by Brian Hioe

Photo credit: Chao Shuang-chieh/Want China Times and Tyrone Siu/Reuters

On January 19th, New Bloom’s Brian Hioe interviewed Ian Rowen, a Ph. D candidate at the University of Colorado who was present in Taiwan during the Sunflower movement and Hong Kong during the Umbrella movement, making him one of the few individuals to have experienced both movements in the past year. He has written on both movements in publications including The Guardian, the Journal of Asian Studies, The BBC (Chinese),, and Thinking Taiwan.


Brian Hioe:  Can you briefly introduce yourself and what led you to participating in the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong?

Ian Rowen:  Sure. At the moment, I’m doing a Ph.D in geography at the University of Colorado and my research is about China and Taiwan relations. Prior to that, I lived in the region for over ten years. I first was an exchange student in Hong Kong in 1999 to 2000, my junior year of college, just a few years after the handover. And that’s what started my residence in and scholarship about Asia.

A year in Hong Kong then led to about four years in Taiwan and three years in China. I began grad school and I was thinking in grad school about the experiences I had and how to make sense about how the region was changing. After coming back here for my fieldwork, which is about tourism between China and Taiwan, I started seeing a number of gaps in the dominant narratives of dominant political parties in China and Taiwan. It became clear that these stories about everyone getting along better the more people travelled back and forth, that people understood each other more, were not necessarily the full story.

Just so it happened, during my fieldwork year, during my Fulbright Fellowship in 2014, not only Taiwan’s Sunflower movement but also Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement started erupting. It seemed essential for my research project, as well as for understanding and supporting democracy and human rights and other kinds of basic ideals that people in the region care about, that I go and get some firsthand experience in these movements.

The Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement

BH:  With your experiences in both the Sunflower movement and the Umbrella movement, apart from what you’ve written already, how would you compare and contrast the two movements?  Both in terms of your other experiences regarding international relations in the region, but also the movements’ aims, tactics, how they understand what they’re achieving, and what to do in relation to China?

IR:  I think the most obvious differences between the Umbrella movement and Sunflower movement, as I wrote about, is even just three days into the Umbrella movement it became obvious that the level of centralization and focus which was achievable in Sunflower was not playing out the same way in Hong Kong. Arguably, in some ways, this actually points to a maturity in Hong Kong, in that people there don’t want to be told what to do. There’s a sense that this movement can work even without a central leadership, that the people don’t need the elites, or scholars, or big men upstairs in, say, the Legislative Yuan, as is arguably what happened in the Sunflower movement. People can more or less figure on their own terms, in their own communities, and in their own camps on the streets of Mong Kok or Admiralty the best strategy to go with.

I think, however, functionally, there’s some weaknesses there. We didn’t see the same kinds of policy achievements or promises in the Umbrella movement that we saw in the Sunflower movement. So there’s a sacrifice that was made in the Sunflower movement, there were certain decision-making processes that were widely criticized both within and outside the Legislative Yuan, and it wasn’t particularly democratic or transparent. But it achieved more or less what a lot of people were hoping it would achieve. In the Umbrella movement, there was no consensus, there was no negotiation, there was really strained communication between a lot of different camps and this, I think, was part of its weakness.

poiuhygftThe inside of the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Democracy at 4 AM

But at the same time, both of them achieved I think far more than anyone who initiated them thought they would. Even just a few days before Umbrella broke out, nobody expected it would last for more than few days or a week. I was just speaking last night with some Sunflower activists in Taipei who had met with some of the Hong Kong Federation of Students leaders and May or June, none of them had any expectations that it would last more than a few days. So it’s really quite a big success in that sense.

We can also say that the Umbrellas were up against a much harder opponent. The KMT that the Sunflowers were facing down was fractured between Ma and Wang, and, while endowed with astonishing financial and institutional resources, it simply didn’t have the kind of support from the Taiwanese public that it needed to push forward contentious policies like the CSSTA.

