Nearly five years after the famous Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, independence fighters re-emerged in the spring of 2019 with a vengeance in order to protest a highly controversial extradition bill amendment. The amendment, which would allow mainland China to seize and take Hong Kong dissenters under its own authority, was representative of a larger threat of China’s growing encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy. The passage of the amendment was for many the final straw, motivating millions to come out into the streets. However, during this pivotal time the country entered a global pandemic, which combined with the Hong Kong/Chinese government’s repressive tactics all but shut down the movement. The outcome of the protests were largely mixed: the extradition bill amendment was rolled back, but other demands of reinforcing Hong Kong’s independence have been virtually ignored. In fact, the People’s Republic of China signaled a determination to tighten its grip through the recent nomination of John Lee, a notable “hardline security official” who has been selected by Beijing as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Lee will have to technically run for his position and be voted in by Hong Kong’s official Election Committee. However, underneath all of the bells and whistles characteristic of an electoral authoritarian government, the selection has already been made, as represented by Lee’s unopposed nomination and the political makeup of the committee, which is stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists.
The nomination of John Lee, whose background as a security officer and role in managing the crackdown on pro-independence resistance in 2019 reflects a shift in Beijing’s priorities of securing Hong Kong and wiping out further political dissent. It also speaks to Beijing’s discomfort with the dramatic shift in tactics employed by the resistance in comparison to the peaceful, polite protests that defined the Umbrella Movement. As predicted by Chenoweth and Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works, the Umbrella Movement enjoyed widespread domestic and global support due to its practice of nonviolence. It is undeniable the influence the movement had on the following district elections, whose notable upturn in turnout as well as several upsets replacing establishment, pro-Beijing representatives. However, it was an overall failure in not being able to achieve any of its central goals of expanding democracy and independence in Hong Kong. When the resistance returned in 2019, with the state of Hong Kong democracy in worse shape than it had before, there was a significant escalation through the willingness to use petrol bombs, throw bricks, and engage in property damage. Rather than just organizing out in the public as in the Umbrella Movement, protestors resorted to guerilla tactics, gathering and moving covertly, using codes on social media apps to evade Chinese intelligence agencies. While there was always a large subgroup of protesters insisting on non-violence, which according to Chenoweth and Stephan has been statistically shown to be more successful in overthrowing incumbent authoritarian regimes over the use of violence, the failure of the previous movement fresh in the eyes of a desperate public acted as motivation to engage in riskier, more dangerous strategies.
Even with numerical data suggesting that non-violent resistance may be more effective, there is an argument to be made in favor of the more destructive approach employed by radical protesters. First and foremost, there is a selection bias problem when it comes to calculating the success rate of violent and non violent movements: violent movements are reported on at higher rates than non violent ones, skewing higher success rates towards non violent movements. Additionally, researchers Kadivar and Ketchley in their paper “Sticks, Stones, and Molotov Cocktails: Unarmed Collective Violence and Democratization” pushed back against the more traditionally held assumption by political scientists that nonviolent movements are more likely to succeed, arguing that a far more significant metric to predicting the success of a resistance movement is being unarmed, not strictly remaining peaceful. Hong Kong’s 2019 protests belong in this category: while many protesters engaged in violent tactics such as clashing with the police and setting properties on fire, most remained mostly unarmed, which in turn helped keep the public on their side as Kadivar and Ketchley predicted.
It is difficult to determine whether the non-violent or both non-violent iterations of Hong Kong’s independence protests more effective. In a sense, both were failures in their inability to construct lasting protections for Hong Kong’s autonomy. After a few months into the pandemic, with the help of China’s coercive apparatuses, the protests have pretty much died out. John Lee’s inevitable position as Chief Executive forebodes a stricter, more repressive regime into the future. However, there is also cause for hope. Despite the radical changes in the movement, Hong Kong’s resistance remained united, and was able to achieve a key goal they had organized around: the rollback of the extradition bill amendment. Millions came out in support of the movement from within the country as well as around the globe. As the Umbrella Movement laid out a foundation for Hong Kong youths and citizens to join the 2019 protests, perhaps there will be another re-emergence down the road with an even greater fury.