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Suzanne Sataline: What Happened to Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement?

Sit In Protest Continues In Hong Kong Despite Chief Executive's Calls To Withdraw

Still riven over strategy, tactics, and core values, many now consider the 2014 protests a failure

HONG KONG – Suzanne Sataline writes: The activists from last year’s massive democracy occupation have splintered. Nowhere is this clearer than on college campuses represented by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the architects of the fall 2014 pro-democracy protests that roiled the Chinese territory. Students at three local universities have voted to quit the league of university students; more vote drives are underway. Critics, some swayed by rising nativist anger, say student leaders’ insistence on passive resistance at the height of the protests doomed the push for open elections for the city’s chief executive, instead of a slate of candidates pre-vetted by Beijing. As the wounded student group tries to shore up its membership, its allies worry that the loss of a united student front will push the already anemic pro-democracy camp closer to irrelevance.

“Today, many participants from last year’s occupation consider the movement a failure. After all, the strike did not achieve its stated goals of toppling the chief executive, C.Y. Leung, or jettisoning the election system in which 1,600 business and trade groups chose him. In fact, the campaign won no material concessions.”

Since February, students at three local universities have voted to leave the federation; balloting at another campus is underway and more drives are expected. The results could re-shape the future of the Hong Kong protest movement, just as the city’s government is debating a new elections law. It would, for the first time, let citizens cast ballots for the chief executive, albeit only among candidates that pass muster with Beijing.

People listened to talks between student leaders and senior government officials as they were broadcast live at a protest site in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, Oct. 21, 2014. PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

People listened to talks between student leaders and senior government officials as they were broadcast live at a protest site in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, Oct. 21, 2014. PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The division among democracy protesters began shortly after police fired teargas at demonstrators in September 2014, during discussions under the tarpaulins shielding protest camps from the rain. Many protesters blamed the federation for being opaque, passive, and shackled to the city’s old guard liberals – the so-called pan-democrats. Some in the sit-in chided the federation’s leaders for taking no action when the government refused to negotiate, and for the student leaders’ “greater-China bias,” a focus on bringing democracy to the nation, rather than addressing Hong Kong concerns.

[Read the full text here, at Foreign Policy]

Today, many participants from last year’s occupation consider the movement a failure. After all, the strike did not achieve its stated goals of toppling the chief executive, C.Y. Leung, or jettisoning the election system in which 1,600 business and trade groups chose him. In fact, the campaign won no material concessions. The federation had kicked off the protest with a week-long class boycott, and has become an easy target for those disappointed. “Students felt betrayed by the federation,” said Leonard Sheung-fung Tang, a political science student leading the campaign to end federation ties at City University. The federation has lost the trust of students, and if it urged people to stand up to the police again, Tang said, most students wouldn’t listen.

A pro-democracy protester sits on a barricade at a protest site in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong on October 26, 2014. Four weeks after tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets demanding free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city, weary demonstrators remain encamped across several major roads.   AFP PHOTO / Philippe LopezPHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

A pro-democracy protester sits on a barricade at a protest site in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong on October 26, 2014. Four weeks after tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets demanding free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city, weary demonstrators remain encamped across several major roads. AFP PHOTO / Philippe LopezPHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Throughout the protest, student federation leaders preached non-violence even as they faced withering criticism for that tactic – especially online and on social media — as a more radical faction grew in prominence, if not number. Months after police cleared the democracy encampments, several veterans of the occupation urged people to join rallies to protect Hong Kong against a mainland incursion. Hundreds of angry people attacked mainland visitors and confronted police. 

Those rallies marked some success; the government in Shenzhen, the mainland city closes to Hong Kong, changed a visa policy that will limit its residents to one Hong Kong visit per week. The protesters who had decried student leaders for being weak crowed online. Government opponents, they said, would need to act more like Malcolm X, and less like Martin Luther King Jr.

Violence, as a tool to creating democracy, isn’t the right tactic, said Alex Chow, the federation’s general secretary. He told Foreign Policy that many students, anxious about the future, were unfairly punishing the federation for perceived weakness. “It is unrealistic to think people could win such a giant change through a single tiny movement,” said Chow, who will graduate soon from the University of Hong Kong. A fractured federation, he said…(read more)

Foreign Policy

Drake Leung contributed reporting.

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