Occupy Central must consider the next steps after street protest
Peter Kammerer says protest organisers need more than a few banners and a desire to vent their frustrations to bring about change
Public protests against the government are easy to organise. With an issue that gets people riled, a Facebook page, a mobile phone app, a Twitter account or two and a designated place and time, a crowd can quickly be gathered, ready to vent its anger. The numbers can be impressive and all involved can feel they're helping to bring about real change, especially if officials appear to take the demonstration seriously. A pity then, that most of the time, such means to sway opinion is a failure.
Hongkongers hold hundreds of protests each year, the majority involving a handful of people. The most prominent are the July 1 and Labour Day rallies and the June 4 Tiananmen Square remembrance in Victoria Park, each of which brings tens of thousands together to call for change. Despite the kilometres marched and all the chanting and singing, though, protesters have little to show for their effort. Of all the major anti-government protests, just one can claim to have achieved its goal.
That was the demonstration on July 1, 2003, against the Article 23 security law and the government of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Authorities were caught off guard by the unexpectedly high turnout of 500,000 and the legislation was withdrawn and later shelved. Within weeks, security secretary Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and finance secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung had resigned; Tung followed 20 months later. The dramatic response has been inspirational to every subsequent protest.
But grit and determination mean nothing to a government with an agenda. While eager to appease, it has yet to again completely bow to protesters. From high-speed-rail funding to waste incineration, there has been a willingness to listen and stall, but not to scrap. Demonstrations in September 2012 against plans for the compulsory teaching of national education prompted a withdrawal of the idea, although schools are still free to adopt the subject and numerous have.
Hong Kong is not special in this regard, though. While protests can lead to officials stepping down, their policies that were the basis for discontent are generally affected little. The Occupy Wall Street movement against wealth inequality took root in at least 2,600 cities and towns in 2011, and while the profile of the discussion was raised, no meaningful policy shifts have resulted. In democracies, voters can take their revenge at election time, but Hongkongers and people living in autocracies and dictatorships don't have that option.
This doesn't mean protests are worthless. Most allow participants to let off steam. But there is more to affecting change than getting together people with a common cause to voice disapproval. Behind the protest, there has to be a structured organisation well versed in lobbying lawmakers and civil servants and able to negotiate and press for demands long after the demonstrators have gone home. The strategy has to be well thought out. Think of a car: no matter how powerful its engine, it won't move without wheels.
I'm assuming that the Occupy Central movement is well aware of this as it heads into the most important stages of its push for universal suffrage.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the post