Youth on the sidelines – What keeps protest sympathizers from joining social movements?
Youth activism seen around the globe shows that young people are interested in politics and push for social and political change. Recent studies contradict speculations about apolitical, disengaged, and politically uninterested youth. Instead, young people are interested in particular political issues and prefer participation in less hierarchically organized activism than previous generations (Miranda et al., 2020). At the same time, social media and online platforms have made the mobilization and documentation of protests much easier. Protest contents are streamed in real-time, while sensitive information can be shared through encrypted messaging apps or in closed groups (Hui, 2019). But although exposure to this type of content is high and young people have taken activism into their own hands, many remain on the sidelines. Even youth harboring sympathy for protest activities end up not participating or dropping out early on and becoming detached from the movement.
So, what drives young people to drop out of a social movement, and why do others who sympathize with a movement never get involved?
We conducted a research study in Hong Kong to approach these questions. Hong Kong has seen several large-scale protests and two mass movements in the decades since the handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. The city had developed a vivid civil society and protest culture, among which the pro-democracy movement was particularly influential. For some years, Hong Kong was even dubbed one of the cities with the most protests worldwide (de Jong, 2017). Moreover, youth activists became more prominent in Hong Kong’s civil society in the last decade. Some of the most prominent examples are youth who started to organize protests while in high school (Ku, 2020). This development was particularly visible in 2019 when young protesters were one of the most active groups throughout the months-long anti-Extradition Legislation Amendment Bill (ELAB) protest movement (Lee et al., 2019).
In our research, we examined the example of young non-participants during the anti-ELAB movement of 2019. We conducted a questionnaire study with undergraduate students in Hong Kong to understand how they perceived the 2019 protests. A select number of these students also participated in semi-structured interviews, enabling us to explore their reasons for non-participation in more depth. The study participants were either from Hong Kong (local), mainland China (mainland), or other regions (overseas) and thus reflected the diversity of the Hong Kong population and their experiences. As university students, they share the campus experience of going to lectures, eating in the canteen, joining student groups, and living in halls with other students. However, this experience changed drastically during the protests as campuses became protest sites and later were occupied and fortified to protect what the student protesters perceived as safe spaces (Lau & Choy, 2019). Thus, all students were directly confronted with the protest events. Due to the campus occupations, students could not continue their regular activities as classes were canceled, shops were closed, and entry to some campuses was controlled by students standing guard. Yet despite those inconveniences, our study found that overall, the sympathy for the protests remained high. So why did some students whose daily lives were uprooted by the protests and who were sympathetic towards the protesters’ demands not participate in the movement?
We specifically examined two types of non-participation. The first type, “erosion”, includes former protest participants who dropped out of the movement. The second type is called “non-conversion” and represents those who remained uninvolved throughout the events.
Our analysis found that failure to mobilize some individuals played a role, particularly among the overseas students. Through communication (e.g., flyers, social media campaigns) and activities (e.g., public debate forums), protest mobilization aims to build a sense of urgency to create change from the status quo. Such mobilization could foster the belief that change can be achieved by getting involved and may strengthen identification with a larger group – or movement. But non-local students were less likely to resonate with those efforts as they lacked information due to language barriers and, more generally, did not feel addressed by protest communication. Similarly, mainland Chinese students did not feel included as hostile anti-mainland sentiments discouraged them. However, other factors appeared to be more critical. For example, the students emphasized tactics they perceived as ineffective in achieving the movement’s goals, identity conflicts (i.e., between different facets of one’s identity), and specific barriers (e.g., residency status, low efficacy) as reasons for their non-participation.
Personal networks were another important aspect. Friends and family members of local students may have been more supportive of the movement and thus more likely to encourage participation. On the other hand, members of the personal networks of non-local students, especially those from mainland China, may have been uninvolved or/and might have discouraged participation, thus amplifying non-participatory tendencies.
In addition, formerly active and non-active students of all origins voiced concern over the development of the protest tactics from initially peaceful mass demonstrations, buycotts (i.e., frequenting shops and restaurants which support the movement), and strikes toward violent confrontations with the police. However, most students were sympathetic toward the protesters. They reflected on the limited space for civic engagement and the lack of response from the government, thus showing some understanding for adopting radical protest tactics. Thus, instead of feeling intimidated by the escalation, they rather questioned the effectiveness of these violent confrontations. The perceived ineffectiveness of more radical protest tactics was one of the most important reasons for “erosion” (i.e., the dropping out of former protest participants). These individuals felt unable to contribute in ways that were meaningful to them after several months of protests and a change in protest tactics that did not achieve the desired outcomes. Former participants and those who remained entirely on the sidelines were also put off by the backlash those who criticized the escalation faced in online forums.
Students’ embeddedness in local society and protest circles was detrimental to their decision to participate, but so were constraints, (online) movement communication, and identity conflicts.
Overall, our analysis supports the argument that non-participation should be seen as a result of careful negotiations and decision-making processes. While being embedded in a group of people supportive of protests and social activism may foster students’ willingness to participate (Hensby, 2015), their perceived efficacy is another important factor that may keep them from joining protests. This situation affects particularly minority groups in culturally diverse societies, such as Hong Kong. Due to conflicting identities (i.e., local and non-local), individuals may perceive their ability to contribute in a meaningful way as too limited, or they may not feel that they belong. And when they do not perceive that it is their struggle, that they are fighting with someone or for something they can identify with, they may not get involved. Therefore, we must conceptualize non-participation as more than a lack of participation. Instead, non-participation is an important measure of societal (dis-)connectedness, (in-)accessibility, and (non-)resonance to movement communication. In our study, we decipher these issues more in-depth.
de Jong, F. (2017, September 07). Which city has the most protests? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/sep/07/which-city-most-protests-hong-kong-trump
Hensby, A. (2015). Networks of non-participation: Comparing ‘supportive’, ‘unsupportive’ and ‘undecided’ non-participants in the UK student protests against fees and cuts. Sociology, 51(5), 957-974. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038515608113
Hui, M. (2019, November 11). The Hong Kong protests are the most live-streamed protests ever. Quartz. https://qz.com/1737197/hong-kong-protests-are-most-live-streamed-ever/
Ku, A. (2020). New forms of youth activism – Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Bill movement in the local-national-global nexus. Space and Polity, 24(1), 111-117. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562576.2020.1732201
Lau, C., & Choy, G. (2019, October 30). Hong Kong university chiefs caught in crossfire as protest tensions risk turning campuses into political battlefields. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3035628/hong-kong-university-chiefs-caught-crossfire-protest
Lee, F. L. F., Tang, G., Yuen, S., & Cheng, E. W. C. (2019). Onsite survey findings in Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Bill protests : Research Report. Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. http://www.com.cuhk.edu.hk/ccpos/en/pdf/ENG_antielab%20survey%20public%20report%20vf.pdf
Miranda, D., Castillo, J. C., & Sandoval-Hernandez, A. (2020). Young citizens participation: Empirical testing of a conceptual model. Youth & Society, 52(2), 251-271. https://doi.org/10.1177/0044118×17741024
The research discussed in this blog was funded by the special round of the Public Policy Research Funding Scheme from the Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (Project Number: SR2020.A8.006) and by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region under its Theme-based Research Scheme (Project Number: T44-707/16-N).