Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore the emergence of civil disobedience (CD) movements in Hong Kong in the context of the notion of civil society (CS). Design/methodology/approach: The paper begins by rigorously defining the notion of CD, as well as the concept of CS and tracing its development in Hong Kong over the past several decades. By using a model of CS typology, which combines the variables of state control and a society’s quest for autonomy (SQA), the paper aims to outline the historical development of CD movements in Hong Kong. It also discusses the recent evolution of CS and its relationship with CD movements, particularly focusing on their development since Leung Chun-ying became the Chief Executive in 2012. Finally, by using five cases of CD witnessed in the past several decades, the relationship between the development of CS and the emergence of CD in Hong Kong has been outlined. Findings: Four implications can be concluded: first, CD cannot emerge when the state and society are isolated. Second, the level of SC and the scale of CD are positively related. Third, as an historical trend, the development of SQA is generally in linear progress; SQA starts from a low level (e.g. interest-based and welfare-based aims) and moves upwards to campaign for higher goals of civil and political autonomy. If the lower level of SQA is not satisfied, it can lead to larger scale CD in future. Fourth, the CD movement would be largest in scale when the state-society relationship confrontational and when major cleavages can be found within CS itself. Originality/value: This paper serves to enrich knowledge in the fields of politics and sociology.