Immediately after the Mongkok camp site was cleared out by police in late November, Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters started the “Shopping Revolution” by pretending to shop in busy districts, blocking the roads and exhausting the police force. Minor clashes between pretence (sometimes real) shoppers and police break out from time to time. Protesters take advantage of the difficulty in distinguishing real and pretence shoppers to confuse and provoke police, which have lost control in the handling of mass protests under numerous circumstances in recent months.

Below is a brief explanation of the rise of the “Shopping (gau wu in Cantonese) Revolution”:

explainer shopping revolution 9wu occupy
The internet’s definition of Gau Wu. Photo: Global Solidarity with Hong Kong Facebook.

The “Shopping Revolution” is still going strong even after the clearance of Admiralty and Causeway Bay, the other two camp sites of the Occupy movement. Since the end of the Occupy protests, activists organised new shopping and Christmas caroling tours in several busy shopping districts. Local newspaper Ming Pao reported that police are at loss as to how to prosecute pretense shoppers. Times Square management even cancelled this year’s New Year’s Eve countdown, fearing that the “Shopping Revolution” would turn into chaos. To the protesters, this is a small victory, and they are not going to stop quite yet.

A new Christmas carolling tour debuted in Causeway Bay two nights before its clearance, and the group promised to return every weekend in the month of December.

As the “Shopping Revolution” replaced the “Umbrella Revolution,” protesters argue over tactics and find themselves split between two strands: one advocating for a more confrontational and disruptive approach and the other insisting on causing minimal disruption to businesses. The two strands are not new to the movement; over the years, the pro-democracy camp has diversified into these two main strands with conflicting ideologies and strategies, and the division has intensified over the ten weeks of Occupy protests.

YouTube video

This chart on “when’s the best time to shop” epitomises the differences in political ideologies of the two camps:

comparison between localist and liberal shopping tours
Ideological differences between moderate and confrontational protesters. Photo: Central Shopping Tour Facebook group.

The left column presents the ideology of protesters who prefer more confrontational forms of protests, and the right shows what they believe is the ideology of the moderates who uphold the “peaceful, rational, nonviolent and non-profane” principle. The chart goes:

  • Time of shopping: From the time we get off work to when shops close VS From when shops close to when we’re taken to the police station.
  • Target: Pro-establishment stores VS Closed stores.
  • Strategy: Mix into “locusts” (a derogatory term for mainland tourists and immigrants) and confuse the cops as they cannot distinguish between real and pretence shoppers VS Do not interrupt business and yell “Shopping!” (so that police can easily identify pretense shoppers).
  • Initiator: Smart localist fighters VS “Left plastics” (see Quartz explanation) and dishonest politicians.
  • Real Initiator: Chief Executive CY Leung (see the first chart for context) VS the Communist Party and puppet Hong Kong government.
  • Goal: Exhaust the police force and increase governance cost VS rally and protest against the dictatorship.
  • Real Goal: Shop for Christmas, of course VS Get arrested for nothing.

To be sure, the comparison is biased as it is made by confrontational protesters. However, the growing disagreement between the two strands is unmissable and will likely dominate the democracy movement for many years to come. Wong Yeung-tat, leader of the pro-localism political organisation Civic Passion, has recently declared war on left-leaning liberals and moderate protest leaders who he believes are responsible for the failure of the Umbrella Revolution.

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Pro-democracy shoppers in Mongkok. Photo: Tom Grundy.

But for now, Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters are ready for another wave of mass protests as they enthusiastically discuss “shopping” plans for the holiday seasons on the Internet.

In a private chat group of Central shopping tour organisers, people light-heartedly talk about throwing urine, igniting fireworks at police and even making Molotov cocktails. There is no concrete plan to execute any of these ideas, however.

“I wouldn’t call these shopping tours escalation, but that’s the best we can do for now,” said Jiho Ng, a 33-year-old organiser of the Christmas carolling tour led by a Christian activist group Narrow Church. “As long as the majority of protesters endorse the campaign, I consider that effective. Any social movement requires substantial public support in order to generate pressure on the government. For now, Hong Kong people support nonviolence, so nonviolence is the most effective strategy.”

occupy shoppers mongkok
Pro-democracy shoppers in Mongkok. Photo: Tom Grundy.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.