South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Albert Cheng says change in strategy needed to win back public sentiment and counter Leung’s war of attrition, to avoid a political disaster at the polls
I am an old-timer. The umbrella movement is billed as an intergenerational conflict. What I have to say may not be music to young ears. Yet, like most grandparents, I will keep mumbling, screaming and doing whatever it takes to talk some sense into the heads of the student activists.
Those who are supposed to be leading the movement have formed a five-party platform to discuss their next moves. They include the pan-democrats, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the Federation of Students, Scholarism and other civic bodies. My hopes are pinned on the student bodies.
The organisers have so far failed to come up with a clear strategy, let alone an action plan. The longer this goes on, the less popular the movement will become. The government will emerge as the winner from this gradual change in public sentiment. The campaign is in danger of dissipating into a public nuisance.
This trend has been confirmed independently by various surveys. An overwhelming 83 per cent in one poll said they wanted Occupy to end immediately. The under 30s are the only sector who tend to think otherwise. Slightly over half this age bracket want the sites in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok to remain occupied. For them, the movement will be a failure, until and unless the government makes substantial concessions over electoral reform. They prefer a forced eviction to a voluntary withdrawal.
The five-party platform has been toying with the idea of asking some directly elected legislators to resign so they can promote their ideas in all 18 districts during by-elections that would be called within six months. Such a pseudo-referendum could provide a turning point for the campaign. The pan-democratic camp could then use the electoral campaign to regain the momentum and refocus on the major stumbling block for true democracy in Hong Kong – Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
The student groups should call a mass assembly and announce a tactical withdrawal from the occupied sites so the protests can transform into a mass campaign across the districts. The window of opportunity is narrow, with major occupied areas due to be cleared within days.
Professor Chan Kin-man, one of the trio behind the original concept of Occupy, is apparently sensitive to the turning tide. He has in effect withdrawn from Admiralty and resumed his teaching duties on campus. He has written in support of the pseudo-referendum. He said the least the protesters should do is make the occupied sites smaller in return for greater support from the wider public.
However, the pan-democratic legislators’ response has been less than warm. Those who gave up their seats would be barred from running in the by-elections under current electoral laws. They are dragging their feet out of self-interest. The students should apply maximum moral pressure on them.
Meanwhile, the pro-establishment camp has lost no time in maximising its political gains. Their blue ribbon campaign in support of the police is, in effect, a grand election campaign that has started early.
They are targeting citizens who used to be apolitical. The recent anti-Occupy petition, headed by Robert Chow Yung, claimed to have secured 1.8 million signatures. That may be inflated but even half that figure would be equivalent to the total number of votes the pan-democrats got in the geographical constituencies in the 2012 Legislative Council poll. In that ballot, support for the pan-democrats dropped from 60 to 55 per cent. It looks poised to slip further in the next election.
The one-third of citizens who are in favour of Occupy in principle are likely to vote for younger and more progressive candidates in the next district council and Legco elections.
The political awakening of the younger generation is by far the biggest achievement of the movement. The young activists should make the most of any by-elections to reach out to their peers and broaden their ballot bases. But the student leaders have lost sight of the reality that Leung is fighting a war of attrition and division. The attempt by a small group of radicals to storm the Legco building shows that the government tactics are paying off. Even Leung’s approval rating has inched back above the 40-point threshold.
The young occupiers are chasing a democratic ideal, for which they should be given credit. Yet, all democratic systems boil down to a contest for votes. This movement for a fair and just electoral system is not backed up by tactical considerations to consolidate and enlarge the support of the general electorate.
The biting reality is that even as youngsters seek the holy grail of true democracy, their allies can barely hang on to their elected seats. Their democratic dream might turn into a political nightmare before too long.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.