Two Generations of Hong Kong Democratic Movement - SOAS China Institute

//Two Generations of Hong Kong Democratic Movement

Two Generations of Hong Kong Democratic Movement

Protestors in Hong Kong (October, 2019). – Photo credit: Studio Incendo / CC BY 2.0 Deed

By Au Loong-Yu | 19 March 2024

While we mourn the death of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its democratic movement, perhaps we should also quickly review their brief history.


Hong Kong has had multiple waves of democratic movements for over a hundred years, though each wave was dramatically different from the others. The latest wave of democratic movement started in the early 1970s and ended in 2020. It also marked a break from the past generations. Those born in the late 1940s and 1950s were a new generation much more influenced by Western culture and values, self-awakening(個性解放/醒覺)to the idea of democracy and social resistance. This led many to openly conflict with their parents’ generation. After seeing what had happened in the Cultural Revolution in China and the 1967 riots in Hong Kong, many parents’ motto for their children was always “study hard, stay away from politics.” To be politicised was an act of bravery under the repressions of the British colonial government. The first mass rally of the movement to defend Diaoyu Island movement in 1971 was violently crushed by Hong Kong police. In 1972, the nationalist element of the movement was further strengthened after the Republic of China’s seat in the United Nations was replaced by the People’s Republic of China. The fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 temporarily stunted the rise of Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong (though not entirely in the long run). However, between the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a decisive break from the past – although this generation still saw themselves as “Chinese,” they now focus more on pursuing social and political progress in Hong Kong rather than China. This period was the prequel of Hong Kong’s more recent “localism” movement. This new generation of Hong Kong politicians would soon demand direct election of the legislature. After they won most of the seats allocated for direct election in 1991 (though this was reversed upon the 1997 handover of sovereignty to Chinese rule), in the decade that followed, some of them actively engaged with social groups, building up to the climax of the mass protests in 2003 against Article 23, which marked  a new era of social mobilisation after the handover and massively broadened  the base of the democratic movement. Without the 2003 protests, there would not have been an Umbrella Movement in 2014, not to mention the 2019-2020 anti-government protests.


But the Umbrella Movement was also the moment when the pan-democrat parties, the key leaders of the generation politicised in the 70s and 80s, had lost the leadership of Hong Kong’s democratic movement to what I called the 1997 generation, who were born in the period just before and after the handover. It is common for the latter to call the former as “old sea food” – a derogative term for describing someone who is old and arrogant, but useless. The pan-democrats’ strategy was to work within the Basic law’s constraints – believing that universal suffrage is a legitimate goal but it must be implemented gradually, without any clear timetable. The pan-democrats complied with the constraints – from 1986 to the turn of the century, they stuck to their demand for a half-directly-elected legislature, and considered the demand for universal suffrage too radical.


In 2010 it was already very clear that Beijing was not going to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage, yet the Democratic Party continued its engagement strategy of yaugaiking (有偈傾) and doizyusin (袋住先). Yaugaiking (“we can talk” [with Beijing]) – meant they would continue lobbying for more directly-elected seats. Doizyusin meant “accepting whatever concession is offered” by Beijing. Other pan-democrat parties might not share the Democratic party’s enthusiasm, but they nonetheless shared the same perspective. This move, unpopular with the new generation, would cost the pan-democrats their support. That said, the pan-democrats did not follow their strategy through to the end and in 2019, they tacitly supported the youth instead.


The 2019 protests showed how the bravery of young people massively broadened Hong Kong’s democratic movement after the 2003 protests. However, they did not succeed either. Beijing responded by imposing a National Security Law, which effectively finished off what was left of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Thousands of activists fled Hong Kong. There has been some reflection on the movement among themselves, asking whether they have erred in pushing for laam chau (攬炒) (scorched-earth strategy) in 2019. The problem with this slogan is that it had never been clearly defined. It could mean strikes or class boycott, but it could also mean excessive violence (for instance, a masked activist sought to take justice in his own hands by torching an unarmed opponent). To apply a sweeping approach of scorched-earth strategy may easily end up in a Procrustean bed.  By nature, the “scorched earth” approach during wars is at most a tactic that can only be used in extreme situations and when the asymmetry of strength between the two sides is not too extreme – which was not the case for the Beijing vs Hong Kong standoff.


Another point for self-reflection is the slogan of “revolution of our time.” Those promoted the slogan had rarely elaborated on it. Chinese history is well known for its cyclical “revolution”, only that it never produces any democratic regime. One traditional term about Chinese “revolutions” best illustrates this – Yixing geming (易姓革命), or “replacing an old dynasty by a new one through a revolution carrying the mandate of the heaven”. During the Cultural Revolution another popular slogan was duoquan (奪權), or “seizing power.” Both Yixing geming and duoquan were not about genuine democratic transformation of social relations. The 1911 revolution was at first considered a break with the dynastic cycle and the replacement of the “heavenly mandate” by the people’s mandate. Yet the 1911 revolution would soon disappoint many. The cycle repeated itself in 1949. Both the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Chinese Communist Party were inspired by Western notions of democracy and launched “democratic revolutions” but both ended up becoming autocratic regimes following traditional Chinese practices.


Perhaps it is fair to say that even if the 2019 demonstrations were not to exhibit any shortcomings, it would not succeed once Beijing decided to crush the movement. It is equally fair to ask the 2019 protesters the question: “In what way could we avoid repeating the tragedy of past Chinese revolutions?”.

Au Loong-Yu is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute and is a writer and a labour rights campaigner from Hong Kong who is now based in the UK. He is the author of China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility and Hong Kong in Revolt: The Protest Movement and the Future of China.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.