The Problem of Legitimacy in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement

The Problem of Legitimacy in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement

Kwok Chi and Chan Ngai Keung

The Umbrella Movement (UM), which lasted for 79 days (from 28th September to 15th December, 2014), was the largest social movement in Hong Kong’s recent history. It was originally intended to be an occupation that took place in Central, the key business area in Hong Kong, but grew into a three-site occupation movement. Because of this sudden change, a puzzling problem arose: who represents whom? Conventional views of legitimacy assume that the concept only applies where a coercive relation exists, and since voluntary participation is the key feature of social movements, then the legitimacy problem does not arise. However, in the UM, the legitimacy issue was a central concern for both organizers and participants and affected the development of the movement. Through interviewing major leaders in the UM, our ongoing research examines the relation between democratic procedure, legitimacy, and social movement. Here we focus on two major aspects of the legitimacy issue to reveal the legitimacy crisis in the UM: First, the leadership’s internal conflicts and secondly the two different conceptions of the movement in two occupation sites. We begin by outlining the unexpected transformation from the “Occupy Central” to the “UM”.

Most of our interviewees said that it was unexpected that the Umbrella Movement would occur and when it did and that it would last for such a long time. They spoke about the surprising developments of the 26th, 27th and 28th of September. It is difficult to understand the rise of the legitimacy issue and internal conflicts among the leaders as well as the protesters in the UM without referring to the shift from “Occupy Central” to UM over these three days.

In 2013, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) introduced the concept of civil disobedience, with the emphasis on non-violence, rationality and justice, to provide the rationale and legitimacy for the occupy movement (Lee, 2015). OCLP expected to start the occupy movement under the guidance of the Manual of Disobedience. (2014) on 1 October, and for it to only last for a few days of peaceful and voluntary arrest. This script, however, was not followed, because of the student organizations’ more proactive imagination of civil disobedience (Chan, 2015; Wong, 2015; personal interviews) that led to the occupation in the “Civic Square” in front of the government headquarters in Admiralty on 26 September. More than 60 protesters, including Alex Chow and Lester Shum of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and Joshua Wong of Scholarism were subsequently arrested. It compelled the three OCLP leaders to declare the beginning of “Occupy Central” in the early morning of the 28th of September even though this act resulted in some protesters’ discontent and criticism of what they saw as “hijacking.” The protest quickly transformed into a large-scale occupation in Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway, and named as UM after the police fired 87 canisters of tear gas at the protesters (Tang, 2015).

Developments over these three days transferred the central leadership from OCLP to HKFS and Scholarism; and transformed the movement from something ephemeral to the unplanned long-term occupation, thus creating the unprecedented legitimacy issue and internal conflicts among the protesters (1).

Internal Conflicts among Protesters

The public often depicts the UM as a “leaderless” movement owing to its personalized action slogans and the motto of “you don’t represent me”; however, in fact, central organizers did exist (Lee & Chan, 2016). The mixture of the characteristics of connective action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013) and collective action made the organizational structure of the UM far more complex than expected. In the original plan of “Occupy Central,” OCLP was the only leader, whereas the protesters and media were more likely to recognize HKFS and Scholarism as the leaders and OCLP as the coordinator. Civil society organizations (CSOs) were mainly responsible for picketing and other duties in occupation sites. The protesters also constructed their own autonomous spaces with small groups to set up and protect barricades, as well as to establish recycling systems and discussion forums. This was not a top-down hierarchical structure where the leadership could easily mobilize most protesters (personal interviews) and the situation varied in the three occupation sites. A puzzle therefore had emerged in practice: who was the decision-maker and was it possible to make a decision that most protesters would comply with.

We selected two events that represented these dynamics (2). In late October, OCLP together with HKFS and Scholarism announced the launch of “occupied area voting” to establish a mechanism to consolidate the legitimacy of the movement (3). Nevertheless, protesters worried that it might provide a chance for oppositional groups to hijack the movement, as no arrangement could effectively distinguish real participants from those pretending to be participants. However, the leadership decided to cancel the voting. On the one hand it revealed the internal conflicts among leaders and protesters but on the other hand it pinpointed a prominent but often omitted question in a large-scale social movement: “who are the people?” Without addressing this issue, it is almost impossible to establish a democratic mechanism to decide matters collectively.

Another event was the call, made by the HKFS and Scholarism, on 30 November, to storm the government headquarters. This action was aimed at sustaining the movement through more proactive action, however the police immediately smashed it. Some protesters criticized the two student organizations for their inability to lead the movement, while the OCLP founders denounced this violent action (Chan, 2015). This case illustrates the different visions for the movement: OCLP’s plan was more passive under the “non-violence” principle; some protesters upheld a more active and radical attitude towards the occupation; the two student organizations’ imagination was torn between those two ends of the spectrum. Hence, it shows the leadership’s difficulty in making an informed decision to gain all parties’ recognition.

Two Pictures of the Movement

The admiralty occupation site was often viewed as the base of the two student organizations and OCLP and it was commonly understood that there were more calls for the of decentralizing the movement in the Mongkok occupation site (4) Apparently this was a stereotype that did not fully capture every nuance of the movement, but nonetheless it does represent two dominant and somehow conflicting imaginations of the movement.

