How can Hong Kong’s democracy movement get its mojo back?

Under pressure. EPA/Alex Hofford

Despite the sweltering heat, once again thousands gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park and marched for universal suffrage and democracy. Organisers of the annual July 1 rally had hoped for a huge crowd – yet this was the lowest turnout of protesters on Handover Day since 2008.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is suffering from obvious protest fatigue and lack of a clear goal after months of intense political debate and a spectacular vote on the government’s proposal for introducing universal suffrage in 2017, meant to replace the current system where Hong Kong’s chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member “election committee”.

The dramatic vote on June 18 saw pro-democratic lawmakers unanimously reject the proposal, while the pro-government parties surprised everyone with a bizarre, disorganised walkout. Apparently a harebrained attempt to buy more time, their exit meant the proposal was voted down 28-8, with 37 pro-establishment legislators lingering strangely on the sidelines.

With no further constitutional reform proposal to be tabled until at least 2017 or even 2020, it is time to take stock of what caused the strange death of the election reform proposal – and what Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces can do next.

Botched

The issue with the proposal was whether or not the government would actually implement true universal suffrage and democracy in the long run, and the social movements most prominently involved in the Umbrella Movement had already made it clear that they would reject the proposal as written for being too pro-Beijing.

The June 18 vote made it very clear that pro-democratic legislators have realised that any co-operation with the government will do them no favours in the wider pro-democracy movement.

The government’s offer did not propose genuine universal suffrage, and neither Hong Kong nor Beijing was willing to offer any concessions. Yet it was only pressure from activist groups and the unbelievably botched pro-establishment walkout that saved the pro-democracy legislators from a public relations debacle.

Indeed, until the walkout, it looked like the establishment’s plan to manipulate at least some of the pan-democrats into voting for the proposed reforms was working. If they had voted for the proposal in deference to the principle of universal suffrage, the result would have been a chief executive pre-selected by Beijing, and any hopes for future amendments to the electoral process would be depend on the preferences of the Hong Kong and mainland governments.

Take cover. EPA/Alex Hofford

This is why the walkout was so crucial. If the pan-democrats had been solely responsible for scotching the proposal, the pro-government bloc would have been able to blame them for holding up the democratisation process, opening a line of attack for the upcoming District Council and legislative elections in 2016.

Meanwhile, social movements such as Scholarism have dominated the democratisation debate and effectively monopolised support for the pan-democratic parties – making any party or individual who opts for a compromise unelectable. For the time being, at least, that trap has been avoided.

Loss of face

That doesn’t mean the debate is over. This year’s July 1 demonstration was the first since the Umbrella Movement protests of autumn 2014, 79 days that changed Hong Kong. While it remains to be seen just how profound that change is, it’s clear that the Umbrella Movement signalled a deep fragmentation of Hong Kong’s civil society.

The coming years will be dominated by the questions the movement raised about Hong Kong’s identity: the city’s economic model, its social classes and its relationship with mainland China are all now under pressure to adapt. Those debates are already well underway in both the pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps.

Both sides have their work cut out for them. The proposal’s failure was a historic loss of face for Beijing and its allies. They will be still able to mobilise traditional pro-Beijing supporters, but will have to work very hard to regain the trust of Hong Kong’s conservative and centrist voters.

The pro-democracy camp, meanwhile, has to figure out how to restart the debate on universal suffrage and try to revive the spirit of the Umbrella Movement’s early days. They also have to find answers to the fundamental questions the movement brought to the fore.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the question of what kind of society Hong Kong’s people want. Even with a lacklustre turnout, the slogan for this year’s July 1 march could not have been more fitting: “Build a Democratic Hong Kong, Regain the Future of Our City.”