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On police orders, workers begin to dismantle a barricade at the start of the clearance of the Admiralty occupation of the Umbrella Movement, December 10, 2014 (photo: Lam Yik Fei)

On the fourth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, a way forward for the Hong Kong freedom struggle

September 28 marks the fourth anniversary of the start of the Umbrella Movement. Last year, I wrote an assessment of the movement and considered its impact on the politics of HK as well as publishing a book that is a comprehensive account. This year, I find the best way to commemorate what I hope will eventually become HK’s national day is to look forward. Here, I suggest how the HK freedom struggle, though increasingly under siege, can proceed and prevail.

Published by Hong Kong Free Press on September 28, 2018.

Since the Umbrella Movement, HK freedom fighters have taken many initiatives. New organizations have arisen and new ideas have been articulated. The most notable are localism and calls for self-determination and independence, all of which appeal to substantial numbers, especially among young people and the most politically engaged.

At the same time, the Communist Party and Hong Kong government have carried out an unprecedented attack on the HK freedom struggle while stepping up efforts to control and mainlandize HK. These include:

· the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s interpretation of the Basic Law and the subsequent disqualification of six pro-democracy Legco members;

· the barring of nine candidates from running for Legco on political grounds;

· the prosecution of 29 pro-democracy leaders in 45 different cases as well as of hundreds of other activists, leading to 14 prison sentences for pro-democracy leaders and 11 for other activists

· the extraordinarily long sentences given to those convicted of ‘riot’ in relation to the Mong Kok police-protester clashes of 2016;

· the cross-border abductions of HK bookseller Lee Bo and mainland tycoon Xiao Jianhua;

· the express rail terminus co-location arrangement, which for the first time ever hands over HK land to mainland jurisdiction, in contravention of the Basic Law;

· the promulgation of an anthem law on the mainland and its insertion into the Basic Law, requiring HK to criminalize ‘insult’ to the anthem; and

· the Hong Kong government’s ban of the HK National Party on ‘national security’ grounds for its advocacy of independence

(See this post-Umbrella Movement timeline for a more extensive rundown.)

This is an onslaught, and it’s worth stressing that virtually all of those developments are unprecedented. The lesson the Party learned from the Umbrella Movement was to relentlessly double down, and its campaign ever more resembles the crackdowns routinely carried out on the mainland.

The question is, how to respond? Or, rather, how to plot the course of the freedom struggle, taking these challenges into account? In the difference of emphasis between those two questions lies an important distinction.

The attacks have put the HK freedom struggle on the defensive, and much of its work has been reactive. As we watch HK becoming more authoritarian, less free and less autonomous, a lot of time and effort have been spent on trying to prevent the worst from happening, and not enough on positively realizing our vision of a free, liberal, democratic society.

The HK freedom struggle must make a transition from defense to offense, from reactive to pro-active, from fighting to stop the worst from happening to bringing about the best.

It must unite, organize and strategize, finding new ways of working together, reaching out to more people and getting them involved, developing its vision and using it to inspire and recruit, and promoting a parallel society that circumvents Party intransigence.

Finally, it must recognize that increased sacrifice and suffering will be the inevitable price to pay for freedom and prepare itself psychologically for the long, hard road ahead.

The HK freedom struggle will play out over years and decades. There will be no easy victories and probably many defeats along the way. While most of those involved recognize this prospect, we have not sufficiently considered its implications or planned accordingly.

Important to many long-term freedom struggles over the past century has been a strong, central organization: the Indian National Congress, the African National Congress of South Africa, the Palestine Liberation Organization, to name a few of the better known. These organizations were all imperfect and some advocated violence (which I reject), but they provided their struggle with unity, continuity, purpose, a sense of direction, and leadership.

The groups, organizations and institutions that currently exist in HK are insufficient for the long-term struggle. There needs to be more collaboration on strategy, more communication, and more coordination of plans and activities.

Last year, I proposed a Resistance and Self-determination Council to address this need. The body needn’t have that particular, admittedly clunky name (Hong Kong National Congress or Hong Kong Liberation Organization might sound snappier!); the point is, whatever the name, its function would be to bring the disparate groups of the freedom struggle together to maximize their power and effectiveness.

