Firsthand Account of the Hong Kong Protests: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Civil Democracy

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Occupy Hong Kong

The protests for civil nomination that started on September 22nd in Hong Kong have riveted the world, but perhaps less so for the dramatic footage of black-clad riot police firing canister after canister of tear gas into dense crowds of peaceful protesters who were armed only with umbrellas, plastic wrap, and cloth face masks in anticipation of the pepper spray that had been used the day before. Strangely enough, it has been the ensuing scenes of calm, order, and cleanliness—bordering on boredom, even—that have gotten the most international attention.

On September 28th, even as I was choking down the tear gas, it was not difficult to see how oddly calm all the protesters were. For six hours, we engaged in what I now like to call the Protest Triathlon: back away, wash off tear gas, retrench—and repeat. In between 87 rounds of coughing, tears, burning skin, and panic, I witnessed spontaneous order emerge in the midst of the fumes: People delivered supplies, collected discarded water bottles and tissues in an effort to keep the area clean, and set up a first aid station. We wandered the crowd distributing plastic wrap and paper masks. As the tear gas attacks continued, and even I found a riot shield pressed against my face, the furious crowd yelled “shame” but never threatened the police; the simultaneous sense of composure seemed surreal.

At this point, the endgame in the Hong Kong protests and street occupations is still unclear. Things heated up with organized physical attacks by counter-groups, many with suspected triad connections, while police have largely stood by despite their earlier eagerness to use force against students. Negotiations between the government and the student protest groups have stalled as of October 10th. It is highly likely that the protesters will fail in their bid for universal suffrage in 2017.

Regardless of the short-term outcome, how the protesters have comported themselves in what is being called Occupy Central, the Umbrella Movement, or the student protests has put lie to the pervasive and pernicious rhetoric in Asia that Hong Kong, and other peoples, are not ready for democracy. A common refrain is that democracy, either too soon or at all, will only lead to chaos and economic ruin, as demonstrated by many other practicing democracies such as Brazil, India, or the United States. This is the main argument for withholding genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, and yet, the protesters are exercising self-governance, concern for others, and incredible self-discipline that evidence deep political maturity. They are clearly not just students looking for an excuse to not go to school.

More than that, the protesters are showing that a different brand of democratic discourse is possible. Although democratic politics are inherently competitive, many in the West are bemoaning the lack of civility and the unwillingness to compromise in their own democratic political systems, as well as the disorder and violence of their protests, which can bring their political systems to grinding halts. But with these protests, the population of Hong Kong is showing the “more mature” Western democracies how it can be done—most importantly that more civility not only confers more moral legitimacy, but it is possible to be civil without sacrificing one’s voice, and it can actually enhance that voice.

What kind of protesters gather in the tens of thousands for going on two weeks and do not loot so much as a single bottle of water and gather their trash in between rounds of tear gas? Even in 32°C temperatures, stifling humidity, and extended periods of boredom, all of which can easily cause tempers to flare, nearly everyone is well behaved. Reports have flooded in about students doing their homework at the protests, and enormous outpouring of voluntarism from the masses donating their time, money, and resources (even haircuts), and it is probably the cleanest protest in the world. People regularly clean the streets, and they do not just throw out the trash—they also sort the recycling, sometimes even separating the bottle caps from their plastic bottles. There are even designated smoking areas.

Despite their deep sense of betrayal by the police, protesters have offered police officers food, water, and cooling pads. Students have washed away the rare graffiti that says “F*** the police” and have held their own umbrellas over police officers in downpours, across barricades, leaving themselves covered only by thin ponchos and mostly exposed to the rain. Spontaneous, handwritten notes cover stranded buses, walls, and barricades, apologizing to everyone else for the inconvenience caused by the occupation.

The protesters govern and police themselves in more sophisticated ways as well. They’ve open mics, with people taking turns making speeches on topics ranging from civil disobedience to mobile phone security against spyware; some areas set two-minute time limits. Recognizing the growing numbers at the protest sites, one of the student groups established more volunteer patrols working regular shifts to look after public safety, control the crowds but “not in a commanding way,” defuse any conflicts with anti-protesters, and guide emergency vehicles. Organizers send messages reminding people that this is not a “carnival,” but rather a serious protest; they urge self-restraint against police and public provocation, constantly reiterating that people must control themselves and continue to adhere to the principle of nonviolence.

They restrained fellow protesters from disrupting the National Day flag raising ceremony (October 1st), from attacking police openly carrying rubber bullets and tear gas into their cordons, and from shutting down one of the major roads between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Even when enduring organized physical and sexual assaults in Mong Kok on 3 and 4 October, the people remained calm, despite the physical dangers to themselves. In one incident, when protesters screamed at a volunteer marshal, “You’re just protecting the people who tear-gassed us!”, he countered that he was not protecting the police but rather protecting the movement.

Their political wisdom has been evident throughout these two weeks, as has been their political engagement. People of all ages, including the elderly, and from all socio-economic statuses have joined the protests and taken their fair share of pepper spray and tear gas. They hold serious political discussions in the sometimes more festive atmosphere—about universal suffrage, democracy, representation, Hong Kong’s relationship with China, international economics, etc.—and manage their intense disagreements on these issues. The list of things that make the nature of these protests so special and admirable can go on and on. All over the world, those who have seen the protests either first-hand or in images have commented that if these protests happened in their city, it would be madness—chaos, widespread looting, violence against the police and sometimes each other—and there is plenty of historical evidence to that effect.

So what is happening in Hong Kong is all the more surprising because most of the protesters will privately admit that they are unlikely to succeed in changing the Chinese Communist Party’s election plan for 2017. That kind of hopelessness against an authoritarian regime would understandably drive a young person toward a higher risk, “go for broke” strategy, and would be much easier to respond to violence in kind than with non-resistance, but they still restrain themselves.

