Occupy Central: Divided We Stand?

Ariel Li

Hong Kong’s Occupy Central campaign is part of a thirty-year struggle for democracy. As it enters it second week, activists have to confront not only police and violent thugs but internal dissent over the future direction of the protests.

photo credit: Jimmy Lau

Chan Kin-man, known as one of the three co-founders of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) campaign, would not have believed in late September that more than 100,000 people would join the pro-democracy movement now referred to by the foreign press as the Umbrella Revolution. When the Chinese government announced that candidates for the 2017 elections in Hong Kong would be vetted and approved by a nomination committee prior to the election, only 5000 people showed up at the first OCLP assembly to protest the decision on August 31. At the time, this was as much as anyone could have hoped for.

So how did such a small movement gain the momentum to become a headline news story the world over, from the USA to Abu Dhabi? And with such a spontaneous burst of growth, where is it heading?  While no one can help asking such questions, not even the leaders of OCLP are positive of the answers anymore.

To understand the upwelling of discontent (or at least the spark that started it), one has to recognize the particularities of Hong Kong politics. The current Chief Executive of the city, Leung Chun-ying, was not elected by popular vote but by 689 votes (out of 1200) from the Election Committee. The Committee is comprised of four sectors (divided mainly by industry) that send 300 representatives each.[1] While the number of registered voters in Hong Kong exceeds 3.5 million, less than 240,000 are eligible to elect Committee representatives. Moreover, voting is heavily skewed. For example, the 30 seats of the Education sub-sector are elected by all 81,831 teachers in Hong Kong, while the 60 representatives of the Agriculture and Fisheries sub-sector are elected by merely 4000 people who work in those industries. Worse still, in industries like Catering and Tourism, only company owners can be involved in the Election Committee. As a result, shell companies are set up to rig votes, and the Committee becomes overly inclined to serve business interests.[2] Given this non-representative and unequal Election Committee, Leung is widely nicknamed “689” in Hong Kong, ridiculing the fact that the head of a city with a population of over seven million was elected by only 689 people.

The low popularity of Leung poses a serious threat to his governance. It now seems that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would rather stand behind an ineffective administration than entertain the possibility of a popular election – which might well lead to a government that goes against the CCP’s line. But the recent decision about the 2017 election is especially pivotal: it links the current struggle to a 30-year quest for political reform.

The recent decision about the 2017 election is especially pivotal: it links the current struggle to a 30-year quest for political reform.

The quest began in the 1980s, when only two pro-democracy activists were represented in the 59-member Basic Law Committee, which drafted the city’s governing law when China took over from Great Britain in 1997. Technically, Hong Kong was set up as a multi-party system in which no one party has much of a chance of winning the majority of seats in legislature, and the many parties broadly divided into two camps: the pro-democracy camp and the pro-Beijing camp. However, the multilateral negotiations between Beijing, London, Hong Kong democrats, and the pro-establishment business sector produced a business-dominated regime even with this structure. In 2004, 15 years after relations between pro-democracy campaigners in Beijing and Hong Kong broke down in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, democrats gained popular support when half a million people marched against a national security law that many regarded as a threat to civil liberties in Hong Kong. In the 2007 and 2008 elections, democrats built strong alliances and requested universal suffrage from the Beijing government, but received a categorical denial. When the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Hong Kong SAR) proposed a mild political reform, it was vetoed by the democrats. Instead of tangible results, the struggle for political reform yielded only a promise from Beijing that universal suffrage would eventually be introduced in 2017.

Now, the Beijing government has spelled out the details of “universal suffrage”, and they are worse than even pessimists predicted. Under the plan, the Election Committee would pre-select up to three candidates for the election of the Chief Executive. The people of Hong Kong would then be allowed to vote for one of the approved candidates. To be approved, candidates will have to gain over half of the committee’s votes (compared to one eighth previously), which virtually ensures that any democratic candidates will be filtered out.

This is not the victory that pro-democracy activists had been looking forward to – and the responses may further deepen existing splits within Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp. Indeed, after 2008, Hong Kong democrats were beset by what scholar Ma Ngok has termed “transition fatigue”:[3] political stagnation dampens enthusiasm for change, and attempts to break through the stagnation by more radical factions of the democratic camp have led to divisions between radicals and moderates.

