Hong Kong, once renowned as an apolitical and orderly British entrepôt, is now seething with political discontent, student unrest, and pro-democracy protests. Nothing less than the future of “one country, two systems”—the framework through which China agreed to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy for fifty years in exchange for British agreement to restore Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997 after more than a century of British administration—is at stake.
In February 2019, Hong Kong’s government proposed a bill to permit extradition requests from mainland China and Macau for criminal suspects. Opponents expressed long-standing fears that Hong Kong residents could not get a fair trial on the mainland, and criticized the government’s refusal to add fair trial provisions to the bill. In response, the Civil Rights Front organized protests to block the bill’s passage by the Legislative Council (LegCo), which involved upward of 2 million people by June 2019. Although on October 23 the government followed through on Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s promise from September to withdraw the extradition bill, opposition leaders said the concession was “too little, too late.” If anything, the protests only intensified.
Police recently warned that the rule of law in Hong Kong is on the “brink of collapse” after a series of increasingly violent student-police clashes. On November 8, Chow Tsz-lok became the first student to die in the protests. Police have shot more than one protester, and some protesters are fighting back; some even set one pro-Beijing man on fire. Recently, the University of Hong Kong cancelled classes for the rest of the semester due to safety concerns. This article puts the current unrest in Hong Kong in context by addressing three questions and identifying three factors that data on civil resistance suggest would boost prospects for success of Hong Kong’s protests: nonviolent discipline, diverse participation, and security force defections.
1. What do the protesters want?
In a nutshell, autonomy and democracy. Although the initial demand for the extradition bill’s withdrawal was met, four other demands remain: for protests not to be called riots; amnesty for arrested protesters; an independent investigation of police brutality; and complete universal suffrage to make the government accountable to Hongkongers rather than to Beijing. Some also demand the resignation of Carrie Lam, whom critics see as Beijing’s puppet.
The latter demands are political and “maximalist” insofar as they imply constitutional reform (how leaders are selected) and regime change (who should rule). Protesters want direct democracy, not a “liberal oligarchy.” Under the current system, Beijing has final authority to interpret the Basic Law, controls the composition of the 1,200-member Election Committee who indirectly elects the Chief Executive, and reserves half of the seats in the LegCo for functional constituencies so that only half of the seats are directly elected by geographical constituencies.
The current unrest represents the third wave of mass protest by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement since the handover to China. On July 1, 2003, over half a million people protested proposed national security legislation, ultimately succeeding in getting that legislation tabled. In 2014, the Umbrella movement and Occupy Central protested for universal suffrage. Today, roughly half of Hongkongers are dissatisfied with the pace of democratic development in Hong Kong. In a July 2019 poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI), participants in the anti-extradition bill protests claimed that the lack of universal suffrage, Beijing’s intervention, and “institutional violence” (e.g. barring certain election candidates from office) were “important” or “very important” causes of the present predicament.
Although the protests do reflect fears about Hong Kong’s “mainlandization,” the pro-democracy movement is not secessionist. Most protesters want autonomy, not independence. According to an October 2019 HKPORI poll, only 11 percent of residents favor independence for Hong Kong, while 83 percent oppose it. Even among eighteen to twenty-nine year-olds—the most “nativist” demographic in Hong Kong—only a quarter of respondents favor independence.
2. Who participates and supports the pro-democracy protests?
Amazingly, over 40 percent of respondents in the July 2019 HKPORI poll reported participating in the protests. By all accounts, Hong Kong’s youth and college-educated populations—who tend to identify more as Hong Kongese citizens than Chinese citizens—have been the most active group in the protests. For example, 60 percent of the 287 people arrested in Hong Kong on November 11 were university students. In August 2019 focus groups, HKPORI found that Hong Kong’s youth had “lost faith in the system” and were pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future.
Pro-democracy parties—such as the Democratic Party and Civic Party—support the protests’ goals and hope to benefit from them, but the political parties are not in the driver’s seat. The protests have also sought external support for their cause with mixed success. Recently, the U.S. Congress nearly unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. President Trump signed the bill into law on November 27.
3. What are three major factors that will affect the protests’ chances of strategic success?
First, can the protesters maintain nonviolent discipline? My own data on major nonviolent and violent campaigns and outcomes largely vindicates the key finding of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works: non-violence works better than violence. From 1946 to 2013, primarily nonviolent resistance campaigns with territorial goals succeeded 37 percent of the time, whereas violent territorial insurgencies succeeded only 22 percent of the time. As Victoria Tin-Bor Hui notes, protester violence may undermine the ability to gain U.S. support, and can backfire by allowing the government to justify more repression. As late as mid-October, Chinese University of Hong Kong surveys showed that only about 40 percent of respondents said protesters used excessive violence. Until now, most people have seen the police as being far more violent than protesters. If that changes, it bodes ill for the movement’s success.
Second, can the protests sustain large, diverse participation? Protest size is a key determinant of success of nonviolent resistance. To the extent that Hong Kong is only a drop in the bucket of the entire Chinese population, any movement on Hong Kong faces an uphill battle to create leverage in Beijing. Yet, as a signal of movement strength, it is important for students to gain allies across the spectrum of Hong Kong society, from political parties to labor groups. The huge two-million-person rally that took place in mid-June involved participants from all walks of life; this is the kind of march that can coerce a chief executive to resign. The latest campus clashes are not. Protesters may be able to build on a deep-wellspring of public dissatisfaction with government performance in Hong Kong, which has hit all-time lows as of the latest public opinion polls.
Third, can the protestors generate defections among elites and security forces? My data suggest that security force defections are the single most important determinant of success of nonviolent territorial resistance campaigns, more than doubling the odds of success from 30 percent to 67 percent. To date, however, I have not come across any reports of such defections in Hong Kong. If protester violence rises, the movement will be less likely to win over defectors to their side.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law expires in 2047, but the protesters in Hong Kong are done waiting for political reform. They are trying to force a new social contract now. Whether or not others will support their cause, and whether they will succeed overall, remains to be seen.
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John J. Chin is a post-doctoral fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University in Politics, an M.P.P. from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame in Political Science and Chinese. His research focuses on the politics of coups, civil resistance, and democratization.