Since June 2019, Hong Kong has been embroiled in a citywide political conflict known as the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) movement.1Anti-ELAB sentiments emerged since March 15, 2019, but large-scale protests only erupted on June 9, 2019. The movement garnered much international media attention because of the heavy-handed methods used by the Hong Kong police to suppress protesters, and because of its unprecedented scale—with approximately two million people taking to the streets on June 16, 2019—in a city that had once been described as “apolitical.”

The Anti-ELAB protests are a product of Hong Kong’s contentious sociopolitical environment, which emerged after the city ceased to be a British colony and became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. The city is currently placed under the “One Country, Two Systems” mandate promising fifty years of non-PRC intervention, but in reality, the city’s autonomy has already been eroded by the PRC. Anti-ELAB protesters are not only opposing the bill allowing Hong Kong’s judicial system to be subsumed by that of the PRC, but they are also demanding the actualization of democratic reforms in the city, so that Hong Kong people can attain a stake in the making of the city’s future. But with the SAR government refusing to concede with protesters, and with no signs of the protests abating, the Anti-ELAB movement reveals an irreparable fissure between protesters and the SAR and PRC administrations. This juxtaposition of protesters, many of whom are ordinary citizens, against governing bodies has resulted in the Anti-ELAB protests being labeled as a form of “populism.”

But populism has an uncomfortable presence in the past and present political landscapes of Hong Kong. Scholars have applied the concept of “populism” (民粹/man seoi) to analyses of sociopolitical developments in the Chinese context since the mid-twentieth century, after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) assumed control over the PRC. The CCP, claiming to advocate for the people’s rights, co-opted populist discourses in consolidating power. For example, during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), CCP chairman Mao Zedong (r. 1943–1976) called for ordinary people to reject elitist elements in old sociopolitical structures, prompting PRC youth to self-mobilize as the Red Guards, a paramilitary body that enforced CCP ideologies and persecuted dissenters. This Maoist populist wave permeated into Hong Kong, where CCP sympathizers in the city (with direct support from the CCP) launched the 1967 Leftist Riots to oppose colonial rule. Yet, unlike populism in the PRC that involved an array of ordinary people, the Hong Kong riots were driven by antagonism between pro-CCP groups and the colonial police, and the majority of the Hong Kong population were positioned as bystanders. The riots’ human and financial tolls were condemned by the population, who sided with the colonial government and rejected this populist mobilization that was deemed a Cultural Revolutionspillover” originating from outside of the city. The Hong Kong population, observing the turbulence caused by the 1967 riots (along with the instability and trauma caused by the Cultural Revolution), harbored feelings of suspicion and aversion toward populist discourses throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

Only in the twenty-first century has the idea of a Hong Kong-born grassroots populism gained traction in the city’s political landscape. Such “local” populist sentiments are seen as the consequence of longstanding frustrations toward the SAR’s nondemocratic governing system, combined with growing recognition of a local Hong Kong identity, which has enabled notions of “the people” to gain currency in the city. (This is demonstrated in the rise of Localist groups since 2016, many calling for Hong Kong to gain independence from the PRC.) Scholarly, social, and government commentary in Hong Kong is attempting to make sense of this emergence of “populist” elements in contemporary politics. But given the complicated history of populism in the Chinese context, just how has the concept been used and received within Hong Kong society?

Responding to the Anti-ELAB movement, the SAR and PRC governments predictably assumed a critical stance, with a PRC diplomat in Hong Kong describing the movement as susceptible to “populism, separatism and extremism, and developing into the tumour of terrorism.” But whilst pro-establishment forces use “populism” as a pejorative in lambasting the Anti-ELAB movement, they paradoxically evoke the image of “the people” in an attempt to accrue public support and delegitimize protesters. For example, SAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam (r. 2017- present) labeled protesters as a minority group acting against the will of the “silent majority” (沉默大多數/cam mak daai do sou), who are portrayed as moderates trapped between and victimized by the violent confrontations between protesters and the police, and frustrated at protesters for jeopardizing their livelihoods. But such narratives of the “silent majority” were dispelled when a record voter turnout for the November 2019 District Council elections elected 388 pro-democracy candidates into power, of which 250 seats were previously under pro-establishment control. The government was unsuccessful in invoking the “silent majority” because of their inability to discern the nuances in public sentiments toward the Anti-ELAB protests, where disapproval toward the violent tactics of protesters is superseded by anger toward the political system and by a strong desire for democratic reforms.

