South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Manisha Mirchandani says a tactical retreat may revive flagging campaign
The violent escalation of the Occupy protests in Admiralty and Mong Kok in the past week has been tinged with a sense of exhausted protesters raging against the dying of the light. A risky plan to blockade the central government offices and paralyse activity was deemed “largely a failure”, and key student figures such as Joshua Wong Chi-fung are now resorting to a Gandhian-style hunger strike in a bid to draw the government back to the negotiating table.
Squabbling among various factions on strategy, compounded by a lack of gumption by pan-democratic legislators, is giving oxygen to radicals. An ugly, violent end to the protests is looking likely.
When asked why they were still there holding up their umbrellas, despite the bleak forecast, one student summed it up thus: for this generation, there is no other recourse for their voice to be heard.
Hong Kong’s young people feel boxed in, and are resorting to desperate measures to be heard. Much of the blame lies at the feet of the leadership, who have neglected to use this to enhance opportunities for the public to participate in decision-making. Valid suggestions for improving representativeness in the nomination committee have fallen on deaf ears.
This is in contrast to trends across the Asia-Pacific, where winds of change are blowing in fledgling democracies such as Myanmar and adolescent ones such as Indonesia. None are faultless, but all acknowledge the importance of giving people a “voice” and of the power of a mandate for elected leaders to make decisions. Like a pressure valve, these mechanisms allow for steam to be released in societies that are complex, messy and often unfair.
The events of the past nine weeks suggest ours has been poorly designed and manufactured. To be fair, Hong Kong protesters have hardly demonstrated a willingness to consider moderate solutions within the parameters of the Basic Law. There is a missed opportunity for our leaders to be brave and forward-thinking within these parameters. And in this spirit, Wong and his supporters must also seize the opportunity to be modern, young and dynamic. They will lose if they continue to protest in a traditional fashion, against conservative forces who always win a numbers game.
Even Wong’s courageous hunger strike reinforces a paternalistic narrative that has underpinned the protests, and one that the administration has played astutely.
Along with democratisation in the region, new modes of discourse and communication have risen. Social networks have changed the way information is shared. Protesters here have been innovative in their use of the internet and social media to mobilise support, but less so in their protest tactics which remain outdated, and premised on “sticking it out”.
Wong said to his fellow protesters in early November that leaving now would amount to nothing. He was wrong.
At no point has there been serious consideration of a “flash mob” strategy: the threat of being able to mobilise protesters in significant numbers if good faith is broken. As well as minimising disruption to the public, the unpredictability of this tactic has its benefits against a bureaucracy.
Retreating with the strength of agility and the threat of rapid remobilisation is a formidable weapon that the umbrella movement wields, and one which can be used to influence the pace and momentum of the pro-democracy movement. After all, as Wong himself posited, time is on the side of the young protesters.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Manisha Mirchandani is an independent writer and researcher on development issues in Asia