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An expert explains how Hong Kong's protesters could actually win

A Hong Kong demonstrator on October 2nd.
A Hong Kong demonstrator on October 2nd.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Nobody has ever gotten rich betting on democratic reforms in China. But is there a chance — even a slim one — that the Hong Kong protestors could force some kind of concession out of the Chinese authorities? Is even a partial victory thinkable?

Maybe. Occupy Central and the other Hong Kong movements protesting in the streets right now are remarkably well-organized, according to political scientists who study what makes social movements effective. If the protestors do everything right, they say, they've got at a real shot at winning partial, but significant, concessions. But their central demand — full, unconstrained democracy in Hong Kong — will take a great deal more time.

Hong Kongers have built a successful protest movement

"It's like a 50/50 chance if they do everything right," Erica Chenoweth, a professor of political science at the University of Denver, told me.

Chenoweth is the co-author, along with Maria Stephan, of Why Civil Resistance Works, a 2011 book that made waves by arguing that non-violent resistance has, historically, been twice as effective as armed rebellion. Chenoweth and Stephan's data also helped them identify general lessons about what makes a non-violent movement likely to succeed, which Chenoweth helpfully applied to Hong Kong at my request.

According to Chenoweth, there are four basic things that make non-violent resistance movements likely to succeed. They are:

  1. The size and diversity of the movement: how many people are involved in the movement and whether they're broadly representative of different groups and social classes.
  2. Staying power: they can keep protests going, avoiding both fatigue and repression.
  3. Diversity of tactics: they don't just protest but also use strategies such as mass boycotts and strikes.
  4. Co-option of opposing elites: whether or not the movement creates divisions inside the leadership class of the government and society that they're opposing.

As for Hong Kong, Chenoweth believes that "the movement so far is performing well on the first three items, [but] the performance on the fourth item is questionable."

As for size and diversity, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people appear to have participated, which is "well over the threshold of typically successful campaigns" given Hong Kong's size. However, Chenoweth cautions, it's small if you think of Hong Kong as just a city inside China — more on this later.

The Hong Kong protest movement is also quite diverse. "There are people participating from different classes and different genders," Chenoweth says. "There's a very high degree of family-friendly participation, and that often turns into more leverage than, say, if it's all males of a particular age group."

The proof of the movement's staying power is their continued persistence in the face of tear gas and threats of repression from official Communist Party organs. And the movement is tactically far more sophisticated than most Western observers, who focus on the big demonstrations to the exclusion of other plans, let on. "They've called for a general strike," Chenoweth notes, "and it's highly probable that will happen and in a sustained way. They're very well organized."

And as for opposing elites, well, that's the key question going forward. And it's safe to say elite opinion in China is what the movement's success hinges on.

China's elites are the key pressure point

Protesters raise their hands in Hong Kong (Alex Ogle/Getty)

There's a common misconception that non-violent movements win by showing the other side the light: in this case, persuading Hong Kong and mainland officials that Hong Kong really deserves democracy. That's wrong.

"The pressure works by imposing enough costs on their opponents that there are loyalty shifts," Chenoweth explains. "The people on whom that the opponent relies on to implement its power locally change their mind about whether it's a good idea" to go along with the repressive program.

"You'd see Hong Kong elites pushing back against pressure from mainland China, you'd see business communities saying they'd impose serious sanctions on China's economy, you would see members of the political party in mainland China start to argue for rolling back their recent [restrictions on Hong Kong Democracy]," Chenoweth explains.

Some of that — especially the bit about business sanctions — sounds pretty far-fetched. But Chenoweth thinks that, if the pressure stays on, Hong Kong and mainland elites may end up deciding that handing the protestors a partial victory makes more sense than dispersing them with a full-on, Tiananmen-style crackdown. In fact, according to Chenoweth, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protestors actually won a partial concession — the right to form student unions — in this fashion. But when they kept going, demanding full democracy, Beijing decided repression was its only option.

One such minor concession would be forcing CY Leung, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to resign. The protestors, who see him as a tool of Chinese repression, want him to resign. "That's very thinkable," Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian of Chinese protest at UC-Irvine, says. "He would become a scapegoat for larger problems, but it would defuse some of the anger over the protests."

But don't bet on Chinese democracy anytime soon

Chenoweth thinks Leung's resignation would be a real win for the protest movement. "A minor short-term gain like that would pretty impactful," Chenoweth says. "It would show that they have the power locally, that they could force this kind of a change in their system — particularly if they were able to get someone in power locally who was willing to push back against the Chinese government."

Wasserstrom goes further. "Even if the person who replaced him had similar policy views, it would be a sign to that official that there would be a value in being more responsive to the people," he says.

That said, don't expect it anytime soon. There's a reason Chenoweth said that the protestors have at best a 50/50 chance — Beijing doesn't appear to be in a compromising mood. "Right now, the hardliners are winning the argument," Chenoweth notes dourly.

"It'll be very hard for the Communist Party to say 'Okay, there will be open and free elections,'" Wasserstrom says. "That's unlikely to happen."

That prediction fits with Chinese leader Xi Jinping's general policy. "Commentators have painted Xi Jinping into a corner: back down and be seen as weak, or stand firm and be seen as reneging on 'one country, two systems,'" Jessica Chen Weiss, an expert on Chinese nationalist protest at Yale, writes, referencing China's "two systems" policy of allowing Hong Kong special autonomy.

Xi is something of a hardliner on protests and democratic reform (he does not care for either), so it he's likely to try to stand firm for the time being unless there is significant pressure from other Chinese elites. "The outlook for 'gradual and orderly progress' toward a more democratic Hong Kong appears bleak," Weiss concludes.

So a partial victory is definitely possible, though by no means guaranteed. And as for the movement's biggest demand, full and free elections in 2017, it'll take a significant, long-term struggle to make that happen — even though Beijing has nominally promised full democracy to Hong Kong. Xi and the rest of the CCP seems totally uninterested in a concession that sweeping in the face of the current protest movement. In the unlikely event that they were forced to choose between full democracy and another Tiananmen right now, it seems possible that Beijing could opt for blood.