By Elaine Dunn
On Sept. 26, 2014, a group of mostly young, hopeful students gathered outside the Hong Kong government’s headquarters to demand for greater input into the election of the next chief executive, the top ruling post in Hong Kong, of 2017. The police responded with pepper spray and arrested dozens of the demonstrators. What ensued was 79 days of civil disobedience that became known as the Umbrella Revolution because the demonstrators armed themselves with umbrellas as protect against police pepper spray and tear gas.
The number of the pro-democracy demonstrators grew to hundreds of thousands as the government response turned ugly. It was probably the first time since June 4, 1989, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing that such a large group had gathered to call for more political freedom from the central government. The mainly peaceful campaign ended in December when the sitting chief executive, under “instructions” from Beijing, ordered all the tents and barricades at the demonstration sites dismantled.
A year after the pro-democracy campaign, deemed “the most destructive movement since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong” by the mainland Chinese authorities, has there been any changes? Did the student leaders’ efforts achieve anything?
To the pro-Beijing crowd, the campaign’s demand for revising the 2017 election process of Hong Kong’s chief executive did not sway Beijing. To them, the Umbrella Movement:
was completely illegitimate
“wrongly encouraged” the young Hong Kongers to believe it was acceptable to express their demands by resorting to violence
undermined the governance and rule of law in Hong Kong, and
produced no tangible change - chief executive C.Y. Leung is still in office, although his popularity had dropped a few pegs.
The pro-Beijing camp also believed that to calm the angry, disenfranchised youth, the government need to establish programs that addressed housing and career prospects. As a result, the government has indeed funded programs to teach entrepreneurship.
For the pro-democracy student leaders, their lives definitely had seen changes. Joshua Wong, co-founder of the activist group Scholarism, the then 17-year-old “face” of the “revolution,” has been on the cover of TIME magazine. He also was featured as one of TIME’s “most influential teens of 2014.” In June 2015, a few days before the 18th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, he was attacked on the street after attending a movie with a friend. TIME reported that Wong felt “there are serious safety concerns in the future” for activists like himself, and that he needed “to care more about my personal security.” In terms of the pro-democracy movement, he is talking long-term, that Hong Kongers need to look beyond 2017 to 2047, when the 50-year transition period (from British rule to Chinese rule) of “one country, two systems” is up. And, he stresses Hong Kongers need to fight for the right to self-determination, not just focus on election reform.
In August, Wong and two other student leaders were charged for their roles in the 2014 protests. Wong was charged with unlawful assembly and inciting others to participate. Alex Chow, formerly with the Hong Kong Federation of Students, was charged with unlawful assembly. Nathan Law, the federation’s current leader, was charged with inciting others to join an unlawful assembly. They face up to two years in prison if found guilty. All three pleaded “not guilty” to their charges at their Oct. 30 pre-trial hearing. If their attorneys do not seek a stay of the proceedings, their trials will begin end-February. Three others, organizers of the Occupy Hong Kong movement, have yet to be formally charged by the authorities.
The pro-democracy camp did score a mini victory when pro-democracy lawmakers defeated Beijing’s election package in a June 2015 vote. Although that means the next chief executive nominees will be chosen by the same Beijing-approved 1,200-member committee, it also denied giving the election false (universal suffrage) legitimacy.
As for the dire predictions of how much harm the protests had wrought on Hong Kong’s economy, the impact had been insignificant. The city’s colonial laissez-faire approach had stayed relatively intact, being ranked “third-easiest place in the world to do business” by The World Bank in October 2014. And in February 2015, the city reported its economy grew by 2.3 percent in 2014.
So, while all the tents and umbrellas are gone, and the protests continuously trivialized by the pro-Beijing camp, no one can deny that the 79 days brought about the political awakening of the younger generation and gave the generally politically apathetic older population of Hong Kong a clearer insight into genuine democracy. Furthermore, judging from the “I want universal suffrage” banners that popped up around the one-year anniversary of the Umbrella Revolution, the fight spirit for election reform has not vanished. Perhaps under new leadership and, as some socialist groups suggest, another mass struggle to reopen the electoral reform discussion, the Umbrella Revolution opened the floodgates that may one day lead to changes the students sought.