Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Movement: Losing Hope

by | 27 Apr 2017 | The Blog | 0 comments

Image from Pro-Democracy Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong, 2014. Source: Studio Incendo on Flickr

Image from Pro-Democracy Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong, 2014. Source: Studio Incendo on Flickr

A 500,000 person demonstration, a referendum for universal suffrage, a 79-day Occupy Movement……efforts to fight for democracy in Hong Kong over the past decade or so have not yet paid off. The election for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong held on March 26, 2017 remained a political game dominated by the power elites, most of whom have direct or indirect political and economic relationships with the Beijing government. Unlike the past four Chief Executive elections, the democrats neither boycotted the Beijing-controlled election nor nominated a candidate to expose the loopholes of the existing political system. This time, they chose to support a pro-China, and somewhat anti-democracy, candidate in the name of public opinion.

To understand the democrats’ strange move, we need some background on the political system which has shaped the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong over the past two decades. Since the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997, Hong Kong has become the Special Administrative Region of China. The first two Chief Executives of Hong Kong were elected by the Election Committee (EC), a committee formed by 800 major political and business figures who purport to represent the majority view of the Hong Kong people. As stipulated in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong written by the Beijing government and some pro-Beijing politicians in the 1980s, this undemocratic process would ultimately be replaced by one-person-one-vote within 10 years after the handover. However, the promise has never been realized. Through re-interpreting the Basic Law in 2004 and 2007, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of the Beijing government delayed the progress of democratization and ruled that no universal suffrage would be held in Hong Kong until 2017. Despite this, the NPCSC has set high threshold for the nominating process of the Chief Executive election, meaning that “universal suffrage” could easily be manipulated by Beijing and would not be a genuine one. Political reform based on the NPCSC decision was thus vetoed in 2014 and the Chief Executive election of this year continued to adopt the previous method of election: a 1200-members EC[1] is going to decide who is the leader of Hong Kong. Although some democrats can become members of the EC under the current institutional design, their voices are never loud enough to influence the election result[2]. All they can do is to nominate a pro-democracy candidate to offer dissenting voices (as in 2007 and 2012) or use their votes to force the pro-Beijing candidates to make some concession to the pro-democracy movement.

Capitalizing on the momentum of the 79-days Occupy Movement in 2014 and the growing discontent towards the Beijing authority in the civil society, the Hong Kong democrats made a small breakthrough to obtain more than 300 seats in the EC election last year. Although this could be a good chance to at least make a stronger democratic claim and advance the pro-democracy movement, the democrats ruined it all. On the one hand, they did not come up with a clear goal of what they should do other than stopping the incumbent Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, an assertive hardliner and a pro-Beijing politician, from running for five more years. On the other, they were obviously unprepared to deal with the landslide support for one of the Chief Executive candidates, John Tsang Chun-wah, the former Financial Secretary of the Hong Kong government, in the civil society.

The success of John Tsang was unexpected for both the democrats and observers, but it could not be simply understood as an excellent political spinning project. Instead, it should be interpreted as a mobilization of political emotions. To compete with his major contender, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor[1], the former Chief Secretary of the government, who was widely perceived as Beijing’s favourite, John Tsang popularized himself among the Hong Kong citizens not so much by a drastically different policy agenda but by an emotional mobilization. Contrary to Carrie Lam, the image of whom was often seen as the parallel of Leung Chun-ying, John Tsang presented himself not only as a benevolent leader but as a good husband, a friendly former fencing coach, a martial arts lover, and a guy who loves the local, grassroots culture of Hong Kong. Blurring the line between the public and the private realms, John Tsang showed the public his “authentic self”, something people long for in the era in which people no longer trust the politicians and in which political emotions have increasingly been managed[2] by the Beijing authority in the name of patriotism. Subverting the conventional wisdom that politics is dirty among the Hong Kong citizens, John Tsang’s image was so fresh and friendly that people could not stop following him.