In 2009, discontented with the government’s proposals for the 2012 elections, the Civil Party (CP) and the League of Social Democrats (LSD) initiated a “de facto referendum”. They proposed that five pro-democracy legislators should simultaneously resign and re-run for their seats, thus forcing a by-election that could serve as a canvass for democratic ideas. However, this radical proposal was not supported by the Democratic Party (DP), which feared potential repercussions from Beijing. New hopes emerged the following year, when representatives from Beijing met with core members of the DP to discuss democratic reforms. It was the first time in 20 years that the central government had any official contact with Hong Kong democrats. In the meeting, the DP retreated from its original demand for full democracy in 2012 election and settled for a moderate reform plan. Despite the symbolic significance of the first effective negotiation between Beijing and the democrats, this “secret deal” marked the split between hard-liners and soft-liners of the pro-democracy camp. The split seems now impossible to mend as deep fault lines divide the pro-democracy camp.

And in this depressing political environment, leaders and activists of Occupy Central with Love and Peace became politicized themselves. Out of disillusionment, some (like Chan Kin-man) became active outside of Hong Kong in promoting effective governance, but others couldn’t help wondering how to bring those ideals back to Hong Kong. When Benny Tai, one of the current OCLP leaders, called on his old friend Chan in 2013 to be part of OCLP, Chan agreed without much hesitation: “I was so pessimistic that I felt compelled to take this step,” he explained.[4]

The threat of civil disobedience was the last resort of the people of Hong Kong. The goal was not occupation, but the establishment of real universal suffrage.

The name Occupy Central with Love and Peace is often misread. The adverbial modifier “with love and peace” seems rather verbose and is usually neglected. However, it was specially added into the campaign by Chan, who sought to emphasize that the movement originated from love for Hong Kong and will stay strictly non-violent. In the Manual of Disobedience, the philosophy of the OCLP campaign is spelled out: “Civil disobedience is to win over hatred with love … Occupy Central participants must strictly follow the principle of non-violence … Protesters should display a peaceful and rational attitude with dignity. They should keep reminding themselves to demonstrate virtues of higher standard than those of the suppressors, so as to gain the support of the society.” Indeed, OCLP is not a revolution. “I don’t believe it is necessary or possible for Hong Kong to step on the road of revolution,” Chan claimed in an open letter to his mother.[5]

Occupations were not the tactic of choice (OCLP’s primary focus since 2013 was on promoting universal suffrage. “Occupy Central”, the actual campaign of protest and civil disobedience, was born in late September 2014). For the past 17 months – before the Standing Committee made its final decision regarding the 2017 elections – the focus was on pragmatic negotiations between Hong Kong democrats and Beijing. The threat of civil disobedience was the last resort of the people of Hong Kong to get the government in Beijing to reconsider its decision. The goal was not occupation, but the establishment of real universal suffrage in line with international standards, yet acceptable to the CCP.

The founders of OCLP initially sought to bridge the ruptures within the pro-democracy camp by rallying around the 2017 election – a topic that seemed suitable for consensual and feasible reforms until recently. The plan was simple, but extensive: through group discussions on three so-called Deliberation Days, citizens of Hong Kong could develop different possible election schemes and select their favorites. The three schemes that garnered the most votes among OCLP participants would be presented to a public forum for a non-binding referendum. The winning scheme would then form the basis for negotiations between Hong Kong democrats and Beijing. Once their hopes for Hong Kong democracy were presented to the CCP, counter-offers from the government in Beijing would then have been voted on by the general public. If the majority had voted against the offer, OCLP would have held an internal vote to decide on civil disobedience and occupation.

The last two round of votes never actually took place. In the eyes of Hong Kong’s democrats, Beijing took a determined step backwards with its unilateral decision disallowing a popular vote. Many have confessed to feeling “cheated” by Beijing’s proposals, which they do not see as living up to the capital’s promises for universal suffrage. This has incited reactions from even softer-line democrats who might previously have had reservations about the radical proposal of Popular Nomination. The internal strife among the pro-democracy camp during deliberation and authorization period was suddenly swept under the rug, and all stood out to protest against Beijing’s renege.[6]

Shortly after OCLP announced the decision to resort to civil disobedience – activists began shaving their heads and marched with black curtains – student organizations pushed more radical tactics. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) announced a week-long boycott of classes, which was supported by more than 10,000 university students. Many went to Tamar Park, a public park adjacent to the Central Government Offices, the Legco Complex, and the Chief Executive’s Office to participate in teach-ins on civic issues. On Sep. 26, Friday, more than one thousand high-school students joined the boycott. They were organized by Scholarism, a pro-democracy group led by student activists. The five-day boycott remained peaceful.

