The 1st of July marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s ‘handover’ to China, which I touched on in my last blog post. I spoke about how the ramifications of the handover are still very much evident and important 20 years on.
Today I want to talk in depth about another ‘flavour’ of the Hong Kong debate; the controversial democracy advocacy movement. For those who live in or have ties to Hong Kong, the 1st of July still provokes conflicted opinions and emotions, more so after the 2014 pro-democracy protest movement. The handover of Hong Kong saw the return of six and a half million people to the same autocratic regime from which their elders had fled less than 50 years previously. And so, in 1997, the seed was sown for an inevitable and prolonged fight for true universally suffrage, albeit a fight that could often be selectively ignored.
However, the scale of the protests in 2014 was quite unprecedented; even the protesters themselves were surprised. In late September, their cause gathered momentum and quickly became an issue Beijing could not ignore. This tiny, yet tenacious, powerhouse of a nation had spooked the Great Red Dragon and it would not cow. Hong Kong now teetered on the edge of its biggest crisis since the 2003 SARS epidemic.
Let me first give you some context to the significance of these protests. Hong Kong is a modern, free-thinking, cosmopolitan and financially successful city. Yet it does not gift its citizens with true democracy. Hong Kong appears to be a global anomaly. As it was a city that enjoyed great social freedoms in its latter decades as a British colony (although, admittedly, not actual democracy), a promise was made by China prior to the handover to preserve these freedoms, in an agreement referred to as ‘one country, two systems’. This agreement would last for 50 years. In 2047, Hong Kong will essentially be swallowed up by communist China. The clock is ticking.
But present day Hong Kong is quietly having those freedoms gradually eroded by it’s communist overlords. Akin to boiling a frog, if you turn up the heat slowly enough, the frog will not jump out of the pot. The kidnappings, unlawfully orchestrated by Mainland China, of five outspoken Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 will attest to this erosion. The price of being outspoken and opposing the government has become much higher.
Prominent Hong Kong journalist Jason Ng sums up Hong Kong’s political paradox perfectly: “Nowhere else in the world are citizens so deprived of the right to a free vote and yet given such unfettered freedom of expression.”
By summer 2014, tension in Hong Kong had been growing for months, with the 25th annual vigil in June marking the Tiananmen Square massacre playing a more poignant role than usual. That same month, Beijing issued a passive-aggressive threat to the people of Hong Kong, stating Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy is subject to the central government’s authorisation.” Read as: ‘step out of line and we will remove the remainder of your freedoms as we see fit’.
However, the main catalyst was the political decision Beijing handed down in their first ever ‘White Paper’ on the 31st of August. The ruling essentially said that citizens of Hong Kong would only be allowed to vote for their leader, the Chief Executive, from a pool of ‘Beijing approved’ candidates. Essentially, China would stretch to implementing censored democracy but not true universal suffrage, despite the promise of direct Chief Executive elections being enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law (which took effect on the 1st of July 1997).
‘Occupy Central with Peace and Love’ was a campaign established in 2013 that had already planned to occupy central Hong Kong, its financial hub, with a peaceful sit-in. The aim was to pressurise the government into changing how Hong Kong’s elections were held. After China’s White Paper release in August 2014, their campaign was brought forward to capitalise on the student protests in September 2014, which were orchestrated by ‘Scholarism’ (led by precocious teenager Joshua Wong) and Hong Kong’s Federation of Students. By the 1st of October, China’s celebratory National Day, tens of thousands of people occupied central Hong Kong.
These protests were undeniably youth-driven: textbooks and homework were dutifully carried along with makeshift equipment to protect themselves from tear gas. The student-led movement had an undeniably ominous echo of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The police, armed with riot gear, fired tear gas at peaceful and unarmed protesters, most of whom were students. This crossed a line for many citizens, compelling thousands of them to join the fray.
Some later claimed the police had orders from Beijing to use force to deliberately antagonise the protestors in order to give them a reason to quickly shut down the movement. Goggles, surgical facemasks and umbrellas were all that the protestors had to protect themselves against the tear gas. And so the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ was born.
Once the chaos had dispelled and the protestors appeared immovable, the authorities changed tack and hoped to drive out the protesters with boredom. Leave them be and they will eventually get fed up with sleeping on concrete, they thought.
Drone footage showed bizarrely beautiful images of Hong Kong’s streets packed with multi-coloured tents and people holding yellow banners and symbolic umbrellas. Protestors began to sing their own re-written version of ‘Do you Hear the People Sing?’ and a sense of community quickly developed. In the streets, diligent protestors set up homework stations, water stations and translation services. They were in this for the long haul.
After two months of disruption, even the most sympathetic citizens grew impatient. In the ultimate anti-climax, the Umbrella Revolution finally fizzled out in December 2014, 79 days after it had started.
The Umbrella Revolution was both a win and a loss but, for Hong Kong’s youth, it was just one chapter of the fight for democracy. In April 2016 they founded their own political party, Demosisto, led by 19-year-old Joshua Wong. In September 2016, Demosisto ran for a seat in the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s government), which they won.
As testament to how powerful just one teenager and a social movement can be, the Mainland Chinese government has blocked ‘Joshua Wong’ as a search term on social media: surely the highest accolade you could award a Hong Kong democracy advocate.
(If you want to learn more or are just interested in hearing about the above events first-hand, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary-film ‘Joshua: Teenager versus Superpower’. It’s about Joshua Wong and focuses on the 2014 protests but also about his previous territory-wide protest success in 2011).