THE BLOG
09/30/2014 09:30 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Why Hong Kong's #OccupyCentral Used Nonviolent Action as Tactic

Coauthored by Jamila Raqib

The Occupy Movement has returned and is resurrecting itself in Hong Kong. But in this case, the "occupying" is not associating itself with the Occupy Wall Street of recent years. Instead, a new political initiative in Hong Kong -- called Occupy Central -- is becoming an important political force that may threaten China's continued domination of Hong Kong.

Occupy Central, or OC, was created with the primary objective of attaining universal suffrage -- the right to vote as determined by international standards -- which Hong Kong currently does not have. This year, OC plans to mobilize Hong Kong citizens and has planned a series of actions, including a sit-in involving more than 10,000 participants to block roads in the central business district of Hong Kong. Its primary means of struggle is the use of nonviolent action and, specifically, civil disobedience as a means to achieve its objectives.

When Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, Beijing pledged "a high degree of autonomy," within a one country, two systems model. Yet, candidates for Hong Kong's political leader position, the chief executive, are currently chosen by an election committee that many believe is loyal to Beijing. Beijing has insisted that candidates must "love country" (i.e. China) and "love Hong Kong" in order to run in the elections.

The good news here is that China is set to grant, albeit with some caveats, universal suffrage to Hong Kong by 2017. Hong Kong citizens fear that Beijing will not honor this agreement, however, which is why Occupy Central is preparing now, in advance. They hope to deter a possible future crisis that could result from China's failure to honor the agreement and to conduct a struggle if deterrence fails.

Led by Benny Tai, Professor Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, OC has a diverse coordinating committee and, according to Tai, major decisions will be made by the participation of every person. The final decision regarding the occupation of the business district, according to OC, will be determined by a popular vote, not by the leadership.

The plan to occupy is the last resort in the OC Hong Kong strategy. They're first seeking a dialogue with the government in an effort to reach a settlement before a call to direct action. The condition for civil disobedience, according to Tai, is that you have to exhaust all legal channels. If negotiation and bargaining with Beijing fails, then they will occupy, suggesting that the whole city may have to be closed down.

OC's aims are not solely short-term or suffrage-based. A large component of OC is to educate Hong Kong residents on the benefits of nonviolent resistance and prepare them to use civil disobedience as a means to place limits on the power of leaders they see as illegitimate, empowering Hong Kong to deal not only with this threat but with future threats as well. The movement's commitment to nonviolent resistance was visible on New Year's Day, when thousands of Hong Kong citizens marched for political reform. Participants used the march as an occasion to learn and practice nonviolent action techniques, forming human chains and protecting themselves from possible police violence.

The idea that a society can successfully develop and apply a defense policy based on nonviolent struggle is not new. OC, like many movements before it, is attempting to produce a defense capacity that is strong enough and organized enough to convince a potential attacker -- in this case, China -- not to aggress because the consequences of an aggressive action could be unacceptably costly and ultimately unsuccessful.

By announcing in advance its plans to nonviolently disrupt economic activity in central Hong Kong, OC is keen to increase the cost of Beijing's potential decision to not grant Hong Kong universal suffrage. The nonviolent strategy here is to make life very difficult for Hong Kong -- and, consequently, China -- if Beijing does not honor its promise.

OC is transparent and open about its demands and strategy because its members understand that nonviolent action operates differently than violent struggle. Secrecy in a nonviolent movement does little to prevent government surveillance or otherwise protect groups from any well-organized police or security forces. Rather, it closes the movement off from potential support. Nonviolent struggle does not depend on secrecy, but requires openness in order to be effective.

China is clearly concerned with Occupy Central, and has allegedly employed hackers and Beijing loyalists to infiltrate the movement. Going forward, how China handles the demands and actions of Occupy Central may, to a large degree, determine the future of the movement.

If China uses repression against people who are committed to nonviolent struggle it may face significant repercussions. Beijing may not be ready for blowback and the effects of "political jiu jitsu." China's capacity to apply punishment may inspire a greater number of supporters for the Occupy Central movement, cause fissures and fracturing within the Communist Party and its local supporters, and build sympathy and support among third parties in the international community. The wise move, then, would be for Beijing to honor suffrage-related promises and to pay heed to Occupy Central demands, because it's not going away anytime soon.

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Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Jamila Raqib is the executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Gene Sharp in 1983 to advance the study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world. This op-ed originally ran in US News & World Report in March 2014.