In the case of the Umbrella movement, the CCP and the C.Y. Leung administration were better coordinated. C.Y. put his foot in his mouth many times, but there was no figure like a Wang Jin-Pyng that could actually sabotage his action. And he was more or less backed up, at least in public, by Beijing. I don’t expect that back-up to much last longer, but for the time being it worked. So for whatever criticisms can be leveled at the Umbrellas, they were up against a much harder opponent than the Sunflowers were up against in Taiwan.

What Can Be Learned From the Umbrella Movement?

BH:  Moving onto the next question, what do you think social movements across the world can take from the Umbrella movement? Because you wrote about genuine universal suffrage as a demand by Umbrella movement in an article for, but as we also just discussed, the way things were organized. It did seem to me from afar that the Umbrella movement was much more decentralized.

Do you think there things about the tactics or rhetoric which can be learned from for other movements, that there’s a takeaway?

IR:  The use of a slogan like genuine universal suffrage was a good tactic in Hong Kong, because the groups in Hong Kong that were participating were so diverse and had such broad disagreements that they could pick something like genuine universal suffrage that everyone could get behind. And not just activists in the streets of Mong Kok, but people across the territory. So that general sense of ‘umbrella politics,’ of spreading your umbrella as wide as possible to build a broad coalition is useful. That, of course, is not unique to Hong Kong.

The focus on students as the vanguard of the movement was also not unique, but it worked in Hong Kong and I think works generally in other East Asian societies where students are valorized. That kind of valorization has happened in the US—student movements in the 60s and 70s were influential—but in regards to the degree to which students were seen as leading the way for society and are respected and given a privileged status, I think East Asia takes this to a different level.

So what can movements and regions that aren’t so sensitive to student whims learn? Where people could learn from Hong Kong is in regards to the level of self-organization, the way that infrastructure was managed, the way that people had supply stations set up overnight, the way that carpenters came in and built study centers. I suspect the degree of sophistication of occupation, of urban planning, of urban management that Hong Kong achieved has dwarfed anything I’ve seen anywhere. My experience in the Occupy movement in the US is limited, I only walked through the encampments in Los Angeles and Denver, but based on all the footage I’ve seen, just a single block in Hong Kong was already a lot more sophisticated than something you’d see in Zuccotti Park in New York. The ways that people manage the space, partition the space, and distribute food and other resources are things that occupation movements from around the world could learn from.

I also think the way that Hong Kong occupiers drew from a whole lot of civil society groups is important. This was true in Taiwan as well. For example, the movement saw the incorporation of medical teams, the incorporation of legal teams, and the very limited incorporation of political parties. The movement sought to keep them at a distance while also using them tactically. These are things that occupiers in other developed economies might want to learn from.

IMG_20140410_164237Part of the encampment outside of the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

BH:  It did seem to me, too, that there was something quite remarkable about the large-scale nature of the encampments in Hong Kong in terms of a self-organized space. Do you think there’s a connection between that the decentralization in Hong Kong? My own view based on my experiences was that it was in fact more reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street in how decentralized it was, where the Sunflower movement was, as you said, more centralized.

IR:  Yeah, I think the US Occupy movement was much more self-conscious about being a flat organization than Taiwan was. In Taiwan you had an occupation based around the occupied Legislative Yuan, which is already a symbol of unequal power anyway. It’s a centralized base; it’s not a street, it’s a government office. You had decisions being made arguably on the second floor rather than the first floor. You had an encampment around the building which radiated power based on distance from the center.

Something I wrote about in an article, and this is arguable, but the reputation of the universities that were participating in Sunflower diminished as you got farther from the center. Right outside the Legislative Yuan, you had a station for Academia Sinica or National Taiwan University, and as you got farther out, you had lesser name universities. Hong Kong didn’t have anything like this. In this sense, Hong Kong was more effective, I think, for radical democratic politics. Or at least the ideal of it, if not the actual achievement of policy change. The fact that you had three separate encampments which weren’t contiguous and required taking public transport or a serious walk to get to also contributed to further decentralization.

Questions of Purpose and Internal Divisions

BH:  The next thing I wanted to ask was related to that. About the different groups that were present in Hong Kong and the encampments. The most visible was the Hong Kong Federation of Students. We could perceive the different tensions from afar, for example, between localist groups, like Civic Passion or groups like that and Scholarism, the Federation of Students, or Occupy Central. And the differences between the different encampments, as in Mong Kok, which is usually mentioned as the one that was most radical, and Admiralty and Causeway. What would you say to that?

There were different attempts by groups trying to act as a vanguard in cases, to push occupiers towards more radical action. But in the beginning, it was Scholarism that was the vanguard by taking the action that sparked off all this. What would you also say as to the changing views of people and the different tensions between all these groups? Like how would you describe that to someone who wasn’t there?

IR:  I would say that in the very first week of it, during the student boycotts and right after, and during the first week after the use of tear gas by the police, there was a unity of purpose that was quite inspiring and astonishing. And there was such a wide variety of people, not just students, but often their parents, their teachers, and other people that were out to support the students and generally support universal suffrage, but without thinking about and without significant experience in radical politics apart from that.

During the first week it was very easy for people to maintain unity of purpose. There wasn’t so much a question of tactics. There weren’t even any tents at that point. There weren’t separate camps. At that point, it was just tens of thousands of people in the streets and an overwhelming sense of being on the right side of history, or a sense of “revolutionary romanticism”.

The harder questions came later, when it was clear the government wasn’t going to respond. At which point, because of what we’ve been talking about, because there was no centralized decision-making body, it was unclear how to proceed. I don’t think anyone, even the more radical groups, would criticize for example, HKFS’s performance in the debate with the government. Putting the students up against those government ministers and seeing those students perform as well as they did was something that hopefully almost most people were happy about.

But there was certainly a fracture that happened later, partly geographically between Mong Kok and Admiralty, and just a sense of finger-pointing and name calling by people who got increasing frustrated—first with the government, then with each other, as they were coming up with ineffective responses. A pejorative heard often was “Left Plastic” or “zuojiao”, which was a term that the people at Mong Kok would point to the people in Admiralty with. And then the so-called “Left Plastics” would point back and accuse the people in Mong Kok of being nationalistic, or fascist, or chauvinistic, or anything else. There was no effective communication.

There were also some very ugly things that happened in mid-November when some people decided to take direct action and damage the windows of the Legislative Council. After a police investigation, some people accused the “Left Plastics” of feeding the police with information about the window-breakers identities.

I was there very close to the breaking of the glass, but fortunately missed out on the supposed ratting out and name-calling later. It was sad to see anger directed at fellow activists instead of the common enemy that they both shared and I think it speaks to Sunflower’s better tactics that it ended in just a few weeks before that kind of thing happened. Name-calling and finger pointing certainly was starting to happen to in Sunflower towards the end and it certainly happened after everyone left, since not everyone wanted to leave. But in the case of the Umbrella movement, no-one could make a decision when to leave or not. Ultimately the police made that decision. Or C.Y. made that decision. After which the movement couldn’t maintain unity of purpose.

That being said, the Umbrellas were up against a hard opponent and it’s hard to know exactly what they could have done differently. Had, for example, more property damage occurred early on, it’s possible that it could have escalated things in the way the more radical groups wanted and could have gotten the government to concede more. Alternatively, it could have gone absolutely the wrong way, it could have alienated all of Hong Kong’s public, because Hong Kong’s public doesn’t have much of an appetite for property damage or what can be spun as violent action in general. It’s very hard to say in retrospect what any of these sides could have been better.

BH:  I think that’s totally true. It’s always a question of counterfactuals. But it does seem like that tension is always there between groups that want to take more radical action and groups that want to be more reformist in orientation? I kind of felt that way during parts of the Sunflower movement, too.

IR:  Chris Buckley, the New York Times reporter, made this excellent point that if it weren’t for groups like Civic Passion, HKFS and Scholarism wouldn’t have looked so reasonable. If you don’t have this radical wing, the more moderate people will look radical. So actually it’s quite good that, even if Civic Passion occasionally says off the wall things, they do it so effectively. They’re amazing communicators, whether or not you agree with them. They’re extremely savvy with social media. And for this reason, they actually are probably better for the movement as a whole, being there, than if not.

BH: It’s looking at the big spectrum of the movement, I feel like.

Daily Life in the Umbrella Movement

BH:  For the next question, I wanted to ask again about the occupation encampments, which we talked about a bit already. In Hong Kong, there was different occupation encampments, which were very sophisticated in organization, and this seemed to be a spontaneous form of organization.

It does seem to me that this is a tendency with occupation style encampments, even with the Sunflower movement, although on a smaller scale, and with different occupation style encampments in the US. Some of this was reported on in the US, the different features, like the study hall was well known, there were hair-cutting services, the Lennon Wall, charging stations, those kind of things. But what was the community like? That is, the community living there? Because you were there for quite a period.

IR:  Generally, in Admiralty it was warm and welcoming. It was young and also pretty student heavy. Certain projects drew certain cliques of people around them. Some of those were very consistent and some came every few days.

For example, a supply station would basically be manned twenty four hours a day. You would often see the same people at those stations. They had their own networks, with people who would restock them; with those, what you see in one particular spot is connected to a whole web of other resource distribution networks and people that extend beyond the occupation site. In this sense, it’s like any kind of urban space. It’s part of a much larger continuum of human action.

Then you would have these other smaller projects, for example, the “Mailbox to the Future”, which was just a few friends, students, or recent graduates who would come every few days to provide postcards and mail them out for you. That would kind of form a community around it. And that was transient. You weren’t sure when you find it, it was some nights, and some nights it just wasn’t there at all. Some nights there music in some places, some nights there weren’t. Some nights there were heated discussions, some nights there weren’t.

What was later referred to as the “Main Stage” in Admiralty, that was the target of some of the more radical attacks, again, because of the creeping feeling that they were centralizing and keeping it too moderate, but it was also a major focus every night. People would come there to listen to speeches and occasionally hear performances.

Admiralty had a character that was recognized more for its artistic production than Mong Kok, though Mong Kok also had quite a bit of art. The internal dynamics were generally quite cordial, I would say people were on the whole friendlier than I had ever experienced in Hong Kong, and I say that having been there on and off for fifteen years. Probably a stroll through Admiralty or Mong Kok during the Umbrella movement could be the warmest experience one could ever have in Hong Kong.

I would often hear this from people sitting in the street in Admiralty, who would come there every night after work just to feel that energy. Of course, this is a reconstructed memory on their part, but they would say, “Oh, this is just like the Hong Kong of my youth, when people would talk more to each other, before things got too dense—or before too many tourists came.” I would occasionally hear that.

At the same time, though, there was a structure undergirding all that and that wasn’t always obvious. There was a security team in Admiralty. It was actually pretty low key, although it also became a target of the more radical activists. But there were there, staying on the sidelines, making sure people didn’t get out of hand. For example, they didn’t want people drinking so it wouldn’t look as though there were drunken deviants in what was otherwise a very serious protest site.

Whereas in Mong Kok, no-one would tell you what to do. And this led people to feel in some way superior, like they weren’t being controlled so tightly as in Admiralty by those bourgeois kids. Those would be some differences. I’m sure Mong Kok had security. It also had plenty of police. But security would rarely tell other people what to do. In Admiralty, you would occasionally get some of that. That having been said, I think on the whole, that something so peaceful was maintained for 79 days speaks to the effectiveness of the security teams.

Likewise, there were different “tribes” within the settlements. It was different in Taiwan. Within Sunflower you would see camps specifically named after universities, or NGOs, in Hong Kong, it was much more ad hoc. You wouldn’t see, for example, a CUHK camp the same in Taiwan you saw a NTU camp. It was more random and spontaneous, especially in Mong Kok, where I would meet people who camped together for weeks, having all just met on arrival. And they somehow started getting along with each other despite all the chaos in Mong Kok, you know, with cops coming in, with gangsters coming through, with tourists coming through, etc.

With Admiralty, it was a little less spontaneous, it was more networks of student organizations and friends and friends of friends. For example, my neighbors by my tent, they had been classmates ten years ago in college. This was basically an extended reunion for them. They would come every night after work, some of them worked during the day. Some of them worked at night also, so they’d come during the day. It was basically their college space ten years later.

Another difference, another unique thing I’d say about Admiralty compared to anywhere else in Hong Kong or in Taiwan was that it drew lunchtime office workers. Because it’s the central government and business district, people would take away their food and just sit on the streets to show their support and also enjoy the nice weather and the rare chance to eat outside in a quiet and relatively gentle version of Hong Kong. You didn’t get that anywhere else in Hong Kong or in Taiwan. It added this kind of rhythm to the occupation where the mornings were often quite dead in Admiralty, but the time lunch came around, even the student center would get filled up with office people eating their lunch.

Things would settle down a bit in the afternoon. By the time people got off work, it was kind of peak hours. And then cartoonists and other artists or leatherworkers who would make nice yellow ribbons would all come out. It almost became carnivalesque. Even more so on the weekends, when people would bring their kids who would start drawing chalk all over the streets. Those are just a few sketches of what life was like up there.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

BH:  So my last question to wrap it up, how would you evaluate critically on the Umbrella movement now, so many months later? What were its successes and what were its failures? We can point towards the obvious things of changing the discourse and also the fact that we can see there’s a sort of crackdown going on with the government.

But if you were to make a future prognosis of the movement from what you saw, or how different actors in the movement were interacting, what would you say going forward?

IR:  I would say Beijing should be both very worried and very hopeful. For a territory that for decades, people had written off as politically uninspired, indifferent and apathetic, that enough people there cared to flood the streets, to make great sacrifices, and take risks for a place they call home—number one, that’s a success for Hong Kong, culturally, politically, and socially. Number two, if Hong Kong’s independence movement doesn’t grow in ways that make Beijing really worried, if they were strategic, Beijing would see this as a chance to co-opt some great, talented political actors.

I don’t expect Beijing to do that in the short term, they’re busy cracking down, they’re busy preventing border crossing, they’re busy apparently instituting cadet programs. I suspect in the short-term that Beijing has been quite scared.

As for the future of Hong Kong’s democracy—I don’t know if it’s gotten accelerated or forestalled. It’s extremely hard to say. The more moderate types and the people who were worried about this kind of action in the first place suggested that Beijing would be more likely to grant democracy were Hong Kong people politer about requesting it. I don’t think there’s any reason to expect that, I don’t think Beijing would want to give up any more than they have to.

At the same time, I don’t know necessarily if it slowed it down either. There are enough internal tensions within China and enough tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong that some kind of compromise or some appearance of compromise will have to be made—some bone will have to be thrown to people in Hong Kong to win them back. And clearly, the economic incentives are insufficient. People are willing to risk arrest, people are willing to risk blacklisting, people are willing to risk all kinds of things in this movement.

Some kind of policy change will have to be implemented. There’s going to have to be enough time between the movement and the actual change in policy to make it appear as though direct action didn’t make that happen. But a strategic calculation will have to be made there.

So what going forward? Hong Kong’s culture will never be the same. This will be remembered as a watershed in Hong Kong. There’s never been an action of that size. It’ll probably be memorialized and commemorated annually for years. People will tell stories about what it was like to have been there.

There’s also an increasing radicalization among certain Hong Kong politicians. For example, it looks like the Civic Party people are saying things like Hong Kong is like Eastern Europe during the 80s or 90s, if we don’t have revolution now, it’s never going to happen. I don’t want to hazard any prediction, except to say it’s a very interesting time to be in Hong Kong. The independence movement’s probably been strengthened, too. But at the same time, I think a lot of people who aren’t interested in independence, who just want something like a genuine democracy, are being painted as independence activists as a way to smear them. There are a lot of new narratives being constructed by both anti-government and pro-government actors and it’s not always clear who is who.

BH:  Was there anything else you’d like to say to readers? Readers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the US, or wherever.

IR:  The next two years will be very interesting.

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