor, was picked by a committee comprising representatives from the eight member schools. “I do not think they’re a democratic structure. It’s a bit like the Chinese Communist party,” said Andy Chan, an engineering and business administration student who led the recent successful campaign against the federation at Polytechnic University. Federation members counter that the committee representatives, not the secretary general, wield power.

Added to that mistrust are mounting accusations that the federation and pan-democrat politicians are trying to mollify, even co-opt, mainland residents instead of keeping them out of Hong Kong, endangering the city’s future. Nativist views have bubbled in the city for years, sometimes exploding into full-throated racist rants against mainlanders. They have been accused of everything from cramping maternity wards, and depleting stores of milk powder, to increasing property prices and robbing local students of school and university seats. (To help calm frantic residents, city officials produced a report in 2014, hoping to prove that some fears had been exaggerated, to little avail.)

Federation leaders said they will spend the coming months trying to repair relations with constituents. The group, some members said, is considering changing some governing laws to answer critics’ concerns. Disagreements continue. On April 27, the federation announced that it would not join this year’s June 4 candlelight vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre, the federation’s first abstention since the event began. Students said that those with nativist views rejected the theme of this year’s event: bringing democracy to China.

Some observers, including Chi Keung Choy, a senior politics lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong and a one-time federation member, said the city’s pro-democracy camp will be weaker without the federation’s involvement. Chow said that the federation has an important role to play in future democracy protests: “You still need people to represent, to voice out, to counter the government at the end of the day.”

Now that some of the federation’s core constituency – university students – has rejected its leadership, the rupture could cost the group precious clout in Hong Kong’s wobbly democracy push. Several federation members acknowledged privately that the days are gone when their leaders’ passionate speeches drew cheering crowds, when their appearance on a live, televised debate with government officials riveted the city.

But the federation’s critics insist, the democracy movement remains a leaderless one, even as it becomes less passive. “There will be different kinds of protests, maybe more radical. More radical movements will be possible because we will not have a big organization to control the movements,’’ said Ventus Wing-hong Lau, who organized a referendum drive at Chinese University to sever federation ties. This will make the response from the police and government “more difficult to control, and to predict.”

 Drake Leung contributed reporting.

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