What is next for Hong Kong’s protest movement?

The pro-democracy movement has scored another political victory, but can it continue resisting China’s encroachment?

Hong Kong protests
People protest outside police headquarters, demanding Hong Kong’s leaders to step down and withdraw an extradition bill, in Hong Kong on June 21, 2019 [Reuters/Tyrone Siu]

Standing in Harcourt Road – a thoroughfare dividing a high-end shopping and office district on one side from Hong Kong’s administrative centre on the other – on the morning of September 29, 2014, I was struck by the sense that something had changed in Hong Kong. I told myself the city would never be quite the same again.

There were people sleeping on the ground, the words “Democracy Now” spray-painted onto a road divider and discarded face-masks on the floor. The night before, police had fired 87 rounds of tear gas at unarmed protesters demanding free and fair elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive by universal suffrage and the release of students who had been arrested.

It was the heaviest use of force by police on protesters since Britain transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to China in 1997. But instead of dispersing, the crowds kept coming back. Thus began a 79-day occupation movement that surprised the world no less than Hongkongers themselves. They learned they were prepared to brave tear gas and police batons to fight for democracy.

But the occupation – known as the Umbrella Movement – ended with police clearing the three occupied sites and without winning any concessions on political reform.

This fuelled growing fissures and recriminations between moderates who favoured non-violent protest and leaned towards traditional pro-democratic parties and groupings, and those advocating a more muscular approach, meeting force with force. Politically, the latter were aligned with emerging “localist” groups which promoted a distinct Hong Kong identity entirely separate from China. Increasingly, they supported Hong Kong independence.

The fragmentation of the opposition weakened civil society’s response to increased repression from Beijing and the Hong Kong government after the Umbrella Movement. Six pro-democracy legislators were disqualified and kicked out of office; electoral candidates were barred for political reasons; activists were arrested and jailed; the government pushed through a scheme to cede Hong Kong territory to mainland jurisdiction at a new rail terminus; it banned a Hong Kong independence party and expelled a British journalist who hosted a luncheon speech given by that party’s leader.

Of course, there were protests but the numbers dwindled and fewer young people took part. The nascent localist and independence movements suffered a heavy blow from hefty prison sentences meted out to those who took part in clashes in the district of Mong Kok in 2016.

Thus until early June, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement had appeared in retreat.

A sense of fatigue and powerlessness had set in, which some observers mistook for people no longer caring. It was still there when I visited Hong Kong at the end of April. A month earlier a protest to oppose the extradition bill – which would allow the transfer of suspects and fugitives from Hong Kong to mainland China – only managed to draw 12,000 participants, according to the organisers. This despite the fact that pro-democracy groups, members of the business community, lawyers, journalists, foreign diplomats and chambers of commerce had all opposed it.

Several days before another march scheduled for April 28, I asked Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, how many he expected to turn up. “Around 30,000,” he replied.

Instead, organisers estimated some 130,000 people marched. It was a turning point. Opposition to the bill gathered steam and a flurry of online petitions initiated by a broad spectrum of groups and organisations, such as school alumni associations, religious groups, professional associations, homemakers, people with disabilities, mainland new immigrants and even manga creators appeared in quick succession.

As it turned out, over the past few years, it wasn’t so much that Hong Kong people didn’t care about their rights and freedoms any more as the fact that there hadn’t been an issue that could pull them out of their political lethargy.  

Many saw the legislation as an existential threat to Hong Kong’s survival as a special place with its own system and set of values, different from mainland China’s. The extradition bill would remove a firewall between two vastly different legal systems. Unlike the Umbrella Movement, this wasn’t about wanting something more but opposing having something taken away.

While society was highly polarised in 2014, it was now united. By June 9, it was no longer surprising that so many marched. Nor was it surprising that an even bigger crowd – estimated at just under two million – went forward with a June 16 march, although the Chief Executive Carrie Lam had announced her decision to suspend the bill the day before.  

Hong Kong’s democratic protest movement is back – bigger, stronger and in many ways smarter, having learned lessons from past failures. Gone are the tensions between protest leaders and participants because there were no leaders. Protesters are mobilised to take part in various acts of civil disobedience through encrypted messaging systems and online discussion boards.

Another striking feature of this wave of protest is that participants have so far largely managed to set aside the infighting and recriminations that plagued earlier protests. A much-shared post on the popular internet forum LIHKG stressed the government climb-down was only possible because of the complementary impact of the massive turnout of peaceful protesters and the more militant actions of a small group of protesters who were prepared to charge police barricades.

Many challenges still lie ahead, not least how to sustain momentum without losing public support. The longer civil disobedience actions continue, the harder it is to maintain the informal truce between moderates and radicals, to keep the broad church together. While before there was one single demand – withdraw of the extradition bill – protesters now also demand Lam’s resignation, the release of all those arrested in the protests, the removal of the “riot” label attached to the protests on the night of June 9 and on June 12 and an independent inquiry into police brutality – officers fired 150 rounds of tear gas, around 20 beanbags and an unspecified number of rubber bullets injuring 81 people, including many peaceful protesters and journalists.

As Professor Francis Lee, my former colleague and author of the book Media and Protest Logics in the Digital Age said in a post on social media, the movement has shifted from being a defensive one, protecting Hong Kong from the extradition bill, to an offensive one pursuing a list of demands. According to Lee, where it goes from here will be the real test of how far a decentralised, leaderless social movement can go and how much it can achieve.

We are in uncharted waters, pitting the collective wisdom of the crowds against an intransigent, out-of-touch Hong Kong leadership that ultimately takes its instructions from Beijing. President Xi Jinping is not one to give in to dissent.

But in 2019, the world is much warier of the global reach and ambitions of the Chinese party-state. Washington and Beijing are embroiled in a trade war and there is growing international awareness of China’s internment of more than a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs in Xinjiang, and its attempts to interfere in Taiwan’s thriving democracy.

The Hong Kong protesters are aware of this, too, urging supporters to keep up their actions at least until the G20 summit takes place in Japan later this month. They should try to ensure Hong Kong is viewed as a barometer through which the international community judges how China conducts itself, without becoming a pawn to be sacrificed in the Sino-American spat.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.