‘Color revolution’ ends as public support falters

Hong Kong’s upheaval, or “color revolution a la Hong Kong” as understood by many analysts, which broke out in mid-2019, ended abruptly with the promulgation and implementation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, a national law enacted by the central authorities in June 2020. Before that, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the imposition of the social gathering ban by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government had already made it difficult for the organizers of the “color revolution” to incite large-scale protests and riots, but they had no intention to abandon their plan because of the ban. It is indisputably the NSL which was indispensable in finally putting an end to Hong Kong’s “color revolution”, restoring order and stability to Hong Kong, dashing forever the hope of internal and external hostile forces to seize the governing power of Hong Kong, and fundamentally transforming Hong Kong’s political landscape.

Still, what needs to be explained is the abruptness and the ignominious failure of Hong Kong’s “color revolution”, the most serious and protracted political crisis Hong Kong has experienced since World War II. What is puzzling is the lack of even feinted resistance to the NSL by the organizers of the “color revolution”. Instead of attempting to instigate mass actions to protest the NSL and Beijing’s “blatant interference” in Hong Kong affairs, they meekly though reluctantly submitted to the NSL, stopped all protests and violence, disbanded their organizations, or simply fled Hong Kong for good. It is possible that even Beijing was surprised by the timidity and irresoluteness of these ostensibly intransigent, determined, and fearless “anti-communists” and “democratic activists”. Their miserable performance must have also disappointed their foreign sponsors, who set great store on them as their political agents.

Equally enigmatic is the fact that most Hong Kong residents remain largely unperturbed by the mass arrests, prosecutions, convictions and imprisonment of the ringleaders and major participants in the “color revolution”, shattering their wishful thinking that the crackdown by the Hong Kong authorities would trigger mass protests, civil disobedience or even street violence.

Finding the correct answer to the puzzle and enigma is key to a comprehensive explanation of the failure of the “color revolution” in Hong Kong and to making better sense of Hong Kong’s future political scene. Up to now, much of the focus has been on the power of the NSL in smashing the “color revolution” as well as in suppressing the internal and external hostile forces. However, in my view, of equal, if not greater, importance is the eclipse of public support for the “color revolution” as it unfolded and unraveled rapidly within approximately one and a half years of its start. And the eclipse of public support is the inevitable outcome of the restoration of the original political mindset of Hong Kong residents.

An analysis of the political mindset of Hong Kong residents should begin with the long-standing view held by many local academics that, because of historical reasons, most residents are obsessed with stability, averse to disorder and abhorrent to political conflict. This mindset had seemingly changed somewhat after Hong Kong’s return to China by the benign Hong Kong policy of Beijing, the fact that Beijing all along exercised forbearance in dealing with Hong Kong and the endless political conflicts in the city. Some Hong Kong residents, particularly the younger ones, even subscribed to the view that Beijing would accede to their demands if sufficiently strong internal and external political pressure was put on it. This view was bolstered by the effective propaganda of the political opposition. The shelving of the local legislation according to Article 23 of the Basic Law after large-scale protests in 2003, and the reforms in the composition and electoral arrangements of the Legislative Council in 2010 were often-cited examples of Beijing’s “weakness” and “unsteadiness”. The perennial weakness of the HKSAR government rendered it vulnerable to unrelenting and ruthless attacks by the opposition and their followers, eroding further public trust and respect for it, and making people less inhibited from defying it. In challenging Beijing or the HKSAR government, many Hong Kong residents had even become bold enough to take illegal actions to disrupt law and order. 

