How Hong Kong lost its will to protest, and why an author accuses government of using laws to crush dissent
From the 1966 riots to the 2014 ‘umbrella movement’, Hongkongers have hit the streets to air their grievances. But after authorities recently handed down harsh prison sentences and banned some protesters from politics, it seems the city no longer has the heart to demonstrate
Hong Kong has a proud reputation as a city of protest, but things are changing fast. The number of protests is down, attendances are diminishing, and young activists inspired by the 2014 “umbrella movement” say they have turned away from protest as a means of achieving political or social change.
“It’s hard to say if anything could get me back on the streets. I won’t say I have completely given up – I just feel frustrated and tired,” says Carmen Li Ka-man.
The third-year sociology undergraduate at Hong Kong Shue Yan University was eight years old when she first attended a protest with her parents and, like thousands of other locals, has participated in dozens since.
Among them was the “umbrella movement”, which began as the Occupy civil disobedience movement, sparked by a ruling in Beijing that was seen as restricting democratic development in Hong Kong. It became known as the umbrella movement after protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray.
Li was pepper sprayed in the face by police while taking video as a citizen reporter outside Government House at the July 1 pro-democracy rally in 2016, and afterwards lost faith in the value of protest.
“After 2016, I didn’t go to many demos. I just felt frustrated and thought it was useless. It was not about the pepper spray, it was because nothing was changing. I am less interested in politics and protest now,” she says.
Statistics suggest Li is not alone. This year saw the lowest turnout ever for the annual July 1 march, and police statistics for January to June 2018 reveal that the number of public processions (the police term for marches and demonstrations) has fallen to its lowest level in a decade. For the first six months of 2018, the average monthly number of processions was 85, compared with 100 in 2017 and the peak of 108 in 2016.
“The risk of protesting is no longer just being locked up in police cells overnight. It could mean a protracted court case, imprisonment, bankruptcy, a ruined career and restricted travel opportunities,” says Antony Dapiran, author of the 2017 book City of Protest: a Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, which charts the development of the city’s protest culture, beginning with riots in the 1960s sparked by a Star Ferry fare increase.
Hong Kong police say their tactics have not changed and they respect the public’s freedoms of expression, speech and assembly, but Dapiran says the protest environment has become “a lot darker”.
Protest is a physical manifestation of Hong Kong’s core values, he says, accusing the government of waging “law-fare” on protesters through the targeted use of laws to suppress dissent.
This campaign includes the legal proceedings to expel six democratically elected lawmakers on the grounds of improper oath taking, and harsh sentences handed out in August 2017 to young activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Alex Chow Yong-kang and Nathan Law Kwun-chung for storming a forecourt of the government complex (though these were subsequently quashed on appeal in February 2018).
In January this year, Agnes Chow Ting was disqualified from running in a Legislative Council by-election by a returning officer from the Electoral Affairs Commission on the grounds that her party, Demosisto, had called for “self-determination” for Hong Kong.
In June, Hong Kong Indigenous spokesman and independence advocate Edward Leung Tin-kei was sentenced to six years imprisonment for his part in the Mong Kok riots. The pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, meanwhile, has been given until September 4 to justify its existence or face being banned, based on a recommendation from the Hong Kong police.
The cumulative impact of “law-fare” is that since 2016, protest has been on the decline, is largely confined to single issues, and political dissent has gone underground.
“There is still protest about bus companies or banks, but political protests are diminishing,” says former Occupy protester and University of Hong Kong third-year undergraduate Nicole Yau Lee-man, who feels the government is trying to close doors on protest and dissent.
“That’s why the Hong Kong National Party is now being closed down,” she says, adding that after the umbrella movement she and her friends left the streets and instead turned to campaigning anonymously on social media in opposition to mainland Chinese parallel traders in the northern New Territories. She says some of her peers were still arrested.
“I don’t really do any protesting now. Maybe I see a Facebook site and put a ‘like’ but that’s about the limit of it now. It’s just an echo wall where you share views with like-minded people,” she says.
The sense of diminishing options is a common theme among Yau’s generation of protesters.
“After the disqualification of the Legco councillors, people realised that government could just stop you doing anything constructive and useful,” says filmmaker Nora Lam Tze-wing, who found herself immersed in the radical atmosphere around the umbrella movement as a student reporter. She later directed the critically acclaimed 2017 documentary Lost in the Fumes, tracing the personal and political fortunes of the imprisoned Leung.
“I think the fate of Edward Leung is a metaphor for what happened to passion and social consciousness in Hong Kong,” she says, adding that most of her contemporaries have turned their attention away from politics.
“For me and my peers, a lot of us have moved on,” she says, adding that if the government had been less intransigent in dealing with the umbrella movement, the current political landscape might look very different.
Many in the business sector resented the disruption caused by the umbrella movement, but Lam says it was only because the mass protest failed to achieve any significant political concessions that many protesters chose a more confrontational and violent localist strategy instead.
Some protesters calculated that the “peace and love” ethos embraced by the umbrella movement was the reason the government chose to ignore it. Others surmised that democracy could never be achieved in a single-party authoritarian state such as China. So logic dictated that the only way of achieving democracy was through independence – and the issue that rapidly became Hong Kong’s big political taboo.
It is what legal scholar and Occupy architect Benny Tai Yiu-ting refers to as the “change of mood after the umbrella movement”.
Dapiran says in his book that the Hong Kong authorities have consistently accommodated the demands of mass public demonstrations, and this has long been recognised as a legitimate part of the political process. Even the 1966 Star Ferry riots, the most severe street violence in post-war Hong Kong that was widely condemned at the time, brought about far-reaching social change, including the introduction of progressive employment legislation.
Similarly, mass protests in 2003 – a record turnout of half a million people – led to the shelving of the introduction of Article 23 internal security legislation and the resignation of security secretary Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. The July 2012 protests against the introduction of national education in schools forced a climb down by then Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who subsequently announced that the proposals would be optional.
The 2014 umbrella movement protest, however, was doubly unique. While Dapiran calls it the “zenith of political protest in Hong Kong”, in that it had a higher local and international profile than any other, it was probably the only mass protest in Hong Kong history to have failed.
It was this failure that ultimately resulted in the violent scenes at Mong Kok over the 2016 Lunar New Year holiday, stirred by a crackdown on illegal food hawkers that authorities previously turned a blind eye to. The night of violence offended mainstream Hong Kong’s instinctive respect for the rule of law, and gave government the opportunity to exploit that sentiment to suppress all meaningful political protest.
The tone of despair among former protesters may be music to the ears of the pro-Beijing establishment and business elites, but Dapiran issues a warning.
While Beijing dismisses Hong Kong’s culture of protest as an unfortunate hangover from the colonial era, which could be cured with a combination of patriotic education and robust internal security legislation, protesting fulfils a vital social purpose.
“The political system has become dysfunctional with no pluralistic channels, so my argument is that Hong Kong needs protest,” he says.
Tai warns that although fewer people are actively taking part in street demonstrations, the spirit of protest is still here.
“As the cause or source of protest has not been resolved, people may come out again to protest when a critical moment comes,” he says.
Despite their despondency, not all student protesters think it’s game over yet.
“I don’t think it’s all over, but if there is a next time it won’t be triggered by us – we have to wait for our opportunity,” says Lau.
Lam agrees that there may still be a new dawn for the city of protest. “Deep down, Hong Kong people are more resilient than some people think. Yes, most are pragmatic and care about money, but in extreme cases they will turn out and protest.”