Four years on from failed Occupy protests, what next for Hong Kong’s deflated democracy movement?
Disillusioned by Beijing’s refusal to budge despite 79 days of street protests four years ago, campaigners for universal suffrage are frustrated, splintered, and some have been radicalised. With the heady optimism of 2014 a distant memory, which way forward for those still chasing ‘one man, one vote’?
Four years after tens of thousands of young people took to Hong Kong streets during the Occupy movement’s pro-democracy protests, the fierce calls for universal suffrage have all but died away.
Instead, the focus of attention has shifted more recently to calls for Hong Kong independence – a cause supported by only a few, yet controversial enough to draw the ire of Beijing.
On Monday, it led to the government taking the unprecedented step of banning the small Hong Kong National Party on the grounds that its calls for independence threatened national security and public order.
Many in the pro-democracy bloc appear to be still recovering from the failure of the Occupy protests to move Beijing, despite lasting 79 days and paralysing key areas in the city.
“We have exhausted practically every means to fight for democracy as we launched the civil disobedience movement in 2014,” said Occupy co-founder Dr Chan Kin-man, a sociologist at Chinese University.
He said the rise of pro-independence sentiment was a natural consequence of the Occupy protests.
“Some young people now no longer believe China will give the city democracy under the ‘one country, two systems’ model,” he said. “It is therefore only natural for those who do not want to give up on Hong Kong, to look for a new way out – even though fighting for Hong Kong independence will be more difficult than universal suffrage.”
Younger people also feel a stronger sense of being Hongkongers today than four years ago.
A survey by the University of Hong Kong found that in June this year, 70.9 per cent of those aged between 18 and 29 identified themselves as Hongkongers, 11.1 percentage points up from the end of 2014.
Only 2.9 per cent of young people said they called themselves Chinese, down from 6.5 per cent four years ago.
Occupy student leader Nathan Law Kwun-chung, ex-chairman of the youth-led party Demosisto, said he did not think the movement’s ideals had been sidelined, but conceded that many Hongkongers remained hurt and disappointed that the Occupy movement failed to achieve its goal.
Agreeing, Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan Siu-kin said democracy supporters had gone in opposite directions since Occupy, with some turning radical and calling for independence, while others dropped out of political activism in frustration.
He expected Hongkongers to realise eventually that the notion of independence was a dead-end proposition.
Rekindling efforts for political reform might be possible if the pro-democracy bloc worked hard to unite their supporters, he said.
But Chan, who specialises in social movements in China, was less optimistic.
He saw no hope for restarting political reform during Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s term, which ends in 2022 – or even over the coming decade.
“I just cannot see how the item could be put back on the table if Beijing carries on its hardline approach under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. We can only look further ahead and wait for political reform to happen in China,” he said.
He believed Lam was not someone who cared to convince Beijing to grant Hongkongers democracy. “She is only trying to please the public by tackling livelihood issues, and she will not bring trouble – political reform – upon herself,” he said.
What the pro-democracy camp needed now, he added, was to strengthen civil society, defend the further erosion of the city’s core values such as its freedoms and rule of law, and to actively participate in elections.
“Each election could be seen as a referendum and every victory could help sustain the spirit of the camp,” he said.
But Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, said political reform would not happen unless pan-democrats accepted the framework handed down by the national legislature four years ago.
That blueprint allowed Hongkongers to pick their city’s leader via the “one man, one vote” system, but only if they chose from a slate of two or three candidates approved by a 1,200-member nominating committee, likely to be dominated by Beijing loyalists.
The pan-democrats disagreed, saying the proposal did not meet international standards of democracy. They demanded democratic elections to choose the city’s chief executive last year, and Legislative Council members in 2020.
That was what led large numbers of young people to gather outside Hong Kong government headquarters four years ago on September 28, before the protests spilled into other areas over the weeks that followed.
“If pan-democrats insist on their old stance and attitude, there’s no room for further discussion,” Tam said.
But for Wan, the issue boiled down to the camp’s own unity in pushing for change. And only then “could we have the bargaining power to talk about it with strong public support ... And that’s better than focusing on the independence talk”.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei