The year of 2014 was a year of protests for Hong Kong. In August 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of the People’s Republic of China issued its decision on the reforms of the Hong Kong electoral system, which stated that a 1200-member nominating committee would elect two to three electoral candidates with more than half of the votes before the general public could vote on them. Since then, a wave of demonstrations—first started with the Class Boycotts by university students then joined by the Occupy Central with Love and Peace protest group—arose in Hong Kong and protestors stated sit-ins in major local commercial places. The series of protests, which called for universal suffrage and resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Chun-ying Leung, is referred to as “Umbrella Movement”. The number of protesters peaked at more than 100,000 at any given time. By December 15, 2014, however, all of the protesters and their camps were cleared by the police, brining the Movement to an end.
International media, pro-democracy groups, and concerned individuals were at one time somewhat optimistic that the Movement would bring about certain actual changes in Hong Kong’s electoral reforms design. But why does such a big wave of protests, considering its sheer scale presented in the media, fail? Why does this particular collective action end with nothing?
To understand the Movement better, we need to identify the nature of the movement and that requires the application of Elinor Ostrom’s insights on various kinds of goods: common-pool resource (CPR) goods, public goods, private goods, and club goods. Let us assume here that democracy is the end of mankind history and the ultimate pursue of human society. Democracy, or democratic reforms in Hong Kong’s case, should be considered as a public good because a person’s “using” a democratic system does not exclude others from using it nor will it reduce the availability of such to others.
However, the vision that democratic reforms would benefit all Hong Kong citizens does not guarantee that all locals would be mobilized. In fact, Mancur Olson (1965) seemed to have predicted the doomed destiny of today’s Umbrella Movement as a form of collective action. Olson observed a major, if not inevitable, issue in collective action: free-rider problem. He maintained that collective action is possible only when free-riders are excluded from the benefits of joining the group, and when selective incentives are made available to members. The solutions to free-rider problem and the key for collective actions to succeed, according to Olson, are coercion, selective incentives, and a small size dynamic where members are identifiable and noticeable.
In the case of the Umbrella Movement, the scale of such collective action is a blessing and a curse for the democratic course. Many of the protestors were students, youths, and activists who overstated the costs of their not participating in the demonstrations and were therefore willing to commit time to the social movement. Following Max Weber’s categorization(1919), we could identify political actors such as the pan-democracy camp supporting the movement out of party interests and stated ideology and pro-democracy and activist media such as Apple Daily and In-Media HK actively seeking to justify the movement and shame those who did not participate in the movement. However, at least two features (or lack of such) dictate the failure of the movement.
The first lies in the fact that businessmen, political parties, the middle class and other individuals or groups who have vested interests in fighting for “genuine universal suffrage” in Hong Kong and could have exerted actual influence on the movement, chose to be an onlooker because they perceived that their personal participation costs would outweigh gains or that they could ride on others’ efforts for free. Lee Kai Shing and other local oligarchs, whom Weber would deem as interest groups, maintained a wait-and-see attitude until they were absolutely clear about Beijing’s stance. It was not until half-way through the movement that they publicly stood in line with the Chinese government and spoke out against the protesters.
The second factor that contributes to its failure is the lack of sufficient selective incentives to locals. In fact, the ideas of fighting a long-term battle for “genuine universal suffrage” whose benefits would not present until 2017 at the earliest are not appealing enough to ordinary Hong Kong citizens. To borrow Ostrom’s wisdom, there is a “discount rate” in the course of Hong Kong’s electoral reforms. The majority of Hong Kong citizens is not convinced that the loss today (such as sacrificing temporary business revenues and social stability for the Umbrella Movement) can gain them larger yields in the future.
In conclusion, the Umbrella Movement is a perfect example that showcases the organizational dilemma in collective action and it coincides with Olson’s prediction, that is, we cannot expect individuals to act together just because they share a common problem or goal.