Youth on the sidelines – what prevents protest sympathizers from joining social movements?

Youth on the sidelines - what prevents protest sympathizers from joining social movements?
Written by admin

Youth activism around the world shows that young people are interested in politics and seeking social and political change. Recent research contradicts assumptions about apolitical, disengaged and politically disinterested youth. Instead, young people are interested in specific political issues and choose to participate in less hierarchically organized activism than previous generations (Miranda et al., 2020). At the same time, social media and online platforms have greatly facilitated the mobilization and documentation of protests. Protest content is broadcast in real time, and sensitive information can be shared using encrypted messaging apps or in closed groups (Hui, 2019). But while this type of content is widespread and young people have taken activism into their own hands, many remain on the sidelines. Even young people who develop sympathies for protest activities eventually do not participate or drop out early and disengage from the movement.

So what drives young people to leave a social movement, and why do others who sympathize with the movement never join?

To address these questions, we conducted a study in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has seen several large-scale protests and two mass movements in the decades since its handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China. The city developed a vibrant civil society and a culture of protest, which included pro-democracy advocates. movement had a particularly strong influence. For several years, Hong Kong has even been called one of the cities with the most protests in the world (de Jong, 2017). In addition, youth activists have become more prominent in Hong Kong’s civil society over the past decade. One of the most striking examples is the youth who started organizing protests in high school (Ku, 2020). This shift was particularly visible in 2019, when young protesters were one of the most active groups in the months-long protest movement against the Extradition Laws Amendment Act (ELAB) (Lee et al., 2019).

To our research, we examined a sample of young non-participating young people in 2019. movement against ELAB. We conducted a questionnaire survey with Hong Kong undergraduate students to understand how they perceived 2019. protests. Some of these students also participated in the semi-structured interviews, which allowed us to explore the reasons for their non-participation in more depth. The study participants were from Hong Kong (local), Mainland China (mainland), or other regions (overseas), thus reflecting the diversity of the Hong Kong population and their experiences. As university students, they share the campus experience by walking to lectures, eating in the cafeteria, joining student groups, and living in halls with other students. However, this experience changed drastically during the protests, as campuses became sites of protest and were subsequently occupied and fortified to protect what student protesters considered safe spaces (Lau & Choy, 2019). Thus, all students were directly exposed to the events of the protest. Due to campus busyness, students were unable to continue their normal activities as classes were canceled, shops were closed, and entry to some campuses was controlled by students on duty. But despite those inconveniences, our studio found that overall sympathy for the protests remained high. So why didn’t some students, whose daily lives were disrupted by the protests and who supported the protesters’ demands, participate in the movement?

We specifically examined two types of non-participation. The first type, “erosion,” involves former protestors who have dropped out of the movement. The second type is called “unconverted” and refers to those who remained excluded during all events.

Our analysis showed that the inability to mobilize some individuals, especially among foreign students, played a role. Through communication (e.g. flyers, social media campaigns) and activities (e.g. public discussion forums), protest mobilization aims to create a sense of urgency to change the status quo. Such mobilization could foster a belief that change can be achieved through engagement and strengthen identification with a larger group – or moving. However, non-Indigenous students resonated with these efforts because they lacked information due to language barriers and generally did not feel addressed in protest communication. Similarly, Mainland Chinese students did not feel included because anti-Mainland sentiments put them off. But other factors seemed more important. For example, students highlighted tactics they perceived as ineffective in achieving movement goals, identity conflicts (ie, between different aspects of their identity), and specific barriers (eg, residency status, low efficacy) as reasons for not participating.

Another important aspect was personal networks. Friends and family of local students may have been more supportive of the movement and thus encouraged more participation. On the other hand, members of the personal networks of non-local students, especially those from mainland China, may have been excluded and/or discouraged from participating, thus reinforcing non-participation trends.

In addition, formerly active and inactive students of all backgrounds expressed concern about the evolution of protest tactics from initially peaceful mass demonstrations, pickets (ie visiting pro-movement stores and restaurants) and strikes to violent confrontations with the police. . But most students were sympathetic to the protesters. They reflected on the limited space for civic engagement and the lack of government response, thus showing some awareness of the need to adopt radical protest tactics. So instead of feeling intimidated by the escalation, they questioned the effectiveness of these violent confrontations. The ineffectiveness of more radical protest tactics was one of the most important reasons for “erosion” (that is, the departure of former protest participants). After months of protesting and changing protest tactics that failed to achieve the desired results, these individuals felt unable to contribute in ways that were meaningful to them. Former participants and those who stayed away altogether were also put off by the backlash from those who criticized the escalation the online forums faced.

The integration of students into local society and protest circles undermined their decision to participate, but so did constraints, (online) movement communication and identity conflicts.

Overall, our analysis supports the argument that non-participation should be seen as the result of careful negotiation and decision-making processes. Although being in a group of people who support protests and social activism can increase students’ willingness to participate (Hensby, 2015), their perceived efficacy is another important factor that may prevent them from joining protests. This situation particularly affects minority groups in multicultural societies such as Hong Kong. Conflicting identities (ie Indigenous versus non-Indigenous) may lead individuals to perceive their ability to contribute meaningfully as too limited, or to lack a sense of belonging. And when they don’t realize that it’s their fight, that they’re fighting someone or something they can identify with, they might not get involved. Therefore, we need to understand non-participation as more than lack of participation. Instead, non-participation is an important measure of public (non-)connection, (non-)accessibility and (non-)resonance of movement communication. To our studiowe decipher these issues in more detail.


de Jong, F. (2017, September 07). Which city has the most protests? Guardian.

Hensby, A. (2015). Absentee networks: A comparison of ‘supportive’, ‘non-supportive’ and ‘undecided’ non-participating UK student protests against tax and tax cuts. Sociology, 51(5), 957-974.

Hui, M. (November 11, 2019). The Hong Kong protests are the most live-streamed protests of all time. Quartz.

Ku, A. (2020). New Forms of Youth Activism – Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Movement at Local-National-Global. Space and politics, 24(1), 111-117.

Lau, C. & Choy, G. (30 October 2019). Hong Kong’s university leaders have been caught in the crossfire as tensions over the protests threaten to turn campuses into political battlegrounds. South China Morning Post..

Lee, FLF, Tang, G., Yuen, S., and Cheng, EWC (2019). Local Survey Findings on Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Protests: A Research Report. Center for Communication and Public Opinion Research, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Miranda, D., Castillo, JC, & Sandoval-Hernandez, A. (2020). Young Citizen Participation: An Empirical Test of a Conceptual Model. Youth and society, 52(2), 251-271.×17741024

About the author


Leave a Comment