Some commentators, especially those from the political opposition, were convinced that the political mindset of Hong Kong residents had changed significantly and irreversibly. In the reckoning of the organizers of the “color revolution”, this changed political mindset, together with the cumulative political and social grievances and discontent in Hong Kong, would provide the conducive, once-in-a-lifetime conditions to launch a large-scale political movement to permanently change Hong Kong’s political landscape. The HKSAR government’s well-intentioned but ill-conceived attempt to amend the extradition laws in February 2019 was to allow a mechanism for the transfer of fugitives to other jurisdictions including the Chinese mainland to be established in Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, both the local opposition and external hostile forces immediately took advantage of this governmental act and spared no effort to instill fear and anger among Hong Kong residents, making full use of and intensifying the ingrained anti-communist and anti-China sentiments among some people, and mislead people into believing that Hong Kong residents could easily be handed over to the mainland authorities for trials on political grounds. Consequently, many anti-government protests and illegal actions took place, some of them with hundreds of thousands of participants. The embattled and mortified HKSAR government was unable to control the situation, and the police became the prime target of ferocious attacks, ridicule, and vilification. The protests did not stop even after the HKSAR government announced the abandonment of the plan to amend the extradition laws, since both the internal and external hostile forces wanted to seize the moment to escalate their political demands. Their ultimate objective was to foment a “color revolution” and take over partially or completely the HKSAR regime.

Initially, the chance of success of a “color revolution” seemed to be pretty good as Hong Kong rapidly descended into extreme chaos, and disorder and public discontent with the government and the police reached a crescendo. Nevertheless, without the approval of Beijing, it was impossible for the HKSAR government to accede to the demands of the organizers of the “color revolution”. To force the hand of Beijing, the organizers of the “color revolution” turned to violence, notably in the form of rampant destruction of public facilities and properties. They wanted to create an atmosphere of fear and terror in Hong Kong with the expectation that more public pressure would then be put on Beijing, forcing it to “capitulate” to the “color revolution” organizers. The organizers believed that for fear of all sorts of possible “dire” consequences, Beijing dared not “interfere” in Hong Kong affairs; and that to restore stability in Hong Kong, Beijing had no alternative but to accede to some if not all the demands of the organizers of the “color revolution”.

Beijing’s decision at the end of 2019 to restore order in Hong Kong and to suppress the “color revolution” caught its organizers by complete surprise. Even before that decision, public support for and participation in the protests had palpably fallen. People began to recognize the severe damage to Hong Kong inflicted by the “color revolution”, and they were worried. People were increasingly concerned about order and stability, horrified by the violence, and were suspicious of the actions and intentions of the organizers of the “color revolution”. The waning of popular support for the “color revolution”, however, led its organizers to raise the ante and to escalate violence as their “trump card” to fight Beijing. Nevertheless, resorting to violence further depleted public support and strengthened Beijing’s determination to eradicate the anti-China and anti-communist forces in Hong Kong. This strong and firm stance of Beijing has also shattered once for all many Hong Kong residents’ still-incipient expectation that Beijing would “capitulate” even when vital national security and interests are at stake. As a result, even before the promulgation of the NSL, much of the public support and euphoria for Hong Kong’s “color revolution” had dissipated and the original political conservatism of Hong Kong residents has come back. Consequently, the NSL was greeted with muted acceptance even by many of those residents who had given varying degrees of support to the “color revolution”. This new political milieu facilitates the stringent enforcement of the NSL and other local laws as well as the forceful crackdown on the “color revolution”. With public support behind it, the order and stability restored by the NSL thus has a solid and lasting political foundation.

The failure of Hong Kong’s “color revolution” testifies to the sturdiness and resilience of the conservative political mindset of most residents. They might be angered by some actions taken by Beijing or the HKSAR government, be mesmerized briefly by the internal and external hostile forces, be willing to take part in radical collective actions and for a little while even tolerant of violence. However, once the destructiveness of a protracted upheaval was widely seen and felt, and when Beijing did not succumb on matters of principle even under tremendous pressure, the intrinsic conservative nature of Hong Kong’s political culture resurfaced. People again placed their top priorities on order and stability. They will urge, support or give tacit approval to efforts by the authorities to end turmoil and restore order. In fact, the come-and-go of the “Occupy Central” movement in 2014 demonstrated vividly the ultimate conservatism of residents who rationally understand very well the fragility of Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.

The failure of Hong Kong’s “color revolution” and the determination of Beijing to safeguard the security of Hong Kong and the nation have for a long time to come intensified the political conservatism of the city’s residents. Both internal and external hostile forces must have gained a deeper understanding of this conservatism after the defeat of the “color revolution”, and accordingly should be discouraged from trying to repeat the same mistake in the future. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that both the NSL and the political conservatism among Hong Kong residents will serve as the powerful bulwark of Hong Kong’s long-term stability.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.