Occupy Central

Anti-Occupy march as much a product of political dysfunction as pro-democracy protests

Larry Au says understanding the contradictory motivation behind the increasing use of street protests in Hong Kong - whether pro-government or pro-democracy - will help to break the vicious cycle of escalation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 4:34am

There is much reason to be sceptical of the actual level of support enjoyed by the anti-Occupy Central group, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy. While the group claims that those who signed its petition and those who came out for the protest on Sunday surpassed the numbers who took part in Occupy Central's civil referendum and the July 1 march, its suspect practices cast shadows on the claims.

These include allegations of coercion by employers, lax standards for verifying identity and, most notably, the payment for participating in the protest, which has been widely documented by mainstream news outlets. Those ignorant of these facts are prone to misconstrue the stated numbers as demonstrating the will of the "silent majority" or "mainstream public opinion".

This is not the first time that pro-government protests have appeared and caused controversy. Since at least 2012, pro-government groups, such as Voice of Loving Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power, have increasingly relied on disruptive protests of their own to neutralise the opposition, most notably at university forums that feature pro-democracy speakers.

Yet it would be wrong to entirely dismiss the claims made by pro-government groups, as they are bound to have genuine supporters. In a rational society, their concerns are as valid as anyone else's and should be addressed openly.

A more productive approach in assessing their demands involves understanding how these oppositional campaigns arose out of the history of protest in the past decade and our distorted political system. Pro-government and pro-democracy movements are a product of the same contradictory forces: the tension between protest necessity and protest fatigue.

In short, protest necessity is the need to use protest to express public opinion in the hope of influencing policymaking in the absence of other channels. Underscoring this is the legitimacy and perceived effectiveness of street protest given by the July 1, 2003 demonstration. As participants in Sunday's march will tell you, no one willingly goes out of their way to protest, especially in the summer heat. They protest because they must.

On the other hand, protest fatigue is the increasing regularity of protest that desensitises us to their demands because of the normalisation of this form of political expression. According to the police, the number of public processions between 2003 and 2012 nearly doubled, from 1,099 to 1,930 registered cases a year. Given that this averages out to over five demonstrations per day, it is easy to see why some people are growing increasingly indifferent towards protest. After all, it is tiring seeing and hearing the same thing over and over again.

To further understand how the two forces operate, we must examine the differential effect on the two camps.

In the case of pro-democracy protests, necessity is the dominating force, as pan-democrats have been shut out of concrete political power, especially when the establishment controls both the legislative and executive arms of government. Without the extra-institutional power given to them by people showing up at their protests, they would have little influence on policy.

However, fatigue also plays a role, as activists realise that without changing their chants and strategies, they will be unable to capture the attention of the media and the public. These considerations gave rise to the advocacy of civil disobedience by Occupy Central, a tactic of last resort.

At a conference on Saturday organised by Cambridge students, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, one of the Occupy Central leaders, quipped that he was "one of the most conservative members of the pan-democratic camp" back in the day. To think then that he would one day lead "the most radical movement in Hong Kong's history" out of "desperation" would be "unthinkable".

In contrast, for pro-government protests, fatigue is the dominating force, as the main objective is to quash the actions of the pan-democrats. The language used by protesters, such as the desire to see "order" and "harmony" in society, is evidence of this. This is also why we see images of pro-democracy protests in the government's most recent advertisement for electoral reform, asking voters if they "wanna change?" In this case, the implied "change" is an end to what is seen as the obstructionism of the pan-democrats. But this does not acknowledge the reason they were protesting in the first place.

Here, necessity also plays a role, as pro-government organisations recognise the use of protest in representing public opinion. Why else would the Alliance for Peace and Democracy spend so much effort in copying tactics once employed by pro-democracy protesters and playing the numbers game?

Unfortunately, countering one protest with another only goes so far. The forces of necessity and fatigue will only perpetuate - if not worsen - the current state of affairs. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to rework the political structures that spawned this insanity.

This, of course, hinges on the results of the current round of political reform. If the government is truly concerned about the continued viability of our political institutions, it must ensure an equitable outcome that makes protests - whether pro-democracy or pro-government - no longer necessary. Imagine that: a government that listens to and reflects the will of the people.

Larry Au is a graduate student in sociology at the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford