There was a time when simply marching was enough to scare the crap out of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. On July 1 2003, an estimated 500 thousand marched from Victoria Park to the Central Government Offices to oppose legislation regarding Basic Law Article 23; on July 7, Donald Tsang announced the bill would be postponed indefinitely. Simply put, the main reason the protest worked was because it managed to shock the government: attendance was several times higher than even the highest estimates made before the march. However, Hong Kongers today are faced with a hardened government, and such tactics would not work again.
July 1 marches had in fact be carried out every year since 1997 and continue to this day, in addition to numerous other protests, but none would ever have the impact that the 2003 march did. The next protests of note were the 2009-10 protests against the Guangzhou-Hong Kong high-speed rail. A siege of the LegCo building managed to delay funding for the project for about a month, but funding was approved anyway on 16 Jan. 2010 despite further sieges which trapped supporters of the bill inside LegCo overnight.
Hong Kong protesters scored their first major victory since 2003 in 2012, when Scholarism announced an indefinite occupation of the space now know as Civic Square at the new Tamar government complex to protest the introduction of a new “Moral and National Education” curriculum, widely seen as an exercise in political indoctrination. Two major rallies were held on 1 and 7 Sept. 2012, attracting an estimated 40,000 and 120,000 participants, respectively. Like the high-speed rail sieges of 2010, the Scholarism rallies were not authorized by the Hong Kong Police Force. The difference was that only about 1000 people participated in the 2010 sieges. The fact that over a hundred thousand people would believe in something strongly enough to all break the law together shocked the government, and the curriculum, like the Article 23 legislation before it, was shelved indefinitely.
A similar series of unauthorized rallies occurred after Ricky Wong’s long-awaited HKTV was denied a free-to-air license in 2013, but failed to change the government’s mind. At this point, people had come to the conclusion that the only way to get the government’s attention was for each protest to be even more disruptive than the last. Thus the Occupy Movement/Umbrella Revolution.
The occupation has failed. The new stage of the Umbrella Revolution has instead flipped the traditional protest paradigm on its head. Instead of the grand ideal of democracy (a fine ideal, but vague at times), protesters have mainly focused on the single issue of Chinese smugglers. Instead of picketing the impenetrable fortress of Tamar itself, protesters have taken to the streets (a consequence is that protesters have faced more intense, even violent opposition, forcing them to become more radical themselves). If traditional protests were an elephant, Hong Kong’s new wave of protests are a barrage of moles: whack one, and another pops up.
Associated with this change is the transition from organized to amorphous protests. No one person was or is in charge of the Umbrella Revolution, especially not the original Occupy trio. Although the occupation of Civic Square was led by Scholarism’s Joshua Wong, the transition to a long-term occupation of the streets of Admiralty (and elsewhere) was completely spontaneous. Even the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the most prominent group of the Revolution (they earned a “debate session” with the HK government), was not really in charge. When the Mongkok occupation was cleared, the subsequent “shopping (gau wu) protests” were organized by no one in particular. Even the most organized protests of the post-Occupy era (such as the anti-smuggling protests of late) are initiated by Facebook groups of only hundreds of members or less (Civic Passion, a medium-sized group, injected itself into the Yuen Long protests but were not the initiators).
In short, what is required is to keep the government on its feet and to avoid repeating age-old tactics that the government is used to by now. For that reason, no one can tell what the protests of tomorrow will look like, but they, at least the successful ones, will not take the form of yet another Victoria Park-Tamar march.