Can Hong Kong’s Protesters Win Over an Ambivalent Public?

A scene from the protests shows yellow umbrellas hanging over a Hong Kong street. (Wong/Flickr)

As the Hong Kong authorities began pushing out the pro-democracy protesters last week, the ghosts of Tiananmen Square again hovered over Civic Square and the other protest encampments. Until now, both sides have been constrained by their fears of alienating the majority of Hong Kongers who are both hostile to Beijing’s proposed election law changes and the Occupy Central movement, and fearful of losing Hong Kong’s unique rule of law and privileged status within China. A misstep by either side risks a deadly confrontation, but many polls of Hong Kongers show that compromise also remains possible.

Hong Kong matters because it is the leading edge of change in China. The same forces for change—an awakening civil society, contentious press, and pressure for the rule of law—are at work in the city-state and burgeoning on the mainland. The crisis tests whether China will accept the consequences of its commitment to “one country, two systems,” letting democratic ideals expand within an authoritarian state, or will ignore Hong Kongers’ aspirations.

Public opinion in Hong Kong does not divide neatly between government opponents and supporters. Majorities oppose both Beijing’s proposed electoral reform and the Occupy movement protesting it. Many people feel cross-pressured, allowing big swings in opinion in response to events and making the situation unstable.

Just under one-third of residents favor the central government’s proposal for electing Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017, a September poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) found. This plan would make a 1,200-member pro-Beijing committee, which chose the chief executive until now, the sole body for nominations. Critics say it would make a subsequent popular vote for the post a sham.

Yet the same poll found only a third favored Occupy Central, which has led the ongoing mass protests.

So Hong Kongers were split three ways: one-third against the plan and favoring the protests, another third accepting the plan and opposed to the protests, and a third hostile to or unsure about the plan and the protests. Both sides knew they had to win over, or at least not alienate, the middle ground.

Hong Kong’s residents also share common ground. They are proud of the civic freedom and rule of law it enjoys under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, agreed before Britain returned it to China in 1997. In a 2012 Gallup global poll, residents gave Hong Kong the sixth-highest rating for public safety worldwide and voiced the fewest complaints of corruption in comparable countries. They knew they had something to lose: only 4 percent were considering emigration, one of the lowest figures on Earth.

As the demonstrations have worn on for eight weeks, the public has tired of them. In early November, a poll by Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme (POP) found that 70 percent of Hong Kongers said Occupy Central should stop its occupations. A CUHK poll released last Monday found two-thirds favored clearing the sites. The protesters have lost the center—for now.

But the situation is fragile, and over-reaching by the authorities or the protesters could ignite the conflagration both sides dread. A police assault against protesters in September infuriated the populace and brought hundreds of thousands out in protest.

Removing the occupations is a high-stakes gamble. If it provokes other occupations or big demonstrations in response, it might lead to a brutal crackdown that could damage Hong Kong’s special status. The protesters, for their part, appear deeply split over their next moves, according to an informal survey. An attack on the territory’s Legislative Council building last Wednesday by a fringe group, which shocked Hong Kongers and the peaceful protest mainstream, underlined how hardliners in the opposition could also spur conflict.

All this scares Hong Kongers. In September, the POP found that a majority (56 percent) had lost confidence in the “one country, two systems” arrangement for the first time ever. CUHK reported the same month that 21 percent were considering emigration—a huge jump from the 4 percent Gallup found two years ago.

Yet there are precedents for accommodating protest movements in Hong Kong. It has faced other major conflicts before due to its civil liberties and active civic life, which are much stronger than elsewhere in China. This has forced the authorities to tread carefully in the face of public opinion. Earlier mass protests—in 2003 and in 2012—made them back down.

Moreover, there is room for compromise in this case. Even Hong Kong’s “radical democrats” do not demand instant democracy. POP polls all year long have found consistent support for a “three-track” system, allowing nominations by the committee, political parties, or citizens. Another alternative involves expanding or democratizing the selection committee, so it is no longer just an echo chamber for Beijing. Leung hinted at this idea publicly at a meeting with protesters, and a CUHK poll found it could swing a majority behind the reforms.

Whether or not they succeed in clearing the protest areas, if the authorities continue to postpone change, they will only increase demand for it in the long run. Polling by CUHK confirms what is obvious in the streets: Hong Kong’s generation gap is a chasm. Unlike their elders, under-30s massively reject the official electoral proposal and support the Occupy movement. The same poll found the college-educated have similar views. As these groups rise over time, the pressure on China’s ruling Communist party in Hong Kong is likely to rise too.

To be sure, Hong Kong differs from the rest of China. With higher incomes and more freedoms, many sophisticated Hong Kongers see mainlanders as yokels. They resent visitors and newcomers who crowd their streets, push up prices, and bring down wages, and many mainlanders return the sentiment. The Chinese nationalism that bolsters Communist rule on the mainland is more fluid in Hong Kong, polling on identity suggests. Nonetheless, the same drivers of change, non-governmental organizations, challenging media, and a desire for legal rights, are also developing elsewhere, particularly in Guangdong, Hong Kong’s hinterland.

Hong Kong has become the test case for whether China can accommodate the political and social forces unleashed by its breakneck development. If China can find a modus vivendi with the turbulent territory, it may establish a model for peaceful transition elsewhere as well. If not, the failure of “one country, two systems” there could cast the shadow of Tiananmen not just over Hong Kong, but also the breakaway island of Taiwan and even the Chinese mainland.

Craig Charney is a Senior Adviser at IPI and President of Charney Research, a survey research firm that has worked extensively in China.