Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s Occupy Central campaign has provoked heated discussions among the local community.
Supporters of the movement are confident the campaign will aid the struggle for universal suffrage, and even enhance civil society in Hong Kong and raise awareness of the rule of law. (In Tai’s words, rise from “needing to adhere to the law” to “achieving righteousness with the law”.)
Opponents, however, feel that the campaign undermines the rule of law and could even shake the economic and financial foundations of Hong Kong.
But how does the Hong Kong public assess the possible benefits and dangers of the campaign?
A telephone survey of 1,004 people conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University, from May 30 to June 5 this year, before the movement’s first deliberation day, may shed some light on the question.
Firstly, do Hong Kong people support the campaign? Nearly half of those surveyed said they did not support the campaign or were strongly opposed to it, while 77.5 per cent of people said they would not or probably would not take part in it. About a quarter said they supported or strongly supported the campaign, while only a 7.3 per cent said they would or probably would take part it in.
In general, the younger, the more educated, and the higher the household income of the respondent, the greater the proportion expressing support.
As well, a majority of people surveyed were pessimistic both about the campaign’s ability to forge consensus, and about its ability to get the central government to accept a universal suffrage plan put forward by the campaigners. Some 67.1 per cent said the campaign definitely would not or would not be able to come up with a plan for the election of the chief executive through universal suffrage with which the majority of Hong Kong people can agree, while only 7.9 per cent of them believed it would.
Similarly, an overwhelming 75.7 per cent of people said the campaign would not be able to get the central government to accept the campaigners’ plan, while only 3.7 per cent believed it would.
Related to this, nearly 60 per cent of people surveyed thought the campaign would have a negative effect on the city’s relations with the mainland, while 9.5 per cent said it would have a positive effect.
But on the question of whether the campaign could unite the city’s pro-democracy forces, opinion was more divided. Some 38.2 per cent of people believed it would not, while 31.9 per cent said it would.
The campaign’s planned act of civil disobedience – and the disruption it could cause – has also roused debate. It can be said that, although a comparatively large number of respondents felt that the campaign would undermine Hong Kong’s economic and business environment, they did not constitute more than half, while those who believed that the campaign would not do so, comprised over 30 per cent. Clearly, there are some definite divergences in the public’s views on this issue.
Similarly, although a relatively large number of respondents thought that the Occupy Central campaign would pose a threat to the rule of law in Hong Kong, more than 30 per cent held the opposite view, showing that people’s views on the matter are by no means uni-dimensional.
It is worth noting that although nearly 60 per cent of the respondents felt that the campaign would exacerbate social conflicts, and more than 20 per cent thought that it would not. And while 53.1 per cent of people believed that future democratic campaigns would become more radical if Occupy Central, with its advocacy of non-violence, were to fail, 11.4 per cent predicted they would not.
Precisely because Hong Kong people have quite diverse political stances and socio-economic backgrounds, and sometimes very different perceptions of social issues, adopting a direct, explosive kind of approach in an attempt to reach a consensus is obviously quite a departure from a culture emphasising negotiation and the avoidance of direct confrontation, which characterised Hong Kong society in the past.
Such an approach would also inevitably raise the concern in some people that it is easy to “misfire”, exacerbating the emotions of the opponents and resulting in a greater-than-anticipated adverse effect or impact. This is probably why the abovementioned majority of respondents gave a relatively low assessment of the positive effects of the campaign, but a relatively high assessment of its negative effects.
In the survey, those who indicated they would take part in the campaign or said they probably would or probably would not take part (38.5 per cent of all respondents) were further asked if they would act to block traffic in Central. Among them, 56.6 per cent said they would definitely or probably not participate, while 9.9 per cent said they would definitely or probably participate.
A rough projection based on these percentages alone suggests that there should be no difficultly attracting about 10,000 participants, the goal set by the campaign’s proponents.
But while many Hong Kong people said they would not take part in the campaign, a sizeable number of them also appeared to support others’ right to do so. When asked how the government should deal with a traffic block, more than 40 per cent of those surveyed felt that the scene should be cleared as soon as possible, while more than 30 per cent took the opposite view. It would appear that, on this issue, the SAR government is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Whatever their views of Occupy Central, the vast majority of people were aware of the campaign. However, contrary to recent commentary about the politicisation of Hong Kong youth, a significantly larger proportion of young people than older people said they had not heard of Occupy Central.
Judging from the findings, it seems that most of the respondents are very cautious, even though the proponents of the campaign repeatedly stress the idea of “occupying Central” through the “non-violent” approach of “love and peace”. This may imply that they are worried about the potentially huge risks that it poses to society.
It is not only the central and SAR governments that will have to seriously address this political problem; it is even more compelling for all sectors of the community to give the issue serious consideration.
And if the campaign really does develop to the point where 10,000 people block the main roads of Central, “paralysing Hong Kong’s political and economic centre”, based on the results of the survey, we can conclude that many Hong Kong people believe social conflicts would be exacerbated, while very high social risk might also be posed. Of course, the campaign might, in the end, raise Hong Kong people’s consciousness of civil society and the rule of law, but no clear or accurate predictions can be made at present.
Victor Zheng is the associate director of the Centre for Social and Political Development Studies, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Fanny M. Cheung is the pro-vice-chancellor of the Chinese University and director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, while Po-san Wan is a research officer at the institute