Hong Kong's Civil Disobedience under China's Authoritarianism

Research output: Journal Publications and ReviewsRGC 21 - Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-61
Number of pages41
Journal / PublicationEmory International Law Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


Acts of civil disobedience have significantly impacted Hong Kong’s liberal constitutional order, existing as it does under China’s authoritarian governance. Existing theories of civil disobedience have primarily paid attention to the situations of liberal democracies but find it difficult to explain the unique case of the semi-democracy of Hong Kong. Based on a descriptive analysis of the practice of civil disobedience in Hong Kong, taking the Occupy Central Movement (OCM) of 2014 and the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) movement of 2019 as examples, this Article explores the extent to which and how civil disobedience can be justified in Hong Kong’s rule of law-based order under China’s authoritarian system, and further aims to develop a conditional theory of civil disobedience for Hong Kong that goes beyond traditional liberal accounts. More specifically, it is argued that an act of civil disobedience targeted at the actions of the central government, which has no democratic accountability to the people of Hong Kong, is one aimed outside the domain of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and is thus unlikely to succeed in the Hong Kong context. By contrast, an act of civil disobedience intended to push against the government of Hong Kong acting within its domain of autonomy largely fits into Hong Kong’s semi-democratic system. Moreover, it is suggested that both forms of civil disobedience have had significant utilitarian value as a civic educational tool. Finally, this Article reconciles unlawful acts of civil disobedience with Hong Kong’s rule of law by establishing clear limitations on permissible conduct, with particular attention paid to non-violence as a fundamental condition, albeit without excluding the use of limited forms of violence as an appropriate strategy, e.g., to invigorate political participation, in particular when available democratic and peaceful channels have been exhausted.

Research Area(s)

  • civil disobedience, civic education, Hong Kong, rule of law, authoritarianism