On September 26, many students and citizens were about to leave when Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old convener of Scholarism, led a group of students into Civic Square, an area in front of the offices of the Central Government. It had previously been open to the public but was recently enclosed by high fences. More than one hundred students marched into the square, chanting “reclaim the Civic Square”. Wong was immediately arrested, and others were surrounded by police. This sudden turn of events only galvanized student protesters: they gathered behind the fences to demand the students’ release from police custody. The police attempted to disperse the crowd by shooting pepper spray, but thousands of students and citizens stayed outside the square that night, chanting “Release the students!” “The students are innocent!” “Shame on the police!”. They used their umbrellas to resist the pepper spray.

OCLP leaders arrived at the protest site outside Civic Square the following morning to support the students. They initially sought to stick to their own schedule and launch an occupation on October 1st, but the trajectory of events soon became unpredictable.

When the students trapped on Civic Square were taken away by police on the morning of September 27, tens of thousands of people poured onto the street to support them. Supply stations and first aid stations were set up. One street and two open areas outside the offices of the Central Government were occupied, and protesters declared their determination to stay until the students were released. The pressure soon grew for OCLP leaders to make an announcement – some accused them of “hiding behind the students” and demanded action. Thus, on September 28, Benny Tai and other activists met with student leaders and announced the launch of their civil disobedience campaign – better known now as Occupy Central.

That night, many students and citizens left the area. They initially refused to be a part of the Occupy Central Campaign: Some felt an affiliation only with the arrested students and were outraged that their compassion for the students were “hijacked” by politicians. This division could have strangled the whole movement – by the afternoon of September 29, there were only thousands of people still on the street. However, the police decided to clear the site, closing all entrances of the protesting area, allowing only those who wished to leave to pass the police lines, and holding up threatening posters. OCLP and HKFS urgently called on citizens to back them up. Within 2 hours, huge crowds flushed onto every major road surrounding the enclosed area and counter-encircled the police. At dusk, the major driveway of Admiralty (one of Hong Kong’s major business centers) was completely occupied by protesters. The protests soon spread to nearby districts, Central and Causeway Bay. Although protesters remained peaceful, the police started to cast tear gas into the crowds. This was the first time in over half a century that police had used tear gas against the citizens of Hong Kong. Starting around 6 p.m. on September 29, the police fired a total of 87 tear gas canisters in nine different locations. But contrary to their intention to drive away the protesters, hundreds of thousands of citizens marched onto the streets, furious at the abuse of police power. The protests spread from the three districts on Hong Kong Island to Mong Kok in nearby Kowloon. Two days later, major driveways in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon and Sheung Shui, New Territories were also blocked by thousands of protesters.[7]

Since the release of tear gas, the situation has spun out of control not only for the Hong Kong government but also for the original leaders of this movement. None of them could have ever imagined that over a hundred thousand citizens would occupy multiple discrete business centers – yet it happened, and the occupation is spreading to other relatively remote districts.  Hong Kong people have always been deemed pragmatic and interest-driven, and the ideal of democracy was hardly a consensus in the whole population – many feared potential repercussions on social stability and economic development. That’s why Chan re-emphasized “civic awakening” rather than revolution: “As long as Hong Kong people do not give up faith in democracy, OCLP has fulfilled its purpose.”[8] Does the past week of hundreds of thousands of citizens braving heat and storm in pursuit for real universal suffrage mark the awakening of the public? If not, we could at least safely assert that the autonomy and self-organization of the protesters indicates a new era in Hong Kong’s democratization movement.

The majority of protesters were not mobilized by any group, be it OCLP, HKFS or Scholarism, let alone the pro-democratic parties. They marched onto the streets with different motives and appeals – many are angry about the violence police used, some demand a more effective government with more concern for livelihood issues, and some are just touched by the actions of fellow citizens and wish to extend their support. It was described by some observers as a pent-up fever that suddenly burst out. The common denominator seems to be the demand for the resignation of Chief Executive Leung, the “689” politician, who ordered police to disperse the crowds, as well as a more vague appeal to the government to listen to citizens’ concerns. But the consensus on what real universal suffrage will entail remains minimal: the younger people’s organization, HKFS and Scholarism, are still not compromising on popular nomination; OCLP, on the other hand, only requests reopening constitutional reform. Others pursue a more pragmatic agenda and merely seek amendments to Beijing’s plan for the 2017 elections.[9] Many explicitly refuse to be represented by any group and believe in the strength of spontaneity of normal citizens, applauding the fact that each individual can bring their own concerns to the protests – which makes the direction of this movement rather unpredictable.

The remarkable civility of the crowd, as well as the concrete techniques and tactics it has adopted, speak to a grassroots political wisdom that has been acquired through practice.

