The Umbrella Revolution Two Months In

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Public Domain

IS HONG KONG’S Umbrella Revolution over?  This has been the question that many have asked themselves over the past month, both in Hong Kong and outside of it. As the Umbrella Revolution stretched on past one month, then over two months, the international news coverage which drew the world’s attention to the movement has slowly dwindled. 

The fact that people both in and outside of Hong Kong have been continually asking themselves whether the Umbrella Revolution is over is, in fact, proof enough that it is not over. As long as the energy of those willing to stick it out for the long haul remains, as long as the issue of genuine universal suffrage is not satisfactorily settled, the movement will persist in some form or another, and extinction in its present form does not rule out a future resurgence. Yet participants in the movement in Hong Kong have been keenly aware of the world’s increasing lack of attention, in spite of the spiral of escalating police violence for the past month. This culminated in an attempt on Monday to surround government headquarters which prompted violent reprisals from police including the use of water cannons, pepper spray, and batons.

Attempts by Hong Kong democracy movement participants to recapture international attention has included an attempt by student leaders to fly to Beijing during the APEC global summit conference which was rapidly grounded by Chinese authorities, a campaign to vote student leader Joshua Wong as Time Magazine’s person of the year, and attempts to put the events of the Hong Kong democracy movement in context of other events which have captured international attention in recent weeks, as the Ferguson protests in America. More controversially, attempts at escalating actions have included last Monday’s to attempt to surround government headquarters, an action which included the participation of thousands and was called for by Joshua Wong and other student leaders, as well as a preceding attempt to break into Hong Kong’s legislative building, LegCo, on November 20th. 

But for a movement which has long outlasted the expectations of participants and observers alike, the Hong Kong democracy movement is now showing its seams. The contradictions and tensions between the social actors in the movement that were present from the beginning are now readily visible, with the question of future direction having driven a wedge between those who were previously willing to cooperate within the rubric of broad public consensus. And that the movement has gone on for so long to the increasing displeasure of many Hong Kongers has introduced an element of moral ambiguity.

A Movement Showing Its Seams

THE TENSIONS which were present in the movement from the beginning can broadly be rooted in the conflict between “hard” and “soft” elements of the movement. Groups foregrounded in the public attention such as Occupy Central, Scholarism, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) attempted to hew a moderate line, in stressing the need to maintain civic order and emphasizing the need to maintain a respectable image for the movement at large. 

In the beginning of the movement, it appeared as though it was Occupy Central, the most well known of the groups involved in the present uprising of the Hong Kong democracy movement, was the main moderate force. By contrast, it was thought that student groups as Scholarism and HKFS were more radical. Indeed, whereas Occupy Central leaders had prematurely declared the defeat of the Hong Kong democracy movement, it was Scholarism and its leader Joshua Wong who seized the day in attempting to storm Civic Plaza and government headquarters in late September in the pivotal action which sparked the current set of events.

But after a series of violent attacks by anti-occupation forces upon encampments, the emergence of splits between occupation sites became more visible, with the occupation of Mong Kok carving out a separate path for itself that rejected student authority in many cases, constituting an occupation site with an older demographic relative to other sites. Student groups largely began to align closer with the moderate line of Occupy Central, presenting a united front during a series of broken negotiations with government officials, for example, even when it was only one group negotiating. Thus, new fractures emerged in the movement.

Further controversy erupted after student groups and their allies were accused of attempting to exclude more radical elements from the movement, with radical elements being turned away from the stage in Admiralty and refused a voice. This came after attempt to hold a public referendum of the movement to determine the next stage of the movement in late October organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and Occupy Central had to be called off, after backlash against HKFS, Scholarism, and Occupy Central not having secured the consensus of all occupation sites before proceeding with their referendum. High profile movement participants also began to question at that time whether it was high time to retreat, particularly Occupy Central’s leaders.

Yet as the movement dragged on, public support for the movement also began to wane, with the movement become thought of by Hong Kongers as overly disruptive to everyday life because of its impediment to the daily lives of Hong Kongers through the occupation of public roads and disruption of some businesses. It is also likely because Hong Kongers had become tired of the movement and wished for a return to normalcy. A survey released on November 19th by the University of Hong Kong found that 83 percent of Hong Kongers wished for the occupation to end. 

With a new drive by police to evict protestors beginning in late November, so then, did the fractures in the movement worsen. On November 18th, police began dismantling occupation sites, with the aid of industry groups and businesses in some cases, sometimes to little resistance from occupiers. But where police dismantlement of occupation sites were sometimes violent, these forced evictions prompted attempts at reoccupation and calls for forceful, escalatory action, probably most high profile surrounded the police attempts to evict Mong Kok. Although attempts at reoccupation by protestors and occupiers saw protestors facing further police violence, the sympathy of the public was not aroused as it had been before. Prominent public supporters as media mogul Jimmy Lai, owner of Apple Daily and Next Media, too, began to suggest that retreat was the best option. Occupy Central’s leaders also stated their public intent to turn themselves over to the police eventually as a gesture of public responsibility and, might we say, martyrdom. Nevertheless, student leaders of Scholarism and HKFS were insistent that they would stay with those who wished to stay until the end out of a sense of moral obligation.