In turn, protesters’ responses to populism are more varied. A number of younger activists see populism as a necessity for sustaining the Anti-ELAB movement. Taking inspiration from the recent Chinese translation of Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism (2018), these youth favor populism for its pragmatic benefits in reinforcing the conceptual political boundaries between Hong Kong and the PRC, and in reinvigorating the city’s progressive leftist movement that has long been vying for sociopolitical justice and participatory democracy.2Although “the left” refers to communist organizations and ideologies across the world, in Hong Kong, the PRC’s Chinese Communist Party is seen as a “right-wing” entity. Populism further provides an effective framing device for these activists to simplify and make sense of the complexities surrounding the Anti-ELAB movement, where protestors are portrayed as populist protagonists striving to regain their right to govern the city that has been denied to them by pro-establishment factions.

There are several explanations as to why Hong Kong youth do not have the same reservations toward populism as the previous generations. First, they consider populism’s ability to mobilize people to outweigh its problematic aspects, believing that inciting popular hatred against the SAR and CCP governments helps motivate and sustain protesters. Secondly, youth in the city only inherited faint memories of the Cultural Revolution, which they see as an example of a flawed top-down populist movement directed by the state, different from the current grassroots populist movements in Hong Kong. Lastly, the leftist inclinations in the political consciousness of current youth are derived not from CCP ideologies, but from observing the progressive movements against sociopolitical injustices that have manifested across the world (such as the global Occupy movement).

Yet, populist practices have also divided Anti-ELAB protesters and their supporters, with some questioning the compatibility of populism with contemporary forms of social mobilization in the city. Social movements in Hong Kong had a collective emphasis from the mid-twentieth century until the late 2000s, when young activists refused affiliations with political parties and organizations, and opposed the use of organizational hierarchies and leadership structures. Instead, they embraced horizontal practices. Such ideals were upheld in the 2014 Umbrella Movement demanding democratic reforms, where a diverse array of individuals took to the streets in a decentralized manner, without seeking representation from a leader to speak on their behalf. The Anti-ELAB protests similarly assume a form described asleaderless” and “self-organized,” giving the movement an amorphous quality, along with a degree of flexibility and efficient spontaneity in their actions, in what is termed the “be water” strategy. Lacking leaders, protesters appear as a faceless entity; they anonymously discuss potential protest actions through the LIHKG online forum, and share messages of solidarity through unsigned artworks and Lennon Wall messages, which help maintain movement momentum.

Decentralized mobilizations have varied ramifications for populist ideologies in Hong Kong. On the one hand, they can complement populism’s emphasis on “the people.” Without a political figurehead or organization championing their narrow political message and identity, the Anti-ELAB movement can include a greater variety of ordinary citizens of differing generational, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds, and give participants a greater degree of autonomy in deciding how the movement should develop. For example, one of the Anti-ELAB movement’s slogans—“five demands, not one less” (五大訴求, 缺一不可/ ng daai sou kau, kyut yat bat ho)—outlines political goals to pursue, but without stipulating how protesters should achieve these goals. By doing so, the Anti-ELAB movement not only advocates for participatory democracy in the city’s governing structures, but also embodies and enacts participatory democracy in its practices.

Conversely, the movement’s emphasis on decentralization and participant autonomy clashes with the fundamental characteristic of populism, where “the people” are presented as a singular entity, obfuscating the plurality of voices in the city. Despite the reality of there being a multitude of ideas and methods employed within the Anti-ELAB movement, the protests are still conceived as a matter of “the people” resisting SAR and PRC government antagonism. This is conveyed by protest discourses and placards calling to “defend Hong Kong” or “liberate Hong Kong,” giving the impression that protesters are representing the entire citizenry. Further complications of populism arise from the undercurrent of right-wing sentiments (derived from Localist ideologies that harbor nationalist overtones) within the Anti-ELAB movement, where ethnic minorities experience exclusion and PRC immigrants and pro-establishment businesses experience overt hostility from a number of protesters. This is combined with the movement’s reluctance to confront uncomfortable questions as to who is included/excluded from the category of “the people”—touching upon bigger identity questions as to who the “Hong Kong person” is—and its tendency to stifle dissenting voices within and beyond the protesting body. These realities risk exacerbating fissures across society in the forthcoming years.

Populism presents a simplified us-versus-them worldview, which may be useful in immediately inciting people to mobilize. But in turn, it offers little constructive insight regarding how people in the city, regardless of where they now stand in Hong Kong’s political divides, can coexist together as a society in the future. The incompatibilities that exist between the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong civil society, and the homogenizing and anti-democratic inclinations of populism, remain unresolved for now.