“It’s a struggle for the survival of Hong Kong”: How the Umbrella Movement became a revolution

The rough and tumble of Hong Kong politics.
The rough and tumble of Hong Kong politics.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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After hours of smashing the glass panels of Hong Kong’s legislature on July 1, protesters finally breached the building’s main entrance. Someone sounded an airhorn. A group of protesters climbed in. The Legislative Council had been stormed.

Adrian, who’s in his early 20s and had recently graduated from college with a degree in philosophy, stood at the shattered entrance and examined the damage. Without hesitation, he walked in, spending about 20 minutes inside before exiting again. “You just know you have to do it,” he said.  

Storming the legislature marked a decisive break from the tactics of the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which earned a reputation for being one of the politest protest movements ever as protesters did homework and collected recyclables at occupation sites. Yet while the movement—which began five years ago today—deepened the political awakening of the city’s youngest, it ultimately failed to win democratic elections for the city’s leader by the time it was forced to disperse 79 days later. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, was elected with 777 votes from a small election committee three years later.

Five years on the city is again in the throes of a massive protest movement. Where 2014 saw the static occupation of major sites, 2019 has been all about moving quickly and unpredictably—or, in the words of Bruce Lee, “Be Water“—leading this years’ protests to far outstrip the Umbrella Movement in duration, scale, and intensity. Many protesters now look back at 2014 as a failure, and a lesson in mistakes not to be repeated.

If 2014 was about getting something more for Hong Kong, 2019’s protesters are driven by a dire sense of urgency about not losing what they have. In the face of the existential question that has hovered over the summer’s marches—can Hong Kong remain Hong Kong as part of China?—it has come to seem almost a “national” struggle to some.

“It’s a struggle for the survival of Hong Kong as a nation before it’s a struggle for ideology,” said Adrian, who only gave his first name. “It’s a struggle of the Hong Kong people to protect the identity and culture and the way of living in Hong Kong. It’s a movement that shows how rotten Hong Kong is deep inside.”

The convergence of 2014 and 2019

More than three months into the protests, the 2019 movement has completely reconfigured daily life in Hong Kong and ushered in a new normal. A record amount of tear gas has been fired, often in dense residential areas. On multiple occasions, armed thugs have attacked civilians on train platforms and on the streets. Riot police have beaten people indiscriminately in train stations and in shopping malls. A small group of protesters now regularly set fire to barricades and throw Molotov cocktails. The Chinese flag has been stomped on, thrown into the sea, and set on fire. Meanwhile, as the number of Hong Kongers identifying as Chinese has reached a record lows, protesters composed an unofficial “national” anthem shortly ahead of China’s national day. All this would have been unthinkable before June this year, when widespread but unheeded popular opposition to an extradition bill kicked off a string of protests.

The break-in at the Legislative Council was a “significant and important” point for the movement, Adrian  told me when we met up on Sept. 15, a day when thousands turned out for a rally that had been denied a police permit. As we passed underneath a footbridge where a few riot police were stationed, he turned his gaze upwards and yelled “Terrorist!” at the officers. Then he went on: “By taking down LegCo, it’s a symbol of regaining a place, where it’s owned by the sovereign people. It’s seizing back what’s entitled to you.”

The legislature, stormed.
The legislature, stormed.
Image: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

The storming was almost a tribute to the spiritual leader of the current protests—Edward Leung, a philosophy student who in 2016, along with several others, was denied the chance to run for the city’s legislature for espousing pro-independence views. Now, the slogan he would have run on—“Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our Times!” is heard everywhere. In 2016, Leung warned, “Those in power do not want me in LegCo, but even if I need to crawl into it or roll into it, no matter how, I have to enter the system.”

Beijing took notice, calling the break-in a “blatant challenge.” In due course, Chinese officials condemned protesters’ “atrocities,” called them “separatists,” and warned that the movement was beginning to show “signs of terrorism.”

The decision to breach the legislature had been made on the fly, with a small group of protesters voting in a show of hands. This kind of pure democracy, and ad hoc style of action, much of it happening online via messaging apps, is completely new to Hong Kong politics. In 2014, key decisions were made by a small group of mostly student leaders and academics, who dominated what was known as the “big stage.” This worked for a while, until a faction emerged urging more radical action, diverging from the moderate approach advocated by the leaders. Cracks began to appear in the movement, which quickly devolved into bitter infighting.

“Everyone remembers what happened in 2014: we lost not because the government beat us, but because we beat ourselves,” said Evelyn Char, a 33-year-old freelance writer who was active during Umbrella, and who has continued to protest in the ongoing movement. We met up earlier this month for the march on the US consulate, soon after the movement passed its 90-day mark. “Fighting for the ‘big stage’ was a class issue,” she said of 2014. “This time feels much more equal. And for us to be united still after 90 days is because of that.”

Protesters formed a human chain up the iconic Lion Rock mountain.
Protesters formed a human chain up the iconic Lion Rock mountain.
Image: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

The egalitarian structure hasn’t entirely been by choice: it’s also because so many Umbrella leaders were jailed. The Occupy Trio—two professors and a reverend who penned a manifesto calling for civil disobedience if Beijing failed to deliver universal suffrage—were sentenced just this year. Leung is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for his role in the so-called Fishball Revolution of 2016, when clashes broke out after police tried to issue tickets to unlicensed street food hawkers. The backlash has made people careful not to be identifiable as participants in the protests, let alone as leaders.