Remember that our adversary has infinitely greater resources at its disposal, including nearly limitless amounts of money, the largest political organization in the world, a massive security apparatus and a huge military, not to mention propaganda, censorship, and a ruthlessly Leninist will to power.

In the face of that, it is essential to unify and act in a coordinated manner. That certainly doesn’t mean we must always agree or have the exact same objectives. It means we must recognize each other as allies who share the same general vision and goals as well as a common adversary.

The council would be made up of all groups in the freedom struggle that wish to participate, from moderate pan-democratic political parties to self-determinationist and pro-independence parties, to civil society organizations working for democracy and human rights.

The reason I call the body the Resistance and Self-determination Council is that the key words, “resistance” and “self-determination”, correspond to the two main tasks of the freedom struggle, the defensive and constructive work it needs to do.

As for the first term, this is clearly an era of resistance, to which the list of attacks and infringements at the start of this article attests. A clear and widespread awareness of the need for resistance has been present ever since mid-2014 with the issuance of the Party’s White Paper on Hong Kong, the OCLP referendum, the 8/31 NPCSC ruling, the student strike and occupation of Civic Square and, of course, the Umbrella Movement. (See this timeline for details of these events.) This culture of resistance is a strength of the struggle, and it should be cultivated. Its purpose is to defend HK and strengthen and promote HK identity. Much power comes from resistance, and it is often easier to mobilize people to say NO than to keep them involved in the arduous on-going pursuit of the positive goal.

As I wrote a year ago, much of the disillusionment in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement was due to a desire for quick fixes or magical solutions. We must rid ourselves of that illusion and see long-term resistance as the effective strategy that it is. In resisting, we also construct our identity, and in fortifying that, we strengthen the struggle as well. Rather than undertaken with grim determination, resistance can and should be joyful.

The resistance work of the council would consist of coordinating approaches to combating mainlandization and Party attempts to increase control, restrict rights and encroach upon autonomy. At present, there are many resistance efforts, but they can appear scattershot and unsupported by a wider strategy and network.

Under the resistance brief would also come the work of pro-democracy representatives in the Legislative Council. There’s almost nothing positive that can be achieved within HK’s rigged formal political system, but it is still very important to preserve veto power so as to prevent the worst from happening (fake suffrage, Article 23 “national security” legislation, etc). Legco representatives also do excellent work resisting a host of other anti-democratic measures. The Resistance and Self-determination Council would help to link their efforts to related efforts in civil society and frame them within an overall strategy.

While fortifying resistance, we should direct more of our energy toward attaining the positive goal, which I here designate as self-determination, though exactly what that may be would be for the members of the council to decide.

There are two reasons why I think self-determination should be the common goal.

The first has to do with recent history. Up until the Party’s refusal to allow implementation of genuine universal suffrage in 2014–2015, it can be said there was an implicit contract between the Party and HK people: HK people would (grudgingly) recognize PRC sovereignty over HK in exchange for the Party (grudgingly) granting HK autonomy and democracy. But with that refusal, the Party definitively broke the contract, and all of its actions since then (again, see list above) simply serve to support that assertion. What can HK people do in response but invoke the right of self-determination? I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere and won’t go into detail here but only emphasize that this is a basic human right of all peoples that is also guaranteed in the Basic Law (Article 39 →ICCPR, ICESCR Article 1). The council would collaboratively define what exactly self-determination means in the HK context and map out how to get there. At a bare minimum, it must involve HK people deciding the future of HK, including its political status, especially after the end of the 50-year “one country, two systems” period in 2047. (We also need corresponding slogans, hashtags and memes that succinctly state the cause and express people’s desire: #2047ItsOurChoice #2047NowWeDecide, etc.)