However, the crowd cannot possibly be viewed as an irrational mob. The remarkable civility of the crowd, as well as the concrete techniques and tactics it has adopted, speak to a grassroots political wisdom that has been acquired through practice. The organizing power of online social networks is particularly remarkable: When organizers asked for “discipline as firm as iron” from participants[10] – who were asked to abstain from using loudspeakers and from struggling with the police when being arrested –, protesters found such guidelines too rigid and unpractical. Instead, many choose to evaluate the situation based on timely information from Facebook and Whatsapp. They discuss strategies in small groups and disseminate their opinions on the internet. When an emergency happens, there are virtually no information monopolies: Every participant is on the same page. When the Causeway Bay occupation area lacked participants, for example, people pleaded on Facebook for the relocation of protesters and support from more citizens. When someone finds a particular block lacking particular supplies, such as masks or biscuits, a post on Facebook allows a nearby area with abundant supplies to transfer theirs for support. The new method is even more effective than the traditional top-down coordination, and this enables a wider scale “guerrilla warfare” type of movement.

The movement is heavily mediatized. Many protesters have smartphone with high resolution cameras and can record photos, voice recordings, and short videos. Some of the most compelling photos are taken by participants rather than professionals: A photo that showed protesters with their arms raised over the heads against masked and armed police sparked a surge in turnout. The voice of a young girl surrounded by police in Civic Square calling for help is more heartrending than any news report; and videos of protesters orderly making way for an ambulance clearly fights back against government accusations that the occupy movement paralyzes emergency vehicles. Facebook groups were set up specifically for the purpose of verifying information and dispelling government accusations. With hundreds of thousands of first-hand witnesses equipped with new media, the movement managed to self-organize a mechanism of counter-framing against the government with even more efficiency and credibility than traditionally organized movements. The fact that these acts are completely spontaneous is impressive.

These two new techniques are still serving the movement as I write. Since Friday, October 4, groups of individuals that look like gangsters have showed up in many occupied areas, violently damaged protesters’ equipment and supplies, and even physically assaulted or sexually harassed the protesters. The police seemed to side with them, only passively responding to protesters’ call for help. The information kept being updated online, motivating more citizens to come and support the movement. It has been more than a week since the start of the occupation, and participation is hardly decreasing. However, without means to consolidate consensus on core decisions, many fear that the fervent movement will soon be worn down by internal friction. Monday marks the start of the first full week since the beginning of the occupation (October 1st and 2nd were public holidays in Hong Kong), and ordinary citizens will need to go to work, leaving only the students and the more radical to keep up the occupation. Their numbers are diminishing. Also, the impacted citizens, especially private shop owners in Mong Kok streets, are already irritated with disrupted business, and protesters retreated to allow workers to reach their offices and shops. How far can the occupation go? Will this decentralized pro-democracy movement achieve more than the past 30 years of democratization struggles, or will it lead to unpredicted social instability and a deeper rupture among the democrats? All will have to wait and see.


Ariel Li is a master student in sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. After moving from Northeastern China to study in Hong Kong, she became involved in civil society activism in her later years of college. Having shaved her head recently in support of OCLP, she is feeling cool and invites you to reflect upon HK pro-democracy movements.


References and Footnotes

  1. Cap. 569. Chief Executive Election Ordinance
  2. Leung, Kai-chi Q&A. http://on.fb.me/1nWt5fg
  3. Ma, Ngok. 2011. Hong Kong’s Democrats Divide. Journal of Democracy 22 (1). p. 58
  4. Tan, Wai-wan. Chan Kin-man: I was pessimistic, so I have to take this step. Ming Pao, Mar.10, 2013. http://www.ol.mingpao.com/cfm/style5.cfm?File=20130310/sta36/uzc1.txt
  5. Chan, Kin-man. Mom: I’m not radical, I’m just firm. Ming Pao, May 11, 2014.
  6. The focus of disagreement lay in the controversial proposal of Popular Nomination advocated by groups like the Alliance for True Democracy and Scholarism. Many feared that the unconstitutional nature would lead to a tough response from Beijing, The pro-democracy Hong Kong Bar Association, for example, publicly disapproved of the proposal.
  7. For an account of the 72 hours of the occupying movement, see Zhang Jieping. http://bit.ly/1vFYqle
  8. Facebook post. Chan Kin-man, Sep. 15 11:44.
  9. For example, reformers demand that if more than 30% of voters cast blank vote, the decision of the Nomination Committee will be invalid and they would have to start a new round of nomination.
  10. OCLP Facebook. http://on.fb.me/1vEtmlr