Jean Grugel, SIID Director and Professor of International Development at the University of Sheffield

What are we to make of the so-called ‘umbrella revolution’ and the sudden eruption of mass protest on the streets of Hong Kong? The protestors are mainly young people and they are claiming the free elections they were promised in the handover from the UK to China in 1984. Whilst we do not know as yet whether the protests will succeed in promoting democratic change in Hong Kong, what is certain is that young people have lost their fear of repression and are putting themselves at risk for what their beliefs.

The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement is led by three groups of young activists: Occupy Central, a University-led movement that consciously echoes the global Occupy movement, the Hong Kong Federation of Students which has organized boycotts of classes and occupation of government buildings – in ways that are remarkably similar to some of the protests organized by their counterparts in Chile, the Chilean Federation of Students to demand political change – and Scholarism, a movement of school students to demand education free of state intervention. Scholarism too seems to echo some of the strategies adopted in Chile where children as young as 12 were prepared to face the police to demand reform of the public education system.

Youth Mobilization

Young people use the resources they have and the sites they know and understand to make their voices heard and inevitably, therefore, their protests take place in the public arena, the street, and their equivalent of the workplace – institutions of learning. They have a remarkable capacity to stage mass protests quickly because of the proliferation of social media and young people’s savvy understanding of how to use it .

We know from experiences elsewhere that young people play a particularly crucial role in pro-democracy movements and, once mobilized in massive numbers, prove difficult for authoritarian states to coopt and put down. Of course, governments can and do violently repress youth protest – but doing so comes at a huge price in terms of international reputation and internal damage.

The Hong Kong youth protests are part of a broader global phenomenon of young people claiming political space and voice. We saw in the Scottish referendum in 2014 that 16-18 year olds turned out to vote in vast numbers. Far more dramatically, and outside the arena of institutionalized participation, we could point to the mass uprisings in 2011 in North Africa that were led by a largely young, educated population that was profoundly dissatisfied with old ways of doing politics.

And in Chile, university and school students have been periodically taking to the streets for the last 10 years to protest against the marketization of education and the spread of the market into new arenas of state policy. In interviews we conducted with Chilean students* , they told us that they regarded a protest march as ‘a symbol of a power struggle’ and that the protest was a ‘weapon’ against a government that refused dialogue.

One Country, Two Systems?

So what is the ‘power struggle’ that is currently happening in Hong Kong? Hong Kong is a unique hybrid regime and the process of unification – the so-called ‘One Country, Two Systems’ – has been hotly contested since the territories were handed over to China in 1984. As part of the agreement, China agreed that there would be direct elections in 2017 .

Beijing has made clear its opposition to the introduction of fully free elections and is now seeking to limit the choice that electors have, in order to ensure that the Hong Kong government remains closely controlled by Beijing. The power struggle is, then, one between Hong Kong and China; but it is also internal to Hong Kong as some groups would prefer to see a closer relationship with China than with the West, especially given its massive economic power.

So there are major cleavages here around identity, culture and political economy. But at play is also the idea of a democracy and the right to democratic representation. Research on democratization has shown how claims for democracy emerge (even if they do not always flourish) in remarkably unlikely contexts . The call to hold governments accountable for their actions and to take into account the preferences of citizens is one heard repeatedly in the contemporary world.

Democracy not guaranteed

Of course calls for democracy are not always heard and generally only partially met – when they are met at all. Certainly, when young people protest in vast numbers, there is no guarantee that they will get what they want. The government of Hong Kong has offered dialogue , but it is not all clear that this offer is meaningful or real. Without dialogue and states that are able to listen to the voices of their citizens, the political consequences can be dire.

The protests in North Africa and the Middle East have transformed the politics of the region, but not necessarily in the direction young people wanted. There is now evidence of widespread youth disenchantment in Egypt, and suggestions that young people are trying to leave the Middle East for safer regions of the world, including Europe. Apart from the political damage that a loss of youth engagement with politics brings, there are also potential economic losses – the loss of the demographic dividend of educated youth can be serious for any country – to consider.

So there is much at stake right now in Hong Kong and the protests are of major geopolitical and generational significance. Thus far, Chinese authoritarianism has survived due to a combination of repression and cooptation internally, economic growth and the West’s unwillingness to openly criticize China because of its economic power. The literature on authoritarianism and democratization gives no clear steer as to whether we should expect concessions from China and a reluctant, slow and halting democratization in Hong Kong or whether repression is more likely in the current context, or, indeed, whether the protests will provoke a diffusion cascade of pro-democracy demands in China itself or in other parts of the region. We must watch and wait and hope that the idealism and bravery of Hong Kong’s young people is rewarded.


*This research is from the forthcoming paper: Protest, Citizenship and Democratic Renewal: The Student Movement in Chile, Jean Grugel and Jojo Nem Singh (Citizenship Studies, forthcoming).


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