Group behind Hong Kong's Occupy movement at crossroads

Mr Joshua Wong protesting against the disappearances of booksellers outside the British consulate in Hong Kong on Jan 6. Talk of Scholarism disbanding has been met with anger and dismay by its supporters.
Mr Joshua Wong protesting against the disappearances of booksellers outside the British consulate in Hong Kong on Jan 6. Talk of Scholarism disbanding has been met with anger and dismay by its supporters.PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Wong's new party is said to include former Scholarism leader Agnes Chow.
Mr Wong's new party is said to include former Scholarism leader Agnes Chow.

Talk of disbanding Scholarism as founder mulls setting up a party to participate in LegCo elections

Scholarism, the student activist group that took on the establishment and helped spearhead Hong Kong's historic Occupy movement in 2014, is at a critical crossroads.

It is now in discussions over whether it should disband, or if founder and poster boy Joshua Wong should just resign, leaving the group intact.

A source close to the 19-year-old says the latter is more likely to happen. Mr Wong will set up a new party next month focused on "localism" and quit Scholarism, in accordance with its rule that members cannot be affiliated with political parties.

The development is a reflection of the fast-changing political landscape in Hong Kong.

Less than two years ago, Scholarism was riding high, having kick- started the massive 79-day protest that paralysed the city's major roads. This came after it organised a successful student protest in 2012 that upended government plans to introduce national education in schools.

IRREPLACEABLE

Lots of students may be fascinated by the localist groups, but I don't think Scholarism can be replaced. It has a track record and a positive image among the mainstream.

MR NATHAN LAW, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, on Scholarism's reputation


BAD MOVE

His previous statement that he is 'Chinese' caused him quite a bit of damage among young Hong Kongers. It was a big misstep.

A SOURCE CLOSE TO MR JOSHUA WONG, on why the student leader is planning to part ways with his group to set up a political party

The bespectacled Mr Wong was feted by Western media as an unlikely pro-democracy hero but demonised by Beijing and its mouthpieces as a CIA-groomed agent.

Today, Scholarism is searching for a way forward, with the Occupy movement having failed in achieving its objectives of securing greater freedoms for Hong Kongers to elect their leader.

In tandem, the city has seen the rise of radical localist groups which are openly contemptuous of the Occupy organisers' largely peaceful tactics and disavowal of an agenda to pursue independence. These have eaten into Scholarism's support among Hong Kong's students.

Mr Wong's plan to start a new party is a response to the sentiment, says the source. "His previous statement that he is 'Chinese' caused him quite a bit of damage among young Hong Kongers. It was a big misstep."

The new party will present a fresh slate. Mr Wong has said it would push for a "self-determination referendum" to allow people to decide if they want to separate from mainland China come 2047, which is when Beijing's promises under the "one country, two systems" framework lapse.

The party will include former Scholarism leaders Oscar Lam and Agnes Chow. Another prominent member is said to be Mr Nathan Law, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. The party plans to take part in Legislative Council (LegCo) elections in September.

Scholarism's current spokesman, Prince Wong Ji Yuet, 18, could take over as its convener.

Local online news outlet IBHK reported earlier this week that the group will be disbanded on Sunday.

In response, Scholarism said on Facebook that it was working on its future direction and would announce any decisions made.

As talk of Scholarism's potential dissolution spread, its supporters expressed anger and dismay.

Mr Litman Chan, 21, a University of Hong Kong undergraduate, lambasted Mr Wong, saying: "In the end, you were just using Scholarism as a tool to give you a leg-up."

Another sticking point is what will happen to the HK$2.5 million (S$436,000) that Scholarism reportedly has stashed away, thanks to donations. Critics have claimed that plans are afoot to divert some of the money to Mr Wong's new party.

Contacted yesterday, Mr Law said the criticisms are premature as Scholarism leaders are still discussing what is to be done. "Lots of students may be fascinated by the localist groups, but I don't think Scholarism can be replaced. It has a track record and a positive image among the mainstream."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Group behind HK's Occupy movement at crossroads'. Print Edition | Subscribe