Still, it’s impossible to look at Umbrella and the current protests as entirely separate events. The 2019 movement began in opposition to a bill that would have allowed the government to send suspects to mainland China to face trial.  Coming after the prosecutions, as well as the alarming 2015 abductions of booksellers selling tell-alls about Chinese Party elite, it was seen as the most dire threat from Beijing encroaching upon the city’s freedoms, meant to be preserved for 50 years after its return to China in 1997. As it evolved, protesters revived the demands for direct elections for the city’s leader once they realized the extradition bill was a symptom of deeper political problems that have not been resolved in the intervening five years.

“It is kind of a convergence of 2019 resistance against the anti-extradition bill with the movement for democracy in 2014,” said Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University. Coupled with the evolution of protest tactics, it shows that 2014 and 2019 “are not two isolated episodes of protest, but two instances of a long movement for democracy and self-determination that will continue to grow in the long run.”

Not just another Chinese city

After more than a million people took to the streets on June 9 for a “last stand” for Hong Kong, the government accidentally sent protesters the message that radical actions work better than peaceful displays by suspending the extradition bill—but only after police and protesters clashed on June 12. By then, anger was already boiling at police, and the mass peaceful marches of June gave way to more intense confrontations with police all over the city.

Whereas 2014’s occupation sites centered on the wealthy business districts of Admiralty and Causeway Bay, with another in the more working-class neighborhood of Mong Kok, this year’s protests have been everywhere: far-flung border towns like Sheung Shui, public housing estates, industrial areas, and even up a mountain ridge. “This time we don’t occupy a single place because that’s a difficult way to sustain a movement,” said Lo Kin-hei, vice chairman of the city’s Democratic Party.

Protesters forced the Hong Kong International Airport to shut down.
Protesters forced the Hong Kong International Airport to shut down.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter

August saw a turn away from July’s focus on government symbols—including the office representing China’s in the city—to take up strikes and major disruptions in the public transport system, effectively forcing the airport to shut down. But after two mainland Chinese men were surrounded and assaulted by a number of protesters at the airport, tarnishing the movement, it faced a moment of reckoning: how to move forward? Following a gut check of opinion via messaging apps, protesters made profuse apologies, pledging to keep the next Sunday’s (Aug. 18) march entirely peaceful—and they did, marking the first weekend in many weeks with no tear gas fired. Since then, more lighthearted protest actions like a human chain in late August and protest lanterns for the Mid-Autumn festival this month have been interspersed with continued aggressive clashes with police.

On Sept. 4, the government finally agreed to meet one of what had become five protest demands: to fully withdraw the extradition bill.

But events leading up to the concession only confirmed people’s feelings that Hong Kong’s leaders aren’t accountable to the city. Days earlier, Reuters had published a report detailing how Lam’s proposal much earlier to withdraw the bill had been rejected by Beijing. And in a leaked audio recording published by Reuters, Lam suggests she would quit—another of the five demands—if only Beijing allowed her to.

So far, the government has refused to address the other demands, which include an independent investigation into police conduct. And so protests continue in the only city in China where they could ever happen.

“The movement is kind of at a bottleneck situation. You’ve kind of exhausted all means you can think of,” said Adrian. “It’s a two-fold frustration: one on a personal level, and one on a movement level.”

The long or the short game?

In July, Adrian started his first job, one with “decent pay” in the city’s lucrative financial industry, and now he realizes that the opportunity costs to him of taking risks on the frontlines—like storming the legislature—are significantly higher. And with increased political pressure within companies like Cathay Pacific, where employees have been fired for Facebook posts supporting the protesters, Adrian has been careful to hide his social media posts from potentially prying colleagues.

As he walked along the protest route two weeks ago with his friend John, a law student at a local university, they both grappled with the choices before them. Whereas a popular protest slogan spray-painted across the city—“If we burn, you burn with us,” a reference to The Hunger Games movies—suggests an all-or-nothing outlook, Adrian and John are distinctly not nihilist. Though they both wore simple face masks, neither of them had brought any kind of protective gear characteristic of the movement’s so-called “brave fighters.” 

MTR, the railway operator, has been the target of protester ire.
MTR, the railway operator, has been the target of protester ire.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Perhaps instead of playing the short game of violent clashes with the police that could end in arrest, they muse, they should play the long game, climb the career ladder, contribute to Hong Kong’s fight for democracy in the years to come. Some protesters are turning their sights to upcoming district elections in November. But even having that choice seems to sit uncomfortably with them.

“If no one plays the short game, there’s no long game,” said Adrian. “The question comes down to: who is entitled to play the long game?”

John agreed. “Why do they have to sacrifice their freedom so you can play the long game?” he asked. As of Monday (Sept. 23), police have arrested 1,556 people in connection with the protests, one as young as 12.

While protester numbers have dipped in recent weeks—in part because police now regularly outright ban rallies and marches and order the subway operator to shut down stations hours ahead of planned demonstrations—a smaller, more aggressive group has stepped up their acts of vandalism, damaging subway facilities and targeting shopping malls connected to stations.

Yet public sentiment remains overwhelmingly on the protesters’ side, and tolerance for violent protest tactics has actually increased. In a poll released this month by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (pdf, in Chinese, p6), just under 70% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that protests have to be non-violent and peaceful—a drop from 83% when the same question was posed in June. Meanwhile, the proportion of respondents who say they “completely distrust” the police has gone from 6.5% before the first mass march in June, to over 48% this month.

All eyes are now on Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China—the city’s annual fireworks celebration to mark the day has been canceled, and a rally to mark the Umbrella anniversary and fresh mass marches to boost morale are set for coming days.

“In the face of China, the chances of winning are very low,” Char, the freelancer, said. “We really need a miracle. And this model [of protest] allows miracles to happen.”