Probably it’s time for Hong Kong’s democracy movement to take stock of where it is, how far it has come, and where it wants to go. There’s much talk now about polarization, the great divide between the camps, however they are defined: democratic, pro-Beijing, conservative establishment, and so on. But there are other questions – more interesting and urgent – that need to be settled first among democrats themselves.

This is because the questions seem to be constantly revolving around the concept of “failure” and democrats’ periodic descent into disarray at the prospect. The disarray leaves openings for adversaries to exploit, hastening the downward spiral toward apparent defeat … the perfect self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Democratic Party's Albert Ho
The Democratic Party’s Albert Ho. Photo: HKFP.

But what if they thought they were winning instead of losing? A good case can be made in that respect and it might do wonders for morale as well as the coherence of a movement that often seems in danger of disintegration when it should be gathering strength for the bigger struggles to come.

The questions are first and foremost about government and politics and the challenge posed by Hong Kong’s democracy movement to Beijing’s one-party dictatorship. There are plenty of other concerns, too: economic, social, and cultural. These are regularly used by adversaries to distract public attention and they are being used now, by Beijing and the Hong Kong government, toward that end. It means prosperity before politics – or what was touted for a time as the “Beijing consensus.”   Such concerns are also sometimes used by democrats themselves in search of relief from the demoralizing aura of political defeat.  “One-trick-ponies” was the term used with some success in past years to mock democrats and divert them from their single-minded focus on political demands.

beijing hong kong cpc flag
Photo: AutonomousKraken, via Reddit.

Yet the distractions come more easily because all who call themselves democrats have yet to define their goals and strategies, much less the standards for judging success and failure at each step along the way. A rethink has begun especially among the younger generation but the young ones also seem on course to repeat some of their elders’ debilitating mistakes. Consider three recent declarations of “failure” – one from the older generation, one from the younger, and another from everyone.

Hailing Defeat

Benny Tai’s first response to Beijing’s August 31, 2014 rejection of all Hong Kong’s many proposals for reforming the election of its Chief Executive was that he had “failed.” Occupy Central with Love and Peace was his brainchild. A law school professor at the University of Hong Kong, Benny Tai Yiu-ting had worked tirelessly for two years propagating and organizing. His original idea was to have 10,000 people stage a sit-down on the streets of Hong Kong’s central business district if Beijing did not agree to a design for genuine universal suffrage that met international standards.

By the time Beijing’s final decision was announced on August 31, 2014, Tai’s supporters had rehearsed their routines many times over: occupy, no violence, no resistance when police moved in – which the police had made preparations to do. There was even a dress rehearsal after the July First protest march that year by both occupiers and police. They proved it could be done in a few days.

But when Beijing’s final decision came down on August 31, it not only did not meet any international standards but it ignored all the many proposals – conservative, moderate, and radical – that people had contributed in response to the Hong Kong government’s invitation to do so. Then, after an impromptu pep rally to keep spirits up, Tai did just the opposite.

Benny Tai.
Benny Tai. Photo: HKFP.

Everyone was amazed by the scoop he gave to Bloomberg news reporters the next day. Evidently he had really thought he could force Beijing’s hand by threatening to block downtown traffic for a few days, because he readily conceded defeat. He said he had “failed” in his objective of pressuring Beijing to allow genuine universal suffrage elections. He reluctantly proceeded with the plan but wanted business executives to know that it would be done in such a way as not to damage Hong Kong’s economy, preferably on a long holiday weekend.

Had college and secondary school students not picked up the ball, Benny Tai’s project might have died then and there. But the students carried it a step further. They had been thinking about a one-week classroom boycott to mobilize support for the Occupy event and decided to go ahead with their idea. Asked what they hoped to achieve, they said a mass movement was needed to create more bargaining power. We know we cannot change Beijing’s decision, said one student leader in response to skeptical questioners, but we want to awaken more people, to create a wider public audience for the cause.

The students did just that. Their strike was surprisingly successful, with the support of their schools and teachers as well. People did begin to pay more attention beyond the relatively small circles that had been participating in the electoral reform debates for over a year. When post-strike student enthusiasm led them to try and break into a closed-off area at the Legislative Council compound, the public spent the weekend of September 27-28 congregating at the spot where the break-in and consequent arrests had occurred.

The crowds grew on Sunday, September 28 – a spontaneous gathering without any organization or police permission -and it was the police tear gas barrage fired into the crowd that, in effect, launched Benny Tai’s movement without him. The occupation that filled streets around the Legislative Council building where people first gathered was far from the downtown central business district.  And instead of blocking a few streets there that are closed to traffic on holidays anyway, the movement closed down major transport arteries on both sides of the harbor and lasted for 79 days, symbolized by the umbrellas that demonstrators used to protect themselves during the first day’s tear gas barrage.

All things considered, the movement was a great success generating international headlines and “awakening” far more locals to the nature of mainland-style versus open universal suffrage elections than Benny Tai’s carefully rehearsed project could ever have done. But did anyone among the participants or observers use the word “success” with reference to the months-long occupation? On the contrary, everyone regards it as a failure – defined only in terms of the narrow aim of Chief Executive election reform. Beijing remained unmoved and never gave an inch.

Occupy protest one year anniversary in Admiralty
Occupy protest one year anniversary in Admiralty. Photo: HKFP.

In answer to a New York Times reporter reviewing his just-published book on the subject, Jason Ng said Occupy had failed to gain any concessions from Beijing on political reform leaving many disillusioned and bitter. The community is more polarized than ever, he said, and localist sentiments are radicalizing the democracy movement.

