Lessons From Hong Kong: Are protests effective for change?

On July 1, over 100,000 Hong Kong residents took to the streets for their annual protest, marking the 19th anniversary of the cities return to Chinese rule.

Since 1997, the first day of July has paid tribute to the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to Mainland China, but is typically filled with large protests instead of celebration.

Each year, thousands of Hong Kong residents pour into Victoria Park and walk nearly 2 miles to the Government House, demanding change.  While the marches have a slightly different agenda annually, the overall theme remains the same; less Chinese influence in Hong Kong.

The turnouts for these marches have been substantial and there is a growing sentiment among residents, particularly young people, that Hong Kong isn’t China.


Hong Kong Democracy Protests Bring City to Standstill Photos – ABC News

Despite all of this, Chinese influence in Hong Kong is as strong as ever.  And the lack of progress has many youngsters discouraged.

“A growing number of young people doubt the effectiveness of conventional protest methods,” noted Chinese University political commentator Ivan Choy Chi-keung.  “Some resort to radical and even violent means of protests, while others are so frustrated that they consider all protest methods to be useless.”

A lack of return on protesting investment is not exclusive to Hong Kong.  The United States and other countries around the globe have also seen passionate movements squashed by the political giants up above.

In fact, just last month I wrote a piece on The Black Lives Matter movement, titled Loud, Chants, No Change.  Even with the groups rather large following, they have been relatively unsuccessful in improving the lives of everyday black Americans.

Watching activist face similar struggles while halfway around the world, got me wondering.

When does protesting work?  If at all?

A New Era

At first thought, the if question seems rather obvious.  After all, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, and Apartheid: all stick out as clear examples of successful protests.

But an attempt to find more recent examples proves more difficult.  The Arab Spring seems to have resulted in more oppression, not less.  Occupy Wall Street vanquished as fast as it appeared.  And even more recently, anti-Trump protests have seemed to only bolster his campaign.

According to some researchers today’s lack of successes may be contributed to the growing impact of social media.

 The powers of retweets and hashtags enable passionate activists to accumulate followings in short order.  In 2009, Anders Colding-Jørgensen of the University of Copenhagen, started a Facebook group to protest the would be demolition of the historic Stork Fountain.  Within two weeks time he had gained over 27,000 members.  That was the extent of the experiment, simply to prove he could gain a quick and massive following.

Compare this to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.  One December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.  One day later Jo Anne Robinson, a professor at Alabama State University, wrote and distributed a leaflet calling for a one day boycott of buses on Monday December 5.  The weekend prior to the boycott, Robinson and a few of her students sneaked into a duplicating room and spent all night mimeographing and distributing over 52,000 copies.

Today, a similar message could be shared with 52,000 people in a matter of seconds.

Although it might seem the growing effortlessness in which people can organize would enhance movements not cripple them.  Yet, this newfound ease can often result in a lack of leadership and stability.

“Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum,” writes  Zeynep Tufekci, of Princeton University.  “Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.”

Going Forward

The notion that social media has been a hindrance rather than a catalyst to change certainly does not mean that activists should abandon it completely.  But time capital does matter, especially to politicians, writing a well thought out letter takes more time than angry tweet, and thus has more value.

And that’s the boring part of change that cannot be ignored.  The fact is, the messy world of politics is absolutely necessary for any real change to occur.

Learning how a bill becomes a law may not stimulate the same adrenaline rush as yelling in the street, but it’s equally as important.


A pro-democracy student stands on railings during a rally outside the government- NBC News

I’ve written about the power of the a vote before and the facts remain the same, only 38% of college aged Americans turnout to vote.  And because of this, our ideas and beliefs continue to be underrepresented.

So it’s not that protests don’t work.  They just cannot create any change on their own.  Protests and social media movements should be used as a tool to get a message out to the public and increase dialogue.  But real change occurs after the protests are over; in the voting booths and at the desks of our representatives.

Even more important, is simply to vote.  In Hong Kong, the politics are much more complex, but in America the votes of the people really do matter (Despite what your local Bernie Bro says on Facebook).

There is no doubt that protests can be powerful.  But as Zeynep Tufekci writes, “The point isn’t just to challenge power; it’s to change it.”

Photo Credit: PBS News

About Nathan Golden (9 Articles)
Nathan is a junior at Penn State studying economics and education policy and not in that order. In his spare time he enjoys having his heart broken by all his favorite sports teams, especially every Buctober. When he's not weeping because of a bad sports loss, he can be found ranting to somebody who doesn't care at a party about contemporary issues in education. He will be heading to Hong Kong this summer to teach low-income high school students economics and hopes to teach math full time when he graduates.

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