Sympathetic but Inactive – Youth Non-participation in Social Movements

Authors: Anna Julia Fiedler
Dr Frank Reichert, Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong

Photo: Protest barricades near The University of Hong Kong in autumn 2019.

Youth activism around the globe shows that young people are interested in specific political issues and often prefer less hierarchical forms of activism (Miranda et al., 2020). Furthermore, 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.

So, what drives young people to drop out of a social movement, and why do others who sympathize with a movement never get involved?

In our research, we examined these questions using the example of the 2019 anti-Extradition Legislation Amendment Bill (ELAB) protest movement in Hong Kong (Fiedler et al., 2022). The city had developed a vivid civil society and protest culture, among which the pro-democracy movement was particularly influential. Moreover, youth activists became more prominent in Hong Kong’s civil society in the last decade, with some starting to organize protests while still in high school (Ku, 2020). This development was visible in 2019 when young protesters were particularly active throughout the months-long anti-ELAB movement (Lee et al., 2019).

To understand youth’s perceptions of the 2019 protests and reasons for non-participation, we conducted structured questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with undergraduate students in Hong Kong. The study participants were either from Hong Kong (local), mainland China (mainland), or other regions (overseas). University students share the campus experience of going to lectures, eating in the canteen, joining student groups, and living in halls. However, this experience changed drastically when campuses became protest sites (Lau & Choy, 2019). When campuses were even occupied, students could not continue their regular activities. Yet, despite those inconveniences, the sympathy for the protests remained high overall (Fiedler et al., 2022). So why did some students who were sympathetic towards the protesters’ demands not participate in the movement?

We examined two types of non-participation. The first type, “erosion”, includes former protest participants who dropped out of the movement. The second type, “non-conversion”, 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. Non-local students were less likely to resonate with mobilization 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 ineffective protest tactics, conflicts between different facets of their identity, and specific barriers (e.g., residency status) as reasons for their non-participation.

Formerly active and non-active students of all origins voiced concern over the development of the protest tactics from initially peaceful mass demonstrations, buycotts, 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. Instead of feeling intimidated by the escalation, they questioned the effectiveness of these violent confrontations. The perceived ineffectiveness of more radical protest tactics was one of the most important reasons for “erosion”.

Students’ (non-)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 suggests that non-participation results from careful 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 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. If 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 a measure of societal (dis-)connectedness, (in-)accessibility, and (non-)resonance to movement communication.


The research discussed in this blog was funded by the special round of the Public Policy Research Funding Scheme from the Policy Innovation and Coordination 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).

This blog is a shortened and slightly modified version of our post, “Youth on the sidelines”, first published on Sociology Lens on 1 July 2022:


Fiedler, A. J., Tsang A. Y-I., & Reichert, F. (2022). Why not? Explaining sympathizers’ non‐participation: The example of Hong Kong’s 2019 social movement. Sociology Compass, e13007 (early view).

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Miranda, D., Castillo, J. C., & Sandoval-Hernandez, A. (2020). Young citizens participation: Empirical testing of a conceptual model. Youth & Society, 52(2), 251-271.×17741024

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