Is hunger strike effective? What could be more effective?

[Updated on Dec. 7]

[Dec. 6] After over 100 hours, hunger striking students were taken to the hospital. While the hunger strike had little chance of compelling CY Leung to talk to students, it did reveal how heartless HK’s top officials are. Where on earth would top officials refuse to visit hunger striking teenagers?

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Hong Kong Protester Ends Hunger Strike, but two more students are still continuing the hunger strike.



[Original post] I am very worried about the indefinite hunger strike by students of Scholarism. This is the sixth day. They intend to keep fasting until the government agrees to talk to protestors, and they are appealing to pro-establishment politicians to facilitate such a talk.

Their appeal with English subtitles: Scholarism: We don’t have a choice

Joshua Wong’s mom appeal to officials to answer Scholarism’s call 黃之鋒媽媽的公開信

C.Y. Leung rejects calls to meet student hunger strikers: He said the five fasting teenagers should accept the authority of a nominating committee that the government said had exclusive power to vet candidates for the 2017 chief executive election under the Basic Law.


While the hunger strike is a much more measured form of escalation than the call to surround the central government offices last Sunday, is it more effective? See escalation by other means.

Let me check the assigned readings that my students have to read.

Hunger strike is certainly in Gandhi’s bag of nonviolent methods. Let me check what he said about its effectiveness. During the Calcutta fast amidst Hindu vs Muslim communal violence, Gandhi conceded that ‘You cannot fast against a tyrant,’ and that ‘a satyagraghi should always fast against a ‘lover’, that is, one who shares, however unconsciously, an underlying sympathy and respect for his aim.” (Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 164)

The method of hunger strike aims to melt the hearts of those in power. However:

Nonviolent action does not depend on moral authority, the ‘mobilization of shame,’ or the conversion of the views of opponents in order to succeed. Conversion of the oppressor’s views, whereby the challenge effectively alters the view of the oppressors thereby resulting in the acceptance of the challenger’s aims and an alteration in the oppressor’s policies, is commonly assumed to be the only mechanism by which nonviolent action promotes political change. In fact, conversion… is the least likely of the four [possible mechanisms] to promote change… (Kurt Schock, “Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists,” PS Political Science and Politics, Oct. 2003, 705-712.)

A better chance if you get a lot of attentiony and sympath: To feed or to free

Why staying at occupy sites or surrounding the central government offices or staging a hunger strike are inherently ineffective methods? Because these methods don’t touch on the power base of the CY government.

On the structure of power, Gene Sharp’s insight is helpful:

What gives a government — even a repressive regime — the power to rule? The answer, he realized, was people’s belief in its power. Even dictatorships require the cooperation and obedience of the people they rule to stay in charge. So, he reasoned, if you can identify the sources of a government’s power — people working in civil service, police and judges, even the army — then you know what a dictatorship depends on for its existence… If a dictatorship depends on the cooperation of people and institutions, then all you have to do is shrink that support. (Mairi Mackay, “Gene Sharp: A Dictator’s Worst Nightmare,” CNN, 6/25/2012

The goal of a democracy movement should be to persuade people to withdraw their obedience. A government is like a building held up by pillars, Sharp explained. [One] needed to pull [the regime’s] pillars into the opposition camp. (Tina Rosenberg, “Revolution U,” Foreign Policy, 2/16/2011.

Those who insist on staying at the occupy sites and want to confront the police should further consult Gene Sharp:

“You don’t march down the street towards soldiers with machine guns… That’s not a wise thing to do. “But there are other things that are much more extreme… You could have everybody stay at home. “Total silence of the city,” he says lowering his voice to a whisper, punctuating the words with his bent hands, as if he’s wiping out the noise himself. “Everybody at home.” The man’s eyes scan the room. “Silence,” he whispers again. “You think the regime will notice?” He looks around the room, nodding almost imperceptibly.

This silence is recommended for Iran. In other cases, there are more effective methods to pull the regime’s pillars to the opposition camp. In South Africa, e.g.,

The dismantling of the apartheid state did not occur because proponents of apartheid were converted to universalist principles, it occurred because the anti-apartheid movement undermined the power of the state (directly through strikes and noncooperation, and indirectly by promoting capital flight and international sanctions), diminished the government’s capacity to control the political situation… [The anti-apartheid struggle] produced a remarkably long list of nonviolent actions: labor strikes, slowdowns, sit-downs, stoppages, and stayaways; bus boycotts, consumer boycotts, and school boycotts; funeral demonstrations; noncooperation with government appointed functionaries; non-payment of rent; violation of government bans on peaceful meetings; defiance of segregation orders on beaches and restaurants, theaters, and hotels; and the shunning of black police and soldiers. This amounts to what is probably the largest grassroots eruption of diverse nonviolent strategies in a single struggle in human history! (quoting Wink 1987, 4). (Kurk Schock)

As I have been saying ever since I created this blog, HK’s protestors have to diversify their methods. Occupy as a method of disruption and concentration is inherently unsustainable. It has lasted this long only because of the government’s earlier missteps. (See How Hong Kong’s Government “Constructed” the Umbrella Movement) Protestors should try more sustainable and effective methods of dispersal such as targeted consumer boycott, rent boycott, the shopping revolution, etc.. I emphasize “potentially more effective” because there is no fool-proof recipe to success. But sticking to well-proven ineffective methods is certainly a recipe for failure. See escalation by other meanstargeted boycott and shopping revolution.

See 198 nonviolent methods:

If Scholarism wants pro-establishment politicians to put pressure on the government, they should find ways to impose costs on them rather than trying to melt their hearts.

This can be made easier if the government alienates originally pro-establishment politicians. See James Tien visited students on hunger strike.

Protestors should also think in terms of the regime’s pillars of support. They have to win over hearts and minds not just among the rest of the population, but also among those who work for the government. If this is the goal, then any action to directly confront the police can only be self-defeating, driving the police and other civil servants to rally behind CY.

Let me copy from the post “HK risks descending into a police state“:

Win over police officers, however difficult:

It is also worth considering Srdja Popovic’s advice–focus the ire on the CY Leung government and try to win over police officers, even one at a time. … Popovic’s message:

we, together, are the victims of the system. And there is no reason …to have war between victims and victims. One victims are in blue uniforms, other victims are in blue jeans, but there is no reason for that blood in the middle of those two columns. So we picked up four or five headlines in the news with that message, and we know that it produced results within the police. (

From the beginning, Otpor had treated the police as allies-in-waiting. Otpor members delivered cookies and flowers to police stations (sometimes with a TV camera in tow). Instead of howling at police during confrontations, Otpor members would cheer them. (Tina Rosenberg, “Revolution U,” Foreign Policy, 2/16/2011.

On the pillars of support, see CANVAS / Srdja Popovic et al, “A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle”

pillars 1pillars 2


Open letter by Joshua Wong’s mother, written when Joshua’s hunger strike reached 90 hours:

黃之鋒 Joshua
22 hrs ·


Nonviolence is a key focus in Notre Dame’s peace studies program:;;;


Filed under Umbrella Movement

4 responses to “Is hunger strike effective? What could be more effective?

  1. Pingback: “we thought if we could keep the revolution peaceful, it might lead to some changes” | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  2. Pingback: The “Freedom without Democracy” model is broken — why HK needs genuine universal suffrage | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  3. Pingback: Fishball Protests–The Fateful Turn to Violence | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Beyond

  4. Pingback: Why the muted outrage? The danger of ‘demobilization’ | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Beyond

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