Pro-democracy movement all but dead in Hong Kong. Here’s why.

Pro-democracy citizens are losing hope in the face of Beijing's tightening grip on the city.

By Kayla Wong | March 14, 2018

When Hong Kong was handed back to Beijing, some western commentators, perhaps with a healthy dose of optimism, thought that the city might impact mainland China ‘positively’, and bring about an internal political transformation that would see China beat India to be the world’s largest democracy one day.

But such notions couldn’t be further away from the truth.

In fact, it is the other way round — China is the one bringing about a larger, more everlasting change in Hong Kong, causing many young Hongkongers to feel a growing sense of hopelessness about their future in the city.

As China’s grip on the Special Administrative Region (SAR) tightens, hope for political reform is becoming slimmer by the day, and the “full democracy” which many Hongkongers campaigned for remains a lofty, but unattainable ideal.

Pro-democracy movement at its height

The height of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement was arguably Occupy Central — also known as the Umbrella Movement — which was a civil disobedience movement that consisted of a series of sit-in street protests.

The current electoral framework put in place by the central government effectively means that no democracy-leaning politician who’s unacceptable to Beijing will see any chance of being nominated as a candidate for Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

This means that although Hong Kong (1,200 eligible voters from various sectors) get to elect their leader, they can only do so from a pool of candidates that were approved by Beijing beforehand.

These Beijing-backed candidates are seen by protestors as doing Beijing’s bidding instead of representing the Hong Kong people, leading them to demand for “genuine” universal suffrage.

Some believe that the movement had to do with social inequality and diminishing opportunities to many Hongkongers too.

The movement was launched after a week of student protests, and made international headlines.

It lasted for almost 3 months from 26 Sept 2014.

Notably, the photograph of a masked man holding up his umbrellas in a gesture of defiance while standing in the midst of police-released tear gas became an iconic image that caught many people’s imagination.

According to organisers, more than 30,000 people turned up on the streets during the first day of the campaign.

That number increased to 50,000 as the movement escalated after the police use of tear gas against unarmed protesters.

Here’s a video of the protestors singing the song Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies by well-known Cantopop group Beyond (starts from 1:10):

The movement was forcibly disbanded by the police with no concessions granted by Hong Kong or Chinese authorities.

The movement put Hong Kong in the international spotlight, although Beijing will not buckle under foreign pressure in the face of its vital domestic interests, of which Hong Kong is one of them.

The gradual demise of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement

Since the end of the Umbrella Movement, a series of events such as the arrests and conviction of key activists, as well as the disappearance of local booksellers — perceived as increased meddling by Beijing in Hong Kong politics — saw the pro-democracy movement struggle to regain momentum.

The prison terms for the key activists also mean that they will not be allowed to stand in elections for five years.

Furthermore, the way the local police handled the protests left many residents disillusioned with the city’s rule of law, something they took pride in before as a distinct trait that sets it apart from mainland China.

In its most recent political defeat, the pan-democrats failed to win enough seats in a by-election to secure its veto power on Wednesday (Mar 12).

The defeat sets the pro-democracy camp back in their quest to fight against what they perceive as creeping interference from Beijing in Hong Kong’s politics. The by-election was to fill four of six vacant seats left empty after the courts disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers for failing to properly take their oath of office properly in 2016

The low voter turnout of 43% for last weekend’s elections is a sharp drop from the 58% for full legislative council polls 2 years ago, suggesting voter fatigue among the people.

Is democracy dead in Hong Kong now under China?

Here are some points that suggest it could be an eventuality.

  • Beijing’s heavy hand even before 2047

The One Country, Two Systems framework that guarantees Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” in all areas except its defence and foreign relations is set to end in 2047.

However, even before the framework ends, Beijing has not shied away from showing Hong Kong who’s boss, with President Xi Jinping warning that China will not tolerate any challenge to its authority.

As China gains in strength both economically and militarily, and becomes increasingly confident of its place in the world, it started to promote “One Country” over “Two systems”, emphasising the fact that Hong Kong is part of China, and clamping down on any dissent or perceived misbehaviour from the city.

The number of locals trying to emigrate to other parts of the world reached a 3-year high in 2017, with inquiries at immigration consulting firms surging right after major protests in the city, such as the national education protest in 2012, and the 2014 Occupy movement.

A local who plans to move to Canada within the next few years thinks that it’s a better environment to raise a child in, due to its “better air quality, larger homes and more relaxing school life”.

The change in political atmosphere in Hong Kong is also one of the reasons prompting him to leave:

“You could see Beijing is the boss and no matter who becomes the chief executive, he or she cannot implement policies that safeguard the interests of local people.”

  • Disunity within the movement itself

According to Quartz, some experts see the Occupy movement as the “beginning of the collapse” of their unity.

Disappointed with the results of Occupy, and coupled with Beijing’s growing interference in the city’s affairs, some Hongkongers chose to go down the more radical path of independence from China in order to break what they see as a “political stalemate”.

Unsurprisingly, not all agreed.

Reeling from heavy fragmentation, the movement has since faced growing difficulties in solidifying opposition voices.

More locals, tired of protest and conflict, are also withdrawing their support for the pro-democracy movement.

  • Hong Kong no longer as economically relevant to China as before

More than twenty years after Hong Kong’s handover to mainland China rule from British rule, it is no longer the only economic jewel under Chinese rule.

In fact, Shenzhen’s economic growth has surpassed that of Hong Kong’s in 2017.

As China opens its economy further and more investors doing business directly with the mainland, Hong Kong is starting to “lose its relevance as a gateway” to China from the rest of the world.

Although Hong Kong still holds certain advantages that other Chinese cities don’t have, it still has less of a bargaining chip now — if it had any in the first place — when it comes to dealing with the central government, making the city more susceptible to the latter’s demands.

And democracy is definitely not on China’s to-do list.


Top image by Kayla Wong

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About Kayla Wong

Kayla's dog runs her life.

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