By Francis L.F. Lee
Hong Kong experienced a very special June. The weather was as hot as usual, but the social atmosphere was even hotter. Three large-scale demonstrations and a series of more or less conflictual protests forced the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government to “suspend” a highly controversial extradition bill. The bill would have allowed China to request the extradition of “criminals” staying in the city to the mainland. Considering the fact that the Chinese Central Government had publicly supported the extradition bill in May, the “success” of the movement was highly unexpected. Yet Hong Kong society and the protesters also paid a heavy price. By the time of the writing of this essay, at least 100 protesters have been arrested by the police. Even more sadly, several individuals had committed suicide as a way to protest against the government.
Numerous factors could be cited to explain the protests’ ability to force the government to concede: a highly one-sided public opinion against the bill, Hong Kong people’s deep distrust toward the mainland legal system, the ongoing China-U.S. trade disputes and an increasingly “unfriendly” international environment that constrain China’s actions, the SAR government’s abject failure to justify the need for the extradition bill, various tactical mistakes made by the SAR government during the protest events, and powerful social mobilization marked by a dynamic combination of large-scale peaceful demonstrations, creative small-scale actions, and a few relatively violent clashes.
Nevertheless, to understand the longer-term significance of the current protest events, we might put them back into the history of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. The democracy movement has gone through various stages in the past 35 years. Initially, social mobilization for democratization was weak in the 1980s. Democracy is neither a part of Chinese cultural tradition nor a part of Hong Kong’s political history. Government performance was satisfactory for many citizens, hence there were no strong social grievances to drive the call for political change. The largest pro-democracy rallies in the 1980s were attended by only several thousand people (Sing, 2000).
The democracy movement was “reborn” only after the Tiananmen Protests and June Fourth crackdown in 1989. Witnessing the atrocities committed by the CCP regime, many Hong Kong people came to see democracy as a means to resist Communist influence after the handover due to take place in 1997. However, that did not mean an upsurge of collective actions. In the mid-1990s, “last governor” Chris Patten initiated a plan to substantially democratize the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo). As the government was actively pushing the agenda of democratization, ordinary citizens did not need to resort to non-institutional means to voice their views.
Patten’s plan nonetheless heightened conflicts between China and Britain. China decided to disband the LegCo upon transfer of sovereignty, set up a Provisional LegCo, and then hold the first post-handover LegCo election in 1998, after the voting system was redesigned in a way that virtually ensured the presence of a pro-government majority. Since then, democratization has become virtually stagnant.
Meanwhile, 1997 marked the occurrence of the Asian financial turmoil, and Hong Kong experienced a long period of economic recession. Coupled with policy scandals and a general perception of government incompetence, social protests were on the rise. By the year 2000, Hong Kong had been dubbed by the Washington Post the “city of protest.” In 2003, continual economic problems, the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, and a controversy surrounding national security legislation led to a half-million strong July 1 protest (Lee & Chan, 2011).
The July 1 protest in 2003 forced the SAR government to suspend national security legislation. It also arguably marked the beginning of a major protest cycle. The social energies produced through the mobilization fed into the democracy movement. In the few years after the 2003 July 1 protest, new social organizations proliferated, new online alternative media emerged, a local heritage protection movement arose, and new political parties were formed. Hong Kong people’s sense of collective efficacy grew, and public opinion became more receptive toward social protests. By the late 2000s, Hong Kong had taken up several features of a social movement society, i.e., a society in which protests have become normalized as part of political life (Lee & Chan, 2013; Meyer & Tarrow, 1998).
However, as the thesis of social movement society suggests, the normalization of social protests could imply the loss of the disruptive power of those protests. The late 2000s and early 2010s thus witnessed the beginning of the trend of movement radicalization (Cheng, 2014). In terms of movement ideology, there was the emergence of an antagonistic “localism” since the early 2010s. Some activists began to emphasize their Hong Kong identity and reject the Chinese identity. In terms of movement tactics, “radical” groups began to experiment with new forms of actions that substantially deviated from mainstream social norms. They criticized conventional protest actions for being wo-lei-fei, i.e., peaceful, rational, and non-violent. For the “radical” activists, the over-emphasis on wo-lei-fei had made protests ineffective.
Against this background, the Umbrella Movement in late 2014 could be considered a case of “radicalization with self-restraint” (Lee & Chan, 2018, pp. 50-74). In early 2013, when law professor Benny Tai raised the idea of Occupy Central, it was originally framed as an action aiming at handicapping the financial district of Central and thereby forcing the government to concede on the issue of democratic elections for the Chief Executive of the SAR. But the large-scale and sustained occupation of roads was unprecedented in Hong Kong. There was a need to strike a balance between “escalating the action” and “appealing to the mainstream public.” The plan was therefore quickly reframed as an act of non-violent persuasive civil disobedience. Although contingent events and the police’s use of tear gas destroyed the “script” of Occupy Central and inadvertently led to the formation of the Umbrella Movement, the emphasis on “love and peace” persisted. The 79-day occupation remained largely non-violent.