The first one was mainly proposed by OCLP, and stressed the principle of non-violence and a more centralized collective action, while the other one called for a decentralized movement structure. Both claims were widespread in the occupied areas, but the second imagination was more prevalent in Mongkok. In Admiralty, the leadership had set up a “big stage” for disseminating messages, and had opened it for protesters to express their views publicly later. Pickets, mainly members of CSOs, were also on duty though many protesters kept challenging their authority, especially with the rise of the second vision since October (personal interviews). The situation in Mongkok was quite different: there was a “big stage” and no pickets. Mongkok protesters distinguished themselves from those in Admiralty and claimed, “you [the leaders] don’t represent me.” They constantly challenged the legitimacy of the leadership throughout the UM.

It is problematic, however, to view the protesters in Admiralty strictly bounded by the leadership. On November 8th a protester claimed that the pickets would not allow him to speak on the “big stage” and considered his action as “challenging the leadership radically.” Though Joshua Wong soon made it clear that student leaders welcomed transparent dialogue, the discontent over the “big stage,” the symbol of the centralized social movement leadership, was deeply rooted in the radicalized protesters’ communities.

Reasons and Difficulties

A chief reason causing the deadlock was the lack of an established deliberative mechanism in the occupation sites, and between leaders, to coordinate actions. This was probably due to the unprecedented move from “Occupy Central” to the UM. As the two student organizations did not originally intend to seize the leadership, they had no plan for the long-term occupation. Although HKFS and Scholarism formed the “Five-Party Platform” with OCLP, CSOs, and pan-democratic political parties, to coordinate the movement in late October, it failed to function effectively as a decision-making mechanism. In our personal interviews, we were told that the platform was more like a formal meeting in which every party simply presented its view on what to do next without much deliberation let alone collective decisions.

In the occupation sites, on-site organizations sought to gather the protesters’ opinions through opening the “big stage”, setting up discussion forums, and making personal contact with protestors. Nevertheless, there was no mechanism for bringing these “local” opinions into the decision-making process. The lack of means to absorb local opinions became a rationale for protestors to challenge the leaders’ legitimacy.

The ultimate solution to legitimacy conflicts is democratic voting. When participants had conflicting views with regard to the main principle of the movement, as in the case of the UM (strict non-violence versus conditional violence) (5), the easiest way to resolve conflicts of this sort would be to put it to a vote. But a democratic voting procedure rested on a premise: the demos can be clearly identified (Mouffe, 2009). In other words, outsiders can be excluded from the procedure effectively. This can be done in small-scale movements where everyone has some familiarity with other participants, but in large-scale movements such as the UM this is almost impossible. The UM has left us a puzzling tale: is it possible for leaders to gain legitimacy through any sort of democratic procedure so as to avoid internal splits? If this is not possible, then how are we to coordinate a large-scale movement effectively to achieve the goal of changing an unjust government structure?

(1) Notably, in the original plan of “Occupy Central,” OCLP was the only leader, while the student organizations and civil society organizations (CSOs) only served as the coordinator. In the UM, despite the protesters and media were more likely to recognize HKFS and Scholarism as the leaders and OCLP as the coordinator, the resources such as the pickets were mainly under the latter’s control.
(2) It is important to note that there were many events that revealed the internal conflicts among the leaders as well as the protesters. Due the length limit, it is difficult for us to explicate all of them. Chan (2015), one of the co-founders of OCLP, published an article to discuss part of the conflicts between OCLP, two student organizations (HKFS and Scholarism) and other groups of protester.
(3) For the detailed motions, please refer to Chan (2015).
(4) There were three occupation sites in UM, including Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay, but the Causeway Bay site had little significance in these legitimacy conflicts, and hence we focus more on the first two sites.
(5) A main controversy between the Admiralty site and the Mongkok site was whether conditional violence is acceptable. The former basically represented the view that the true force of the movement lay in its strict non-violence, even reasonable self-defense was considered to be somehow destructive to the movement, while the latter represented the view that violence might increase the cost of governance and might therefore force the government to retreat a bit, so, violence is acceptable under some condition, depending on the context.

Bennett, W. L., & Segerberg, A. (2013). The logic of connective action. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Chan, K. M. (2015). Occupying Hong Kong: How deliberation, referendum and civil disobedience played out in the Umbrella Movement. International Journal on Human Rights, 12(21), 1-7.
Lee, F. L. F. (2015). Social movement as civic education: Communication activities and understanding of civil disobedience in the Umbrella Movement. Chinese Journal of Communication, 8(4), 394-411.
Lee, F. L. F., & Chan, J. M. (2016). Digital media activities and mode of participation in a protest campaign: A study of the Umbrella Movement. Information, Communication & Society, 19(1), 4-22.
Mouffe, C. (2009) The democratic paradox. London: Verso.
Tang, G. (2015). Mobilization by images: TV screen and mediated instant grievances in the Umbrella Movement. Chinese Journal of Communication, 8(4), 338-355.
Wong, J. (2015). Scholarism on the march. New Left Review, 92, 43-52.


Kwok Chi is a PhD student in Political Science at The University of Toronto.  His research interests are in theories of social justice. Chan Ngai Keung is an MPhil student in Communication at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests are in urban communication.