The earlier attempt to occupy LegCo on November 20th saw heavy backlash, not only from the public, but protestors themselves, with accusations that the action was uncalled for and organized by ruffians. The action itself had been opposed by pan-Democratic legislators when it was undertaken and was condemned by Occupy Central leaders and pan-Democratic legislators afterwards. Student leaders emphasized that they were not behind the occupation and offered condemnations of those who had jumped the ball and taken action of their own accord without securing public consensus, later modulating their comments to state that it was not unjustified to occupy LegCo under all circumstances, but that these actions had been premature. Among those arrested included members of the Civic Passion group prominent in the Mong Kok encampment and the chief editor of Local Press.

A series of clashes followed from November 25th to 27th, with concerted police attempts to clear Mong Kok. Scholarism leader Joshua Wong was arrested then. By contrast to his previous arrest on September 27th in the beginning, this did not provoke mass outrage. In fact, after release, Wong was pelted with eggs. The ensuing days, attempts to retake Mong Kok were called off because of heavy police presence, and those waiting with bated breath for the Umbrella Revolution to end breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, it was over, they said.

At a Crossroads

CONTROVERSY CONTINUES in wake of a failed attempt to surround government headquarters on Monday that was successfully resisted by police, as advocated by Joshua Wong and other student leaders, as well as a hunger strike began by Wong on December 1st which he later was forced to end last Saturday. However, this controversy is not anything new, on the contrary, what we have seen for the past month are several repetitions of the same cycle. These repetitions have served to play out the tensions between “hard” and “soft” elements since the beginning.

But Wong’s escalatory action in declaring an occupation of LegCo in late September was the critical spark of the movement to begin with, coming at a moment in which it seemed like the Hong Kong democracy movement was prematurely finished. After events in which Wong and other student leaders came into conflict with elements of the movement who wished to push for escalatory action that Wong and others resisted, it would seem Wong has ultimately concluded that there is a need to escalate after all, or at least, that it would be better to escalate in the present than to withdraw. There are those in the movement still remains critical of Wong’s choice of tactics with undertaking his hunger strike in limiting his activity at a critical moment of the movement and then being forced to end it without much achieved. Yet that even those who are critical of Wong nevertheless campaign for him to be Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in order to remind the world of the Umbrella Revolution illustrates that there continues to be a sense of shared cause, in spite of internal controversy.

In other recent developments, Occupy Central leaders turned themselves into police, as they have stated they would do for some time, as an attempt at an escalatory action in provoking responses from the public. However, they were quickly released and the action ultimately resolved to naught. Occupy Central’s leaders now seem to be in favor of retreat, Benny Tai publishing an op-ed in the New York Times advocating retreat on December 5th. Following Wong’s hunger strike, one hundred other students have signed up for a “relay hunger strike” in which individuals take turns fasting, but this has not provoked any popular outcry. Student groups are at last considering the possibility of necessary retreat. And current Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung has stated that actions to evict remaining protestors from the Admiralty encampment will take place soon.

What then, for the Umbrella Revolution? It seems unlikely the Umbrella Revolution will recapture world attention. Though each new cycle of police violence was reported on by international media, baited by blood as media is wont to do, it is unlikely at present that Hong Kong will become a story enrapturing of international attention as it was at the end of September and early October. Very unfortunately, the only thing that may get international attention once more is even more blood spilled. While last Monday’s spate of police violence served to garner some international attention once more, it is still far cry from late September.

Hong Kong’s “New Normal”

HOW THEN, will Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution come to an end? There is no question that it must end, for no movement can last forever. On the other hand, it remains a question whether the movement will end in the present, even if it is a telling sign that the Hong Kong Federation of Students has publicly stated they are considering retreat and will announce their plans soon. But what strikes is the lingering sense of an ending which has persisted for over a month, even if the end has not yet come. So it is that popular commentators have begun to speak of the end of the movement in the present and speak already of its legacy, even as there still remain occupation encampments and occupiers camped out on the streets of Hong Kong.

All quarters have ventured to speculate as to what the lasting effects of the Umbrella Revolution will be, including supporters and opponents of the movement alike. Quite enough has been said. Let it be stated as a given that the effects of the movement will persist for many years to come and that the movement has altogether succeeded in altering the political atmosphere of Hong Kong, shattering previously held notions of the apathy of Hong Kongers. This is not even to go into what the broader implications of the movement will be in regards to East Asia writ large, given the wrench the Umbrella Revolution to date has thrown into China’s efforts to settle so-called “internal” issues on its perceived borders which in reality we might term “international” issues regarding Chinese expansionism.

Yet if the Umbrella Revolution has already succeeded in transforming Hong Kong, it remains a salient question as to how it will end. Whether venturing to conclude that the Umbrella Revolution has done enough, that it needs to end in the present lest it undo what it has already accomplished, will the Umbrella Revolution end amidst pepper spray and police batons, with Hong Kong’s young driven to desperate but futile measures at the cost of their health and livelihood?

It would be foolish to expect everything to be settled in the present. Whatever the outcome of present events, what is at stake in the present cannot be settled all at once. But if the Umbrella Revolution has succeeded in transforming Hong Kong, if Hong Kong’s “new normal” is one which continues to be defined by resistance met with violence, Hong Kong’s future remains a bleak one. So it will not do now to turn our eyes away from the Umbrella Revolution, concluding that its role is already finished, that whatever role it has had to play is already done, and that all which is left is for us to watch the remainder of the movement peter out in whatever inglorious end. The world’s eyes are not on Hong Kong right now, but they should still be.

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