After the Umbrella Movement ended without the government making any meaningful concession on democratization, part of the movement sector further radicalized. Years 2015 and 2016 witnessed the growth of localist groups and the emergence of calls for Hong Kong independence (Veg, 2017). Localist activists began to use more violent tactics, with the Mong Kok clashes in February 2016 being the most significant case. The SAR and Chinese governments, in response, adopted a hardline approach on radicalism. Several main participants in the Mong Kok clashes and several leaders of the Umbrella Movement were sentenced to jail. Pro-independence public figures were barred from elections, and openly pro-independence groups were outlawed.
For some time, the state’s hardline approach had seemingly succeeded in suppressing oppositional social mobilization. Between 2017 and 2018, protests against various issues were still conducted, but public participation was far from enthusiastic. Several protests against the disqualification of legislators, for instance, registered participation by only about 2,000 to 3,000 citizens.
At the same time, the pro-establishment forces won several important electoral victories. In March 2018, the pro-establishment camp beat the pro-democracy camp in a LegCo by-election. This was the first time the pro-establishment camp beat the pro-democracy camp in a by-election adopting the rule of simple majority. In November 2018, the pro-establishment camp won another LegCo by-election. Supporters of the democracy movement seemed to share a strong sense of powerlessness.
Therefore, the scale of the anti-extradition bill protests in June of this year came as a surprise for many. In fact, the first anti-extradition bill protest organized by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) in March drew only about 13,000 citizens. The scale of the second protest march on April 28 did grow quickly to 130,000 (according to CHRF), but the size and range of the protest actions in June were still unexpected.
It is outside the scope of this essay to explain the size of the protests. But it is worth noting that the protests in June and early July can also be understood in terms of radicalization with self-restraint. The action on the evening of July 1 was particularly illustrative. That night involved “radicals” charging into an empty LegCo building and taking over the LegCo chamber for a couple of hours before retreating in the face of an upcoming police attack. On the one hand, the use of physical force to take over the LegCo was unprecedented, and it seemingly deviated substantially from an emphasis on peacefulness and non-violence. But on the other hand, the activists did exercise significant restraint. There were no injuries caused by the activists’ use of force. The damage to property was selective and symbolic. The activists even left coins after taking away soft drinks from the refrigerators inside the LegCo building. The declaration by the protesters centered on a call for democracy, instead of more radical ideas such as self-determination or even independence.
Understood through the above historical narrative, one can see that the current protests in Hong Kong can be considered as the newest chapter in an originally gradual process of movement radicalization in the face of the lack of progress in democratization and the continual failure of the government to absorb public opinion through institutionalized means. At the time of publication, the protests are still ongoing. The protesters demand a complete retraction of the bill, investigations into police’s use of force in several clashes, and the re-initiation of democratic reform. As the government refuses to make further concessions, the police-protester conflict is seemingly in escalation.
But no matter how this round of protests end, if the Chinese and Hong Kong SAR governments do not change their approach to governing Hong Kong, and if the political system continues to fail to respond to public opinion effectively, large-scale protest events are bound to recur. And the next one may be even more confrontational.
Cheng, J. Y. S. (2014). The emergence of radical politics in Hong Kong: Causes and impact. China Review, 14(1), 199-232.
Lee, F. L. F., & Chan, J. M. (2011). Media, social mobilisation, and mass protests in post-colonial Hong Kong. London: Routledge.
Lee, F. L. F., & Chan, J. M. (2013). Exploring the “social movement society” in Hong Kong: Analyzing the formation and development of contentious collective actions. In S. K. Cheung, K. M. Chan, & K. C. Leung (eds.), Hong Kong, society, culture. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press. [in Chinese]
Lee, F. L. F., & Chan, J. M. (2018). Media and protest logics in the digital era: The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. New York: Oxford University Press.
Meyer, D. S., & Tarrow, S. (1998). A movement society: Contentious politics for a new century. In D.S. Meyer & S. Tarrow (eds.), The social movement society (pp. 1-28). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Sing, M. (2000). Mobilization for political change: The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong (1980s-1994). In Lui, T. L. & Chiu, S. W. K. (eds.), The dynamics of social movement in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Veg, S. (2017). The rise of “localism” and civic identity in post-handover Hong Kong: Questioning the Chinese nation-state. China Quarterly, 230, 323-347.
Francis L.F. Lee is Professor in the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.