12/12/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

10 Lessons From the Hong Kong Protests


SHANGHAI -- The "umbrella revolution" has come to an end. Post-occupied Hong Kong braces for an uncertain future. While pessimists predict nothing but doom and gloom, optimists, with good reason, believe that valuable lessons could be drawn from the "Occupy Central" fiasco and Hong Kong could come out stronger.

Here are 10 lessons we can take away from these protests:

1) Beijing will not budge under pressure.

A political goal of the Occupy protest has been to press for the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to reverse its decision on universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Going out to the street and occupying public areas, the opposition thought, would have forced the central government to back down for the sake of maintaining Hong Kong's stability. How wrong they have proven to be! Beijing's determination to uphold the Basic Law has proven unmovable. No matter how much radicals have tried to stir up trouble in Hong Kong, Beijing has not given an inch.

Anyone who wishes to force the hand of Beijing must face a basic truth: Hong Kong is no longer that important to China's immense economy. Hong Kong's GDP was surpassed by that of Shanghai's in 2009 and by that of Beijing's in 2011.

Neighboring Guangzhou and Shenzhen are also catching up fast. Hong Kong is destined to become a second-tier city on the Chinese economic map. By now, most of the Hong Kong people would recognize that any attempt of twisting Beijing's arm by illegal actions is doomed to fail.

2) Hong Kong citizens reject illegal actions.

The Occupy organizers thought that as long as they were waving the banner of "democracy," most people in Hong Kong would supported their illegal actions. They have been proven wrong. Embracing the rule of law, the community at-large opposes the law-breaking activities of the protesters. Poll after poll has shown an overwhelming majority of the people in favor of a retreat of the occupiers.

Fighting for whatever political causes by hurting the rule of law will be condemned by most Hong Kong people in future.

3) Pursuit of democracy by undemocratic means won't work.

Fighting for democracy is one thing. Claiming to be fighting for democracy by employing totally undemocratic tactics, however, is another matter. Democracy entails discussion, negotiation and compromise. The public interest and public space can't be violated by a minority of people. The Occupy movement has been going against all the basic democratic principles. It will be difficult for a minority group to gain any sympathy and support from the majority by waving this banner of undemocratic democracy.

4) Street politics lead to anarchism.

The Occupy organizers completely lost control of the movement early on. The protest has turned into non-stop infighting. While some leaders decided to turn themselves in to the police, some radicals confronted the authorities with violence. Without any leadership, any massive and divisive movement will descend to anarchism. The chaotic situation in Mong Kok said it all.

5) Street politics divide society.

The protest has radicalized Hong Kong society, which has more or less been harmonious since the handover, pushing different sides to the extreme and tearing apart the community. To the mainlanders who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, it's painful to see people in Hong Kong -- husband and wife, father and son, teacher and student -- turning against each other because of political differences. Burnt badly by the Occupy protest, it is likely that Hong Kong's citizens will now treasure harmony and unity much more than before.

6) Democracy can only be built incrementally.

Democracy has to be built step by step, not overnight. In the West, it took hundreds of years. In Hong Kong, during the British colonial rule of more than a century and half, the people never even had a drop of democracy; London was calling the shots from thousands of miles away. And by 2017, only two decades after the handover, the Hong Kong people could be electing the leader by one man, one vote. Such rapid progress should have been praised.

7) Political turbulence hurts the economy.

In the past two decades, when China's economy was marching forward in full speed, Hong Kong, failing to transform its economy, was struggling. The Occupy protest is making it worse. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the GDP growth forecast in the fourth quarter has been adjusted down to 1.5 percent from 2.5 percent, cutting the GDP growth forecast for 2014 to 1.9 percent from 2.3 percent. The forecast for GDP growth in 2015 has also been reduced to 2.1 percent from 2.5 percent. The retail sector is suffering a serious blow -- a predication of 3.5 percent growth this year will now likely become a drop of 2.5 percent! Golden Week businesses decreased as much as 50 percent -- not to mention the loss of time by so many people due to the blockage of major roads in town.

8) Poverty and inequality must be tackled.

While the Occupy protest was incited by a group of minority radicals, it might not have captured the imagination of so many people without the fuel provided by the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Since the handover, the middle class has been shrinking. The starting salary for a college graduate was about HK$10,000 more than a decade ago; it now remains at the same level. Property prices, rent and the cost of living, however, have soared in this period.

In a way, property owners own the society, and ordinary people are working for property developers. The sharp contrast between the big property developers and the ordinary folks has cast a dark shadow over the society.

A creeping sense of injustice has fueled discontent. The government must tackle this issue in post-Occupy Hong Kong.

9) Fat cats are getting too fat

It shouldn't have been a problem for businessmen in Hong Kong to reap a maximum amount of profits in the freest economy in the world. Nevertheless, a lack of balance and proportion has proven problematic. Big conglomerations rely on ordinary people's consumption to maintain their huge profits. If Hong Kong people continue to have declining incomes, the spending power gap between the mainland tourists and the locals will grow further. This can only inflame social discontent. Even though the Occupy protests focusing on democracy have now diminished, protests highlighting other causes could emerge in the future. Hong Kong's big conglomerations should take heed of the new environment and strike a balance between making money and maintaining social harmony.

10) Cooperation is the only way forward.

In the post-Occupy world, Hong Kong should become more mature. Hong Kong people should understand that what their city needs isn't any self-destructing political movement but economic reforms, which could lead them out of the globalization trap. Hong Kong elites should think about the following:

  • How to maintain the good rule of law tradition
  • How to position Hong Kong in the globalized economy
  • How to avoid monopoly by big conglomerates
  • How to revitalize the economy

The Hong Kong opposition, meanwhile, should consider how to fight for its causes within the rule of law framework and how to use legal means to change injustice in society. Cooperation and unity from all sectors is the only way to ensure that the Pearl of the Orient continues to shine.

This article is distributed by the Guancha global syndication. Its Chinese version is published in

Hong Kong Protests