In the week that the Hong Kong government took delivery of the first of its shiny new armoured anti-riot vehicles to control street unrest, Demosisto, arguably the most significant political group to emerge from the Umbrella Movement, decided to focus its activity on the streets after its attempts to join the established political process were rebuffed.

Demosisto had made serious efforts to play the political game by the rules and gained a considerable degree of public support. However, the group’s only lawmaker, Nathan Law, has been kicked out of the Legislative Council and Agnes Chow was barred from even running in a by-election that she had a strong chance of winning.

Unsurprisingly Demosisto has concluded that the rules are stacked against them and that it is pointless to focus its activities in an arena where all the dice are loaded in favour of their opponents.

Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law
Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law of Demosisto. File photo: In-Media.

Where Demosisto members have had some success is out on the streets. Joshua Wong, one of its founders, rose to prominence in the successful street battle to thwart plans for political indoctrination in schools. Demosisto’s founders were also at the forefront of the Umbrella Movement that mobilized hundreds of thousands of protestors, which had an impact way beyond expectations.

In the aftermath of the Umbrella protests, the government made some limited efforts to engage in dialogue with the organisers but this timid charm offensive has now been replaced with an official determination to ensure that these young activists are excluded from the political process.

Exclusion from the established process does not, however, also mean exclusion from politics. It has created a turning point that could go a number of ways.

On the one hand, it is possible that Demosisto and other opposition groupings could resort to increasingly frenzied and possibly violent protest as frustration and anger mount over the crackdown on voices daring to challenge the established system.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that this social media-savvy and highly networked younger generation of activists can use these skills to mobilise a large community of netizens, some of whom will never move far from their screens, while others will see this as a jumping off point for further action.

anges chow
Agnes Chow. Photo: Demosisto, via Facebook.

There is a great deal of scope for such action including in the cultural arena where artists, filmmakers, singers and writers can help build a shield resisting the authoritarian government, often using satire as a powerful weapon.

Then there is local community activism, where there is fertile ground in Hong Kong’s grossly unequal society and where injustice is hardly difficult to unearth. This kind of grassroots action has endless possibilities. It may sound mundane to be launching campaigns over, say, the water supply, the destruction of areas and buildings or maybe focusing on particular acts of injustice towards individuals, but these matters are always important to someone and it is both possible to make a difference on specific issues and draw wider lessons from why they arose.

Dwarfing all of this is Hong Kong’s massive housing crisis and the growth of poverty, leaving a fifth of the population festering below the poverty line. The anti-democrats are so vested in the preservation of the status quo as to be unable to offer real solutions but they make strenuous attempts to show they care. Their words are empty because they are committed to maintaining a power structure designed for the better off. Thus it does not take much effort to expose this hypocrisy.

So, there is no shortage of alternative methods of pursuing a political agenda for democrats who have given up electoral politics.

Legislative Council
Legislative Council. Photo: LegCo.

Meanwhile, the anti-democrats relish the taunting of the opposition and seem determined to push them into more extreme positions. Just this week the anti-democratic camp in LegCo took time out to force a debate on the activities of Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai, painting him as a diehard independence advocate bent on causing mayhem. Even the dimmest among their number must know that Tai has never advocated independence but in the absence of facts, they believe that if they utter big lies often enough they will be believed.

By the day, the enemies of democracy are trying to shift the parameters of the debate so that defenders of Hong Kong’s autonomy are painted as rabid independence advocates. Support for Hong Kong independence is weak, but the bulk of Hong Kong’s people will strongly resist giving up the very autonomy promised by the Basic Law. That’s why the anti-democrats are so anxious to lie about autonomy defenders.

Layered on top of this mendacity is the determination to squeeze democrats out of the political system – by whatever means. Maybe this will be achieved by increasing reliance on the shiny new anti-riot vehicles to crush demonstrations and maybe the democrats will fall into the trap of always fighting the battle on the ground chosen by their opponents.

Against this background Demosisto is charting a new path – it is risky and difficult, and yet just may be the way ahead.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship