The Chinese government moved forward last week on a controversial high-speed railway development with Hong Kong, a move that would extend Chinese jurisdiction onto the city’s territory. The announcement came amid increasing efforts by Beijing to assert Chinese authority in Hong Kong, in conjunction with the suppression of its pro-democracy movement. These efforts reached a crucial moment the previous week when four pro-democracy lawmakers were removed from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council by a Hong Kong court, posing a setback to the city’s political opposition to Beijing.
The legislators — Nathan Law, Lau Siu-lai, Edward Yiu and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung — were disqualified for inserting small acts of resistance into their oaths of office, such as shouting slogans demanding universal suffrage or pausing for several seconds after reading each word. Leung held a yellow umbrella during the procedure to symbolize the student-led Umbrella Movement — a 79-day mobilization in 2014, during which tens of thousands took to the streets, marching and camping out in tents to demand full democracy.
While the opposition in Hong Kong lost significant political power with this court decision — as it no longer has the ability to veto pro-Beijing legislation — China’s tightening of control in Hong Kong may actually signal renewed opportunity for resistance. Transforming such repression into action, however, will require unity among Hong Kong’s divided opposition, as well as a clear strategy moving forward. Despite their disagreement in terms of how to achieve democratic transition in Hong Kong, the various opposition groups nevertheless share many common aims and would benefit from dialogue.
The three main factions in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement — Progressive Liberals, Traditional Pan-Democrats, and the Pro-Independence or Localists — have been at odds since the Umbrella Movement rocked the city’s financial district three years ago. The movement was instigated by Beijing’s refusal to permit open nominations for the city’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections.
Cleavages between the three groups are not so deep as to preclude any cooperation and have more to do with how each faction envisions a theory for democratic change in Hong Kong. The traditional Pan-Democrats favor negotiation with Beijing and seek to gain influence by working through the system by gaining more power in the Legislative Council. This approach seems to hold less promise after the recent removal of the four legislators. The progressive liberals, on the other hand, favor street protests, direct action and social mobilization to pressure both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments for reform.
It is with the third and most radical faction, the Localists or pro-independence advocates, that a notable challenge arises for finding common ground. The Localists favor a more militant approach and have not publicly renounced violence in their aim for secession. This stands in opposition to what the other groups see as key to winning popular support and pressuring authorities for democratic change: maintaining nonviolent discipline. As such, the Localists have found themselves excluded from the leadership of the Umbrella Movement.
At the same time, however, the Localists’ position on China also leads to self-exclusion. In distancing themselves from Chinese affairs, the Localists refuse to take action on issues related to the promotion of democracy in China. They do not see it as Hong Kong’s concern. That is why the Localists did not join the July 16 vigil commemorating the life of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died as a political prisoner in Chinese custody. Liu’s death — and the expedited, government-controlled ceremony to scatter his ashes — brought thousands into the streets in Hong Kong, demanding justice and resistance to Chinese authority.
Despite these disagreements, the opposition movement is ideologically aligned on many key points, such as the need for free elections, local autonomy and greater political freedoms. Although the Localists have not openly renounced violence, there are indications that they could move in this direction. Should they do so, they will be engaged in dialogue rather than pushed to the sidelines.
China’s tightening grip on dissent, both in the inhumane detention of Xiaobo and the recent crackdown on the four Legislative Council members, has set the stage for a renewed wave of mobilization among the people of Hong Kong. The path forward will depend on coordination among the opposition. Leaders will need to incorporate potential allies, develop a shared vision based on points of agreement, and identify the institutions and actors propping up Chinese control in Hong Kong to more strategically shape a campaign for full democracy.
Three important points should be kept in mind as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement looks ahead to the future. First, opposition groups must work to draw in as many potential allies as possible. Opponents of Beijing’s authority should not confuse the Chinese government with its citizens. Pejorative names and slurs for Chinese people — like the term “insects,” which some demonstrators have used — undermine the movement and fail to recognize that the Chinese are also victims of their government’s repression. Chinese citizens could be an important source of support in the movement against repressive Chinese rule. By incorporating the young, energetic students from the Umbrella Movement who are angered by the legislators’ dismissal, and the older people in Hong Kong who turned out to march in Xiaobo’s memory, the movement can unify different generations behind a common cause. Democracy must not be seen as only the ends, but also the means, for lasting societal change.
As the pro-democracy movement grows its base of actors, the second point that needs to be considered is the development of a shared vision. Factions in the opposition movement have been attacking each other because they hold different theories of change for Hong Kong. It is important to develop a vision that does not scare away traditional pan-democrats who want stability, while also accounting for the pro-independence faction, which wants to focus on Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Important examples show how dialogue regarding ideological differences can create a degree of consensus, such as the Tunisian dialogue platform that brought secular and religious groups into cooperation. There exists potential for Hong Kong’s opposition to find common ground on issues like urban development, independent judiciary, regulations on financial markets and improving Hong Kong’s position in East Asia. This kind of cooperation is hindered by the proportional representation system in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, which pits groups against each other to compete for votes. A coalition within the social movement would thus provide an opportunity to build unity.
Finally, it is important for pro-democracy groups to better understand their opponent. Successful resistance efforts always target a variety of pillars, or institutions, upholding a regime. The strength of Hong Kong’s financial markets and its importance as a regional economic hub serve as leverage against Chinese authority. Civil society in Hong Kong can work to create shadow economic monitoring mechanisms that prevent corruption in Chinese investment. By focusing on areas where China is weakest, the pro-democracy opposition can team up with civil societies in foreign countries, exerting pressure on their governments to withdraw support for Chinese intervention in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs.
By uniting together around common issues and playing to Hong Kong’s strengths, the Umbrella Movement can enter a new phase of mobilization. Rather than seeing Beijing’s crackdown as a setback to the pro-democracy movement, it could instead be seen as a sign that China is growing increasingly worried about pro-democracy sentiment in Hong Kong. The recent events may be an opportunity for the movement to regroup, refocus and renew its struggle for democracy in the months and years to come.
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