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Did Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests really change anything?

A pro-democracy protester stands in front of a line of riot police at Mongkok shopping district in Hong Kong early
Reuters/Bobby Yip
Fighting for their future.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

HONG KONG—Now that the pro-democracy protest encampment in the center of Asia’s financial capital has been cleared (minus, perhaps, some stray glitter), many are wondering whether the 75 days of demonstrations, which highlighted the divide between Hong Kong and mainland China, actually mattered much in the end.

The protesters, after all, didn’t make any discernible progress towards their primary goals—securing for Hong Kongers the right to choose their own chief executive candidates, and ousting the city’s unloved current chief, CY Leung. Despite the passionate participation, the international attention, and outpouring of creativity and ingenuity, the protest site at Admiralty looks this morning very much as it did the morning of Sep. 26, the day students kicked off the demonstrations. The protesters themselves have largely returned to work or school.

And yet, there are many ways that the protests have irrefutably changed Hong Kong. After over two and a half months of speeches, police crack-downs, political posturing, and encampment-building, here’s where things stand:

The city’s youth has awakened

The biggest impact of the Umbrella Movement may be the collective empowerment of an entire generation. The young people of Hong Kong have surprised the public, and themselves, with their brazenness, tenacity, and organization—as well as willingness to clean toilets and organize trash.

In the past, “it has been so difficult to get young people [in Hong Kong] concerned about society and motivate them into action,” said Kacey Wong, an artist who participated in the protests. “Suddenly these youth have tremendous concerns about community, future development and democratic political reform.” They weren’t just coming up with slogans and protesting, he said—they’re actually learning how politics, law, and the city itself work.

Reuters/Carlos Barria
Protesters listen to speeches outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct. 1.

In addition to universal suffrage, Hong Kong’s yawning generational and class divides were an important theme of the protests. The students and other protesters manning the barricades were also demonstrating against their diminished economic opportunities, in a shockingly crowded and expensive city where wealth is concentrated among the few.

Young protesters say they intend to take up other causes like land redevelopment, housing, and income inequality. “Hong Kong people used to only care about their own lives. Go to work and get off work, repeatedly. The movement tells us it is time to do something,” said Ivan Mak, a 20-year-old courier who spent a month at the Admiralty protest site.

The stereotype of the sheltered Hong Kong student unable to handle even his own laundry has been upended—as has the stereotype of the spoiled Hong Kong “princess.” Protesters ran three orderly occupations, complete with study centers, DIY cleaning solution, makeshift showers, and teams to handle cleaning and supplies.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined Hong Kong students camping in the street and cleaning toilets,” said a former teacher at the the Admiralty protest site in November.

“We’ve learned a lot [from] cleaning toilets, recycling rubbish…we’ve seldom done things like this before. We’ve shown our self-discipline,” said Ricky Lam, 26, a protester who had camped for days in front of the government headquarters.

Hong Kong’s youth are emerging from the protests more critical, and in some ways more cynical, than when they arrived. Clare Tam, 24, a secondary school teacher says her students are asking more questions about how a society should be run, thinking about concepts of right and wrong, and questioning the police and government’s actions throughout the protests.

Reuters/Carlos Barria
Student leader Joshua Wong speaking to demonstrators during the first week of protests.

Still, not everyone has emerged untarnished. The once universally-admired Hong Kong Federation of Students lost some of its popular support from protesters who disagreed with the group’s leadership. Joshua Wong, head of the student group Scholarism says it is not planning launch another round or civil disobedience soon, but worries that protesters may resort to more radical or violent tactics.

Many young people remain unimpressed with the city’s more liberal political parties. That has given rise to the expectation that student leaders who might run in the 2016 Legislative Council elections will likely form an independent or “young people” party, says Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Definitely [we] are looking for more political power, and we look for reasonable politicians who share the same ideas as us, rather than caring which parties they are in,” said Seanix Yu, 21, who says she doesn’t identify with any of Hong Kong’s current politicians.

“In five to ten years, these kids are going to take over,” predicted Shu Kei, the chairman of the film and TV school at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, who was keeping an eye on his students, and the police, as the protest site was cleared on Dec. 11. ”Nothing like this has ever happened before. They want a fairer society than they have. One of their slogans is ‘We are going to take back our future.” And he thinks they have a decent chance.

The police are no longer the pride of Hong Kong

Reuters/Tyrone Siu
A lot of people in Hong Kong are asking this question.

Hong Kong’s 28,000-strong police force was once considered one of the city’s greatest success stories, after remaking itself from what had become an untrustworthy and deeply corrupt organization in the 1970s. Hong Kong’s super-low crime rate was accomplished by officers who rarely used force or drew guns, and didn’t take bribes—a shining example of how Hong Kong’s government and services were superior to mainland China.

The way the cops handled the protests has left many residents disillusioned or downright disgusted, with many questioning whether Hong Kong’s famed “Rule of Law” is deteriorating.

Their early use of tear gas was not only disproportionate but strategically ill-advised, inspiring tens of thousands of additional protesters to take to the streets in anger. Two viral videos—one of an officer pepper-spraying a protester in the face at close range, the other showing officers brutally beating a protester in a dark corner—quickly turned more of the public against police. Later in the protests, police seemed to stand by when pro-Beijing thugs harassed protesters, then they unabashedly pepper-sprayed cornered crowds, used batons to beat unarmed protesters, even flipped the bird at the public they serve.

AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Police beat a protester Dec. 1 in Admiralty.

Not surprisingly, the police’s approval ratings have plummeted, and are now not much higher in Hong Kong than those of China’s People’s Liberation Army:

“I used to say ‘Thank you’ to police when I passed them,” said Sherman, a 34-year old social worker taking part in a final sit-in as the main protest site was cleared. “But these days, I have lost all of my respect for them.” Hong Kong people no longer have any institutions they can trust, she argued: “Even the police are not politically neutral. They are just a tool of the government to mute the voice of the people.”

Now everyone knows the Hong Kong government is impotent

Hong Kong citizens’ relationship with its city government, which is dominated by Beijing- and business-backed officials, has rarely been close or complimentary. But the protests exposed just how little these officials can, or will, do to answer the questions or address the needs of many of its citizens.

“Now we have seen the worst side of our government,” said protester Owen Kwok, 31, the night before the Admiralty protest site was cleared.

“Now we have seen the worst side of our government.”

He and other protesters say they are more mistrustful of the government after it sanctioned harsh police tactics, and at the same time are disdainful of the political impotence of the city’s executive wing. After student representatives met with Hong Kong officials in public talks in October, the government’s main response was to emphasize that its hands were tied. The students resolved to take their arguments to Beijing, where the real decision-making power resides, but were stopped from even boarding the plane.

As a result of the protests, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is more polarized than ever and likely doomed to stalemate. The pan-Democrats, a loose alliance of democracy-sympathetic lawmakers, have pledged to vote down the proposed election rules from Beijing that triggered the protests. ”People waking up is very good, but the sharp polarization is not good. It will make politics very difficult,” Emily Lau, chairman of the Democratic Party, told Quartz.

Reuters/Carlos Barria
Protesters in Hong Kong listen to speeches after talks between demonstrators and the government were called off.

If that happens, activists are back to square one in the fight for universal suffrage: the next chief executive will be elected according to the old system, through a Beijing-dominated 1,200-person nominating committee. And there may be worse to come. ”There is a danger that in response, Beijing will move quietly to restrict press freedom, the rule of law, and the scope for civil society beyond what it has already done,” wrote Richard Bush, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy.

Still, the playing field could be altered in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Student leaders Lester Shum and Alex Chow are considering running for LegCo seats, according to Lam, the Chinese University of Hong Kong professor. “A bitter struggle is predicted for the foreseeable future. But the next big showdown will be parliamentary elections in 2016,” he said.

Beijing wins the battle, but what about the war?

On the surface, the outcome of the protests are a big win for officials in Beijing. After all, China’s Communist Party leaders didn’t budge an inch from their original position: that Hong Kong citizens will only be able to elect a leader in 2017 who has been pre-screened by the mainland.

There were plenty of ways that the protests could have gone badly for Beijing—especially the prospect of bloodshed and violence that would have caused an international uproar, or even worse triggered unrest on the mainland. In the end, there were no tanks, no drawn guns, and no one died—certainly not the Tiananmen Square redux that some (including former Tiananmen protesters) worried about.

Reuters/Carlos Barria
A banner hanging in Admiralty during the protests says, “I want real universal suffrage.”

CY Leung, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, emerged weaker but largely unscathed from the protests—despite the mid-protest revelation that he had received $6.4 million in a dodgy secret deal with an Australian company.

But the Hong Kong protests also pumped a lot of oxygen into a conversation that had mostly been buried as companies and political leaders joined the headlong rush to make money from the world’s second-largest economy—namely, what sort of rights do citizens in China actually have, and what rights will they have in the future?

Western leaders—including German chancellor Angela Merkel, US president Barack Obama and a bipartisan coalition of US legislators, and a group of British lawmakers—all criticized China’s actions.

It’s wishful thinking to assume “the Communists don’t want to lose the next generation so they’ll do something nice” for Hong Kong.

Most significantly for Beijing, the crackdown on Hong Kong’s civil liberties was a major setback to the prospect of Taiwan’s eventual reunification with the mainland, which led to the rousing defeat of Taiwan’s pro-Beijing Nationalist Party last month. The victorious Democratic Progressive Party achieved historic electoral gains by highlighting how Hong Kong’s future—purportedly set up under a doctrine of “one country, two systems”—was a foreboding omen for how a reunified Taiwan might one day be treated.

Will the protests, a fresh round of international scrutiny, and the defeat in Taiwan, inspire some sort of introspection in Beijing? As usual with the opaque China Communist Party, it’s hard to say.

It would be wishful thinking to assume “the Communists don’t want to lose the next generation so they’ll do something nice” for Hong Kong, Charles Mok, a pan-democratic member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, told Quartz. “That’s just not the Chinese communists. They just don’t act that way.” If the political dynamic between Hong Kong and China is to change, there would need to be a change within the political landscape of mainland China itself, he said.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, citizens from all walks of life, even those who didn’t support the protests, have been contacting Mok with their ideas for how to make the city more democratic. “These are not the same people who might be on the front lines of the occupation,” Mok said, “but they are starting to think about these things.”

Additional reporting by Zheping Huang and Danni Lam.

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