John Tsang’s play of political emotions was much more than that. Rightly identifying anxiety, anger, and hatred as the dominant emotional climate[3] of the Hong Kong society over the past few years, John Tsang deployed “Trust, Hope, Unity” as his campaign slogan. By contrasting the current devastating socio-political situation of Hong Kong with the ‘good old days’ of the early 1990s[4] in his propaganda, John Tsang effectively manipulated the notion of hope to invoke memory of the past society, a depoliticized society with rapid economic growth. Yet, it was by no means a progressive political vision. Scholars of Hong Kong studies have generally agreed that what apparent political stability and economic prosperity of the 1990s masked were the unquestioning support of a neoliberalist market economy and the tacit acceptance of an undemocratic (but administratively efficient) government. If John Tsang was advocating a political vision, it was more about bringing Hong Kong back to an era in which all inconvenient truths were hidden and all people were economic and apolitical animals than mobilizing people to care about the political future of the city to fight for a democratic, free, and equal society. John Tsang’s notion of hope was about the future, but such future was articulated with an unachievable and unprogressive past. In a political climate filled with anxiety, anger, and hatred, nostalgia simply fueled hope. John Tsang’s emotional mobilization worked extremely well. Just before the election, he achieved a support rate of over 60% in public opinion poll, almost a double ahead of Carrie Lam.

Hope, an emotion usually used by the leftist and the liberal, was effectively appropriated by John Tsang. Confronting anxiety, anger, and hatred, John Tsang provided the Hong Kong people with the subversive emotions of hope, happiness, and optimism. The Hong Kong people were once again mobilized and united[5] as had happened during the 79-days Occupy Movement in 2014. Yet this time they were not standing for the broader liberal, democratic goals but a politician who is a core supporter of the neoliberal market economy, who has never made any concrete pledge to democratization, and who is at most a rebel within the pro-establishment camp. Debates, disputes, and mistrust haunted the democratic camp in the past two months. Social cleavage was once again deepened due to diverged opinions regarding whether the democratic EC members should abstain or vote for a popular candidate who might never help advancing democracy. At the end, the Hong Kong democrats chose to dance with the devil and cast their votes for John Tsang in the name of public opinion. Indeed, no matter which side they choose and no matter who wins the election[6], they have already lost the heart of the Hong Kong people. The mainstream public sentiment has already chosen to side with a pro-establishment political figure rather than the democrats and trusted that he could bring a better “future”.

Losing hope, the Hong Kong democrats are losing ground. The democrats will have a hard time to regain the momentum of the pro-democracy movement in coming years. Perhaps the first and foremost task for them is to learn how to do efficient emotional work in political mobilization. Anger and hatred have been deployed for mobilizing democratic campaigns in the past two to three years, but these two emotions alone have been insufficient to make a good impact, as previous campaigns have repeatedly proven. So what would be the right and effective emotions for mobilizing successful pro-democracy campaigns? It is time for them to learn from John Tsang.


[1] Another candidate of the election was Woo Kwok-hing, a retired judge.

[2] Sociologist Arlie Hochschild argues in her book The Managed Heart that emotions have been more and more falling under the control of capitalist institutions whose goal is to increase consumption. But the more emotions are being managed, the more people search for an authentic self and genuine expression of emotions.

[3] This is largely the result of the massive Occupy Movement in 2014. On the one hand, people who support democratization have become more hostile to the Beijing authority, the Hong Kong government, and the Hong Kong police, and become more worried about the political future of the city. On the other hand, the powerholders have mobilized even stronger counter-movement to halt democratization. Social cleavage has been deepened over the past few years and mutual trust has been declining.

[4] Despite their apparent political dispute over democratization of Hong Kong, both the British colonial government and the Beijing government had joined to carry out a political-economic engineering project to make Hong Kong as prosperous as possible before the handover. For the British colonial government, they wanted a glorious departure. For the Beijing government, they wanted a respectable city to celebrate the national political project of re-gaining the sovereignty of Hong Kong. Political stability and economic prosperity were hence the two main themes in the dominant discourses of Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

[5] It is believed that John Tsang’s supporters come from three camps: the centralists, the mild democratic supporters, and the mild pro-China supporters.

[6] At the end, Carrie Lam won the election by securing 777 votes, while John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing could only manage to obtain 365 votes and 21 votes respectively. It is interpreted that the Beijing authority has done a lot behind the scenes to help Carrie Lam to secure her votes.

[1] The number of EC member was increased from 800 to 1200 in 2012 under the political reform in 2010.

[2] All EC members must go through an election. However, these have been tightly controlled by the Beijing government through its invisible hand in the political and business sectors of the Hong Kong society. This means most EC members are likely to be pro-China, allowing the Beijing government to control the Chief Executive election easily.


Tang Yun-TongTang Yun-Tong

Tang Yun-Tong is a PhD student at the University of Manchester, researching the impact of political culture on pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. His research interests include social movements, cultural politics of emotions, social and cultural theories, and urban politics.