And those localist sentiments also focus on failure. The latest player to make his mark in this respect is Edward Leung Tin-kei.  His new group Hong Kong Indigenous precipitated the Lunar New Year uprising in Mong Kok on the night of February 8-9. He subsequently won over 66,000 votes in a by-election necessitated by the resignation of democracy movement elder Ronny Tong Ka-wah.

Tong had hoped the election campaign would refocus Hong Kong’s political reform debate on the need for a moderate “third way” between Hong Kong democrats and Beijing. It did just the opposite. The strengthening pro-democracy trend he deplores as too radical is growing stronger not weaker. Not only did the most radical candidate win 66,000+ votes but the victor was his own one-time Civic Party protege whom Tong refused to endorse because Alvin Yeung had strayed too far from Ronny Tong’s moderate path.  So he must now acknowledge another failure, one of several he has suffered along the way.

Although Edward Leung is different from all others in that he advocates violent resistance, his reasons are just like those of everyone else. Try violence, he says, because everything else has failed to register any result.  Like the Umbrella soldiers and Benny Tai’s more moderate Occupiers before them, he mocks the endless sequence of Sunday afternoon protest marches. Pan-democrats have kept the tradition alive for decades, but it has accomplished nothing, he says. Afterward, the marchers go home, the powers-that-be do their best to ignore them, and the day’s exercise is soon forgotten.

Leung doesn’t explain exactly how he thinks violence can change things. But if Hong Kong’s past experiences with riotous behavior are any indication, he may have a point.

A way out of the predicament? 

Actually, escaping from this dilemma could be done rather easily by adjusting the frame of reference and the time line. Beijing needs to be in the frame and the timeline needs to be long-term not just one Hong Kong election cycle at a time. The adjustment would allow pan-democrats to recalibrate and conclude that they are actually winning not losing. But before accomplishing that feat, they would have to acknowledge what are perhaps their two greatest real failures.

Zhang Xiaoming
Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Liaison Office. File Photo: Stand News.

The first concerns the assumption that promises Beijing made to guide the 1997 transfer from British to Chinese rule could be taken at face value using Western definitions. The Civic Party, in its new 10-year anniversary revised manifesto has begun making this adjustment. It says they still thought, when the party was founded in 2006, that Beijing’s promises meant what the words and Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution said. Hongkongers would be allowed the autonomous space to govern themselves in their own way under the “one-country, two-systems” formula. Now they know differently. Beijing’s original promises, in other words, need to be understood using Beijing’s definitions if they are to be effectively countered and resisted.

The second failure is the failure to calculate what their own sequence of self-proclaimed “failures” means to Beijing. Because Beijing, too, is failing here. If Beijing never meant for Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong autonomously, according to Western democratic values, then everything that Beijing has tried to accomplish since 1997 in terms of cross-border political, economic, and social integration makes a lot of sense.

Civic Party Audrey Eu, Alan Leong, Claudia Mo, Tanya Chan
Civic Party press conference 2015. Photo: Wikicommons.

It follows that the Basic Law’s Article 5 was probably intended to lapse in 2047. Article 5 promises that Hong Kong’s existing (pre-1997) way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years. Since no one has ever been able to clarify this point, its meaning must be deduced on a sort of learn-by-doing trial-and-error basis.

So consider, for example, what political life in Hong Kong would now be like if all of Beijing’s plans and programs had not encountered so much Hong Kong resistance. Article 5 would already be well on the way to irrelevance.

Among other things, the Basic Law’s Article 23 would have been enacted in 2003. Article 23 says that Hong Kong must pass legislation criminalizing “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion … or theft of state secrets” as well as foreign-force meddling.

A national patriotic political study curriculum extolling Beijing’s official narrative of Chinese history and politics would have been introduced in 2012, for all students from the first grade upwards.

The long-promised goal of universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive would have culminated next year in a mainland-style election with the voters endorsing Beijing-designated candidates.

chief executive cy leung donald tsang tung chee-hua
The three generations of chief executives: Tung

As for Hong Kong’s three post-1997 Chief Executives, the authority of Beijing’s three choices has been effectively undermined by the resistance they have provoked from the start. There were brief honeymoon periods but they didn’t last long.

Tung Chee-hwa was obliged to resign midway through his second term in office, a victory of sorts for democrats who tried their best to make him a one-term Chief Executive. His successor, Donald Tsang, is currently awaiting trial for misconduct in office – thanks to the diligence of those who publicized his indiscretions. And scarcely a day goes by without someone reminding the current Chief Executive that he should have resigned long ago.

All of which is to suggest that the so-called meaningless marches and demonstrations that have marked each step of the way as Hong Kong pushed back against these mainland intrusions have not been failures at all. They haven’t managed to produce spectacular successes or heroic defenders. But they have succeeded in keeping the greatest pressures for cross-border political integration at bay.

Article 23 legislation was shelved after the massive protest march on July 1, 2003. The political study curriculum was also shelved but not until teachers, students, and parents rallied against it in a resistance movement that was begun by a small group of middle school students.

article 23
Photo: Stand News.

Beijing’s mandate for a managed election was rejected last year when pan-democrats in the Legislative Council did a surprising thing. For once, they remained united and vetoed the government’s bill that had been written to Beijing’s specifications. Would the vow to veto have held if the Occupy-Umbrella veterans had not kept up the pressure and lobbied so insistently against a Beijing-style managed election? Probably not.

The danger for pan-democrats is that they won’t realize what they’ve achieved with all their mundane meetings and marches until it’s too late. Too late to create the stronger more articulate resistance they’re going to need for the bigger struggles that lie ahead. Especially, they’ll need more coherence than they’ve been able to achieve so far if they aim to preserve Hong Kong’s way of political life intact until 2047 and beyond.

Suzanne Pepper headshot

Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.