So what does it reveal? The protesters’ behavior is not just a novelty to be marveled at—although it certainly deserves that—and it is not just another example of Asians obeying the rules. The Hong Kong protesters are demonstrating all the traits you would want and need in a population for a mature, functioning democracy. The most obvious characteristic we see in protesters all over the world, here included, is willingness to resist tyranny. What is usually missing, however, is obedience. These are necessary counterpoints to each other, as citizens must be as resistant to usurpers and to arbitrary rule as they are conformable to lawful governance—the tension between these two virtues is a healthy one for democracy. Obedience also brings peace and is necessary for patient industry, which disciplines the mind into habits required by civilized society. Not all civilized societies are democratic, however, and for democracies, citizens also need intelligence, prudence, and self-control. These are traits that are perhaps more commonly associated with more restrictive or authoritarian societies, but in fact, these virtues will deny a foothold to the demagogue, who is a threat in any society but especially in a democracy. Finally, the democratic citizen needs a spirit of nationality, which will drive them to take into account larger, common interests instead of just local ones. Only a subject whose mind has been expanded in this way is fit for democratic citizenship, as it requires deliberation and decision-making about matters of more than parochial interest. And in order to be able to make legitimate claims in the name of a larger group, they must draw on their other necessary character traits. [For more on prerequisites for democratic transition and how these traits might be inculcated, see Y. Chiu & R. S. Taylor, “The Self-Extinguishing Despot: Millian Democratization,” Journal of Politics 73 (4):1239-50 (2011).]

Hong Kong protests do have a tradition of orderliness, and much has been accomplished in the past through civil obedience. Massive protests managed to shelve a proposed security law in 2003 and planned “national and moral education” curriculum in 2012, and in the past, protests have by and large been entirely lawful—protesters get pre-approval to gather and march along pre-approved routes, cleaning up after themselves along the way—and the current protests started the same way, with four days of a student class boycott that sought and received approval to hold their gathering in a large park near the government offices.

One important lesson of their deviation from obedience since then is that they can take that discipline and orderliness into civil disobedience as well, such as now when they are occupying public spaces without permission and disrupting access to major roadways. In most other societies, when a protest turns to such illegal activities, it usually comes with a certain amount of anarchy, disorder, and physical aggression.

Instead, the protesters have accommodated significant government complaints while still holding their ground and refusing to go home. For example, when the Chief Executive complained on September 30th that protests hindered the provision of emergency services, the student leadership declared a few hours later that they would establish “humanitarian corridors” for emergency vehicles. More recently, on October 10th, they agreed to let a tramline operate through the protest area; the tram is an important form of transportation for the indigent and the elderly because it is so inexpensive, and the trams themselves have historical significance. With these, they have shown that it is possible to make reasonable concessions while standing firm in their demands. In doing so, they gain moral legitimacy in the eyes of the public, which gives them more voice—the only weapon they have.

It is not, however, paradise out there by any means. There is plenty of dissension, lots of arguments between different groups of protesters about tactics and politics, and flaring tempers. There is palpable tension in the air as the protesters face off constantly against both the police and the threat of organized thugs.

The downsides of this kind of egalitarian civil democracy are also apparent, as the diffuse leadership often works at cross-purposes and the protest movement has difficulty coordinating strategies. The populist aspect of the protests also means that the leadership has limited ability to guide the larger population. For example, on the night of the tear-gassing, an auxiliary protest site sprung up in another part of Hong Kong across Victoria Harbor, in Mong Kok. A few days later, protest leaders called for those at Mong Kok to abandon that site and join the main protest at Admiralty in order to consolidate their manpower, but those in Mong Kok refused and have stayed there ever since.

While the students have taken over the leadership of this movement from the adults and are clearly running perhaps the most disciplined mass protest movement in history, there is also disagreement within each of the three major protest groups (Scholarism, Hong Kong Federation of Students, and Occupy Central with Love and Peace). Because they have difficulty agreeing on a strategy, the government has been able to practice a divide-and-conquer strategy (e.g., initially offering to meet with only one of the groups) in addition to a “wait them out” strategy in the hopes that the movement will implode in disorganization and/or the public will turn against them. So the egalitarian structure of this protest movement that gives it so much moral force can also be its downfall. Such a structure often loses out to more hierarchical ones in the short run, as it can be easily exploited by more hierarchical opponents, and in this case, we see it preventing the main protest groups’ leaderships from bargaining effectively with the government.

In some ways, the extremely civil nature of these protests is better suited for a more responsive system, one with more accountability built in, e.g., some of the more developed liberal democracies with more representative electoral systems and adequate checks and balances. That is where civil democracy should be highly effective, and yet ironically is practiced less and less. In an electoral system like Hong Kong’s—whose complicated rules are designed such that the pan-democratic parties consistently receive about 60 percent of the vote, yet a large pro-establishment majority is consistently returned to the legislative, and where the election of the Chief Executive is determined by a small and very unrepresentative group of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese elites—the civil democracy practiced by the protesters is morally admirable yet perhaps ultimately ineffective.

This is not to advocate more aggression or violence on the part of the protesters, however. If the protests succeed, even if it is decades from now, the kind of moral authority earned through difficult civil discourse will be what helps them succeed, and it will hopefully lead to more cooperation and consideration in the future, in the inherently competitive and antagonistic political system that is democracy. In the meantime, more established democracies can learn this lesson now, that greater civility and self-restraint can be highly effective in the short and long runs when practiced in a responsive and accountable democratic system.


  • Frankie Fook-lun Leung

    To expect that one would have democracy under an authoritarian regime may seem whimsical. One can give China the benefit of the doubt with the promise of One Country Two Systems. Now that promise is not kept. Don’t cry for me Bauhinia.