Written by Ng Hoi Yu.

The Occupy Central Movement (OCM), also known as the Umbrella Revolution, broke out in Hong Kong on 28 September. It was triggered by the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) on arrangements for the 2017 Chief Executive election, which requires all candidates to be vetted by a nomination committee mainly composed of pro-Beijing loyalists. This civil disobedience movement is indeed unprecedented. Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters illegally blocked and occupied major roads in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon to demand genuine universal suffrage and force the NPCSC to scrap its harsh ruling. Although the movement is still going on and the final result as yet unknown, it will definitely change the political landscape of Hong Kong. I argue that one of the possible changes is the further marginalization of pro-democracy political parties and parliamentary politics in the city’s democratic movement.

Pro-democracy parties emerged in the late 1980s when Hong Kong entered the decolonization period after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, which stipulated that Hong Kong would become a special administrative region of China in 1997 under the “One Country, Two Systems” formula. As part of the decolonization efforts, the colonial government partially democratized the political system by allowing direct elections in some seats in the Legislative and Municipal Councils. This encouraged some pro-democracy pressure group leaders and former student activists to give up street politics and form political parties so as to contest in these elections. The 1989 student democracy movement in Beijing further encouraged the pro-democracy activists to organize themselves. In 1990 they formed the United Democrats of Hong Kong which later became the Democratic Party (DP). Since then the pro-democracy parties, particularly the DP, had become the most influential actors in the city’s democratic movement. They were able to attract lots of supporters and put forward a range of social and political reforms in the Legislative Council (LegCo).

However, their influence have started to decline since the mid 2000s because of two main reasons. First, Hong Kong Basic Law imposes many constraints on the power of the LegCo, [1] making the pro-democracy parties and legislators fail to bring any significant democratic change to the city. This made many citizens to question the effectiveness of parliamentary politics. Second, the influence of the pro-democracy parties were further hampered by the mutual distrust between them and the civil society. The massive anti-government demonstration on 1st July 2003 triggered by the national security legislation (Article 23 of the Basic Law) controversy has significantly empowered the civil society. Since then many new advocacy groups and movements have emerged. They are more willing to employ confrontational and action-oriented tactics to advocate their causes and challenge government policies. Although these groups are strong supporters of democracy, they usually deeply distrust the pro-democracy parties which they think have become politically too conservative and easy to compromise. Their relationship further deteriorated when the DP “betrayed” the civil society and supported the 2010 constitutional reform package after Beijing had made a minor concession. [2]

The Occupy Central Movement will further marginalize the pro-democracy parties in the democratic movement for two main reasons. First, the OCM clearly shows that the pro-democracy parties fail to provide effective leadership. For example, the OCM was initiated not by the pro-democracy parties but by university professors Benny Tai, Chan Kin Man and political activist Reverend Chu Yiu Ming. Also, they have failed to play any significant role in the movement after it has broken out. Apart from the initiators of the OCM, the movement has so far been led by two student organizations, namely the Hong Kong Federation of Students (representing university students) and Scholarism, a secondary school student activist group. A survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) also shows that most participants were mobilized to the movement by themselves instead of by political parties.[3] Pro-democracy parties can only play a supporting role by providing goods and materials to the protesters and setting up a small number of street stalls to promote the movement. In fact, many movement participants are very suspicious of the pro-democracy parties, which they think may “hijack” the movement and then compromise with the government. A Hong Kong newspaper (Ming Pao) reported that some pro-democracy legislators were scolded and barracked by protesters when they arrived the occupied areas.

Second, the OCM may also bring a heavy blow to the pro-democracy parties in future LegCo and district councils elections, which would further diminish their political influence. Despite the movement has drawn an unexpectedly large number of participants, it fails to win the support from the majority of the population. The CUHK conducted 3 surveys from September to November and found that the respondents supporting the occupy movement were significantly lower than those opposing it except in October. It also found that over half of the middle-aged (40-59) an older respondents (60 or above), which constitute bulk of the electorate, oppose the movement. Therefore, by participating in the occupy movement, the pro-democracy parties may risk alienating some of their traditional supporters and pushing them to the pro-Beijing camp. Parties from the moderate wing of the pro-democracy camp such as the DP and the Civic Party may suffer most from this possible shift of voters’ preference.

To conclude, the Occupy Central Movement is definitely a rejuvenation of the Hong Kong democratic movement. It shows that a significant number of people are willing to engage in civil disobedience to fight for democracy. However, it does not necessarily bode well for the pro-democracy parties. The occupy movement not only shows the inability of the pro-democracy parties to provide effective leadership to the democratic movement, but also aggravate the mistrust between them and the civil society. Moreover, getting involved in the occupy movement may also alienate them from the moderate voters and cause electoral defeats. If the pro-democracy parties are unable to regain trust from the civil society and the young people and skillfully balance their electoral and social movement participation, they will be further marginalized from the democratic movement. The tactic of parliamentary politics, which has been adopted by the democrats since 1980s, may give way again to street politics and other non-institutionalized tactics.

Ng Hoi Yu is a Part-time Lecturer with the Department of Social Sciences, Hong Kong Institute of Education. His main research interests are political participation, political socialization, youth civic engagement, Hong Kong political development, and citizenship education. Image credit: CC by alcuin lai/Flickr.


[1] For example, Article 74 of the Basic Law states that individual members of the LegCo can only introduce bills not related to public expenditure, political structure, and operation of the government. Members introducing bills related to government policies are required to obtain prior written consent from the CE. Annex II of the Basic Law also states that the passage of motions, bills, or amendments to government bills introduced by individual LegCo members requires a simple majority vote from members of both the Functional Constituencies and the Geographical Constituencies.

[2]This reform package stipulates that the election committee electing the Chief Executive would be expanded from 800 to 1,200 members, and that the number of LegCo members would increase from 60 to 70. The candidates of the five new functional constituency seats would be nominated by district councilors and then elected directly by all voters not belonging to any existing functional constituencies.

[3] This survey interviewed 969 protesters in the occupied area in Admiralty from 4th to 5th October.

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