Demand for Democracy


"Demand for Democracy" (DemandDemoc, European Research Council Starting Grant #716837) was an ERC-funded research agenda to study the determinants of anti-authoritarian political participation in Hong Kong, at the critical juncture of its increasing demands for political participation after the Umbrella Revolution (2014) and the ultimate political crackdown in 2019.

Our research agenda has set out to understand the dynamics of political protests in a "partly free" society: how do individuals mobilize to protest for democratization, what are their backgrounds, what is the role of beliefs and social interactions?

At the beginning of our study, Hong Kong was a vibrant civil society with a visible tension between between civil rights (Western-style legal standards and protection of fundamental rights) and political rights (only very limited say in electing political leaders and determining public affairs). Within this tension, citizens of Hong Kong were free to express their desire for more political and democratic participation, and repeatedly did so in pro-democracy marches every year on July 1st, to remind their rulers of the unfulfilled promises of democratic participation in the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution. By the end of our study in 2022, Hong Kong had become almost fully controlled by the central government in Beijing, with little or no remnant of civil rights, due legal protection, and hope for democratic political participation.

The objective of our project was to document the factors driving a process of democratization in the making, and to provide evidence of causal mechanisms at work. The ERC grant, starting in 2017, has allowed us to conduct surveys with a large number of students every year, both before and after the pro-democracy marches on July 1st. We have also been able to conduct two survey experiments, by embedding an experimental component (information provision treatment) in the regularly scheduled yearly surveys. The methods that we developed can be applied by other researchers to different contexts, and contribute to the public debate about political change in East Asia.


The project has resulted in the following publications.

In a first experiment, we have provided (a random subset of) students information about their peers' plans to attend the upcoming protest march. This allows us to understand whether one's own participation in a movement is a complement or a substitute to other people's participation. Our results point toward a "game" of substitutes, in which students reduce their participation when informed that the planned participation is higher than they expected (and vice versa).

  • Davide Cantoni, David Y. Yang, Noam Yuchtman, Y. Jane Zhang
    "Protests as Strategic Games: Experimental Evidence from Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement"
    Quarterly Journal of Economics, 134(2): 1021–1077 (May 2019)
    Original article (open access): [QJE website]
    Final draft (October 2018): [pdf]

In the second experiment, we have studied the drivers of sustained political participation — a particularly salient question in the Hong Kong context, with repeated marches every year. We have provided students with an indirect monetary incentive increasing the likelihood to attend the protest march in 2017. We found that this (marginal) incentive increased attendance to the march, but did not change students' beliefs and political attitudes. However, one year later, we noticed a higher participation in the political march among the students who received the incentive one year prior. Moreover, this increased participation was concentrated among students with greater protest participation by others in their social networks. This points to the crucial role of social interactions (making new, politically engaged friends) in determining political activism.

  • Leonardo Bursztyn, Davide Cantoni, David Y. Yang, Noam Yuchtman, Y. Jane Zhang
    "Persistent Political Engagement: Social Interactions and the Dynamics of Protest Movements"
    American Economic Review: Insights, 3(2): 233–250 (June 2021)
    Original article: [AEA website] [PDF] [Copyright notice] [Online Appendix]
    Final draft (March 2020): [pdf]

A core element of our research agenda was a yearly panel survey interviewing a broad number of students (~2000), from 2016 (a pilot wave that was conducted with seed funding) through 2017 and 2018 until 2019; this was complemented by an analogous survey of a representative sample of the population in Hong Kong, conducted in cooperation with the Hong Kong Panel of Social Science Dynamics (HKPSSD). The aim of our surveys was to to obtain a full and comprehensive picture of the social, economic, and ideological background of politically active students, and to understand how these traits and beliefs map into pro-democratic activism. We elicited preferences (providing cover in case students would not respond truthfully to open questions), beliefs, and second-order beliefs (beliefs about others' beliefs and preferences). We measured classic psychological preferences ("big 5 traits") and economic preferences (such as time discounting, risk aversion, reciprocity, inequality aversion). In the resulting publication, we compare how the relationships of interest (in particular, between fundamental economic preferences and activism) have changed as the nature and size of the protests changes through time, from the small protests of 2016-2018 to the large-scale protests of 2019. We document how the distribution of fundamental preferences is stable through time and very similar between university students and the broader population, while their relationship with protest participation increases in magnitude in 2019 (suggesting that the overall composition of protest participants does not change).

  • Davide Cantoni, Louis-Jonas Heizlsperger, David Y. Yang, Noam Yuchtman, Y. Jane Zhang
    "The Fundamental Determinants of Protest Participation: Evidence from Hong Kong’s Antiauthoritarian Movement"
    Journal of Public Economics, 211: 104667 (July 2022)
    Original article (open access): [JPubE website]
    Final draft (April 2022): [pdf]

Finally, in the keynote lecture for the Verein für Socialpolitik annual meeting in 2019, I summarize some of the findings of our research, and put it in the context of a broader research agenda on the political economy of the "Greater China" region.

  • Davide Cantoni
    "China und Hongkong am Scheideweg"
    Perspektiven der Wirtschaftspolitik, 21(2): 185–196 (June 2020) [link]


With the support of the ERC, we organized two workshops on research related to our studies in Hong Kong:

  • "Understanding the Demand for Democracy", Munich, 6 and 7 July 2018: [Program]
  • "Studying Critical Junctures in Real Time: Promise, Challenges, and Ethical Dimensions", Munich, 13 and 14 June 2022: [Program]

Press coverage

  • Kelly Ho: "Hong Kong universities ‘penetrated by foreign forces’ intent on ‘indoctrinating’ students, claims Chief Exec. Carrie Lam", Hong Kong Free Press, 8 June 2021: [pdf]
  • Chris Maden: "Damp squib, not a smoking gun: how Hong Kong conspiracy theorists distorted a research project", Hong Kong Free Press, 13 June 2021: [pdf]