Need to Know

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am

A five-minute primer on an issue making headlines: the Queen's Pier hunger strikers

Three protesters used a five-day hunger strike to highlight their opposition to the planned demolition of Queen's Pier this week, before being removed from the site by police.

What was the point of the hunger strike?

As well as the additional publicity the hunger strike garnered, the idea was to shame the government into backing down and giving in to protesters' demands. Hunger strikes also supposedly add weight to grievances, giving magnitude to an issue as a cause to die for.

Did it work?

No, not in this case. The government still moved in, retook the pier, evicted the activists and plans to demolish it.

Do hunger strikes ever work? Many Hong Kong hunger strikes - those that last a preset number of days, sometimes just one, and where you see the strikers drinking soup and vitamin drinks - are obviously publicity stunts rather than a serious threat to starve to death to force the government's hand. But hunger strikes can work. Take Mahatma Gandhi who used periods of fasting as an effective political weapon.

Where did the idea originate that refusing to eat might lead to reforms?

It started in Ireland, where it was included as a legitimate action in law that laid down the circumstances in which it should be used. Those who considered they had been cheated, victimised or were owed money could stage a hunger strike outside a wrongdoer's home to shame them.

Where have hunger strikes led to reform?

Some credit hunger strikes by US suffragettes with securing votes for American women. While in prison, a group of suffragettes, inspired by the actions of their British counterparts years earlier, threatened to starve themselves to death unless they were given the vote. A public outcry over their force-feeding led president Woodrow Wilson to back amendments on suffrage. One of the best-known modern hunger strikes was by IRA prisoners in 1981. Ten died over seven months - the first and most famous was Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament during his strike - in a drive for IRA inmates to be treated as political prisoners instead of criminals. But [British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher refused to back down.

So people normally go on hunger strikes for serious issues?

Not always. Perhaps the best-known and most frivolous recent hunger strike was an American Idol fan who proclaimed she would not eat until a contestant with strange hair, Sanjaya Malakar, was voted off the show. His inclusion on the show outlasted her fast but he was voted off in the end.

Is hunger striking a popular mode of protest in Hong Kong?

You often see the '24-hour hunger strike' in the city where strikers, often politicians, go without food for a day. One of Hong Kong's most prominent hunger strikers is Father Franco Mella, who has launched an annual four-day strike to fight for the right of abode for mainland-born children. Asylum seekers and Falun Gong members frequently resort to hunger strikes.