Secondly, defining the goal as self-determination would provide a common ground to achieve unity amongst the many disparate groups of the freedom struggle, from moderate pan-democrats to localists, self-determinationists and independence advocates. Even moderate pan-democratic groups such as Reform HK have advocated self-determination, with others such as ADPL and Civic Party espousing related concepts. On the other end of the spectrum, independence is perhaps the most emphatic expression of self-determination, and independence advocates would have to concede to the group the necessity of self-determination being at least an intermediate stop along the way to their ultimate goal. Of course, there is a substantial gap between what the moderates call “internal self-determination”, on the one hand, and full independence on the other, but the point of the council would be to mediate and debate the gap, to compromise where possible and agree to disagree where not.

And yes, moderate pan-democrats would have to sit down with independence advocates, whatever mutual suspicion there may be, including fear on the part of the pan-dems of being smeared with the pro-independence label, as has already happened to staunch moderates like Benny Tai. And yes, localists and independence advocates would have to set aside some rigid, self-righteous tendencies. If the sides do not, then the future of the struggle really is a split. Of course, splintered freedom struggles can and do exist, and can and do make progress, but it is a huge liability — witness Syria’s fragmented opposition. The only absolute condition of membership in the council should be an unequivocal commitment to nonviolence: Perhaps I am wrong, but I do think localist groups which in the past may have used terms like “by any means necessary” have begun to see the folly of armed uprising.

Not only does there need to be much more debate about what the HK freedom struggle’s ultimate goal should be but also about the strategy for getting there.

To give an idea of what I mean, take this example: Both Joshua Wong and Eddie Chu advocate self-determination. Starting back in 2015, Joshua envisioned using referenda as a means to reach the goal of self-determination, with the intention of eventually holding a referendum on the post-2047 political status of HK around 2030. It was an attractive idea, but the sticking point was, how in the world did he expect the Party would ever recognize such a referendum? On the other hand, after winning a seat in Legco in 2016 with the most votes ever for any Legco candidate, Eddie Chu said the self-determination movement should work through Legco. He thought that within an election or two, most of the pro-democracy camp would be self-determinationist. Not long after that, the Hong Kong government initiated disqualification proceedings against six Legco members, four of whom were self-determinationist or pro-independence, and then Agnes Chow was barred from running to replace her disqualified Demosistō party fellow Nathan Law on the grounds that her party advocates self-determination. So much for the Legco path to self-determination.

In fact, the conclusion that must be reached is that there’s simply no means of progress for the HK freedom struggle within the rigged political system, from which an increasing number of people and political beliefs have been barred. But that still leaves the question of, Well, then, how?

That’s the sort of the strategizing the freedom struggle needs and the council would do, collectively, through debate and discussion. And in doing so, the council would become the path it was trying to find. That is to say, a probable answer to the question of how to work toward the goal of self-determination is to promote a parallel society, a movement that doesn’t worry about getting the Party’s say-so but instead concentrates on building up a strong, wide-ranging civil society outside of Party control, “liberated zones” so to speak: Instead of demanding autonomy, we create it. We psychologically secede from Communist domination with joy and pride. This leaves the question of how to attain the ultimate objective open while at the same time recognizing that it must involve strengthening the parts of HK society which already act as forces of resistance and markers of separate identity. Rather than banging our heads against the wall of the Party, for the time being we sidestep it. Of course, ultimately, a showdown is inevitable, but in the meantime, there’s so much more we could do.

In his book, The Egyptians: A Radical History of an Unfinished Revolution, Jack Shenker characterizes Egypt today, after the re-imposition of dictatorship, as divided in two parts, which he calls Mubarak Country and Revolution Country. Mubarak Country has political power and controls the security forces and the economy. But Revolution Country is still very much alive and can be found in the many cracks and crevices of society, among activists, workers, the poor, intellectuals, writers, and musicians who elude regime attempts to extinguish them. The two “countries” have diametrically opposed visions of what Egypt should be. This sounds like HK. Here, there are also two separate “countries” — call them Communist Country and Umbrella Country. As I have noted elsewhere, “What is happening in HK now is people are thinking about the sort of society they want, the sort of society that corresponds to how they want HK to be. That cultural efflorescence is almost diametrically opposed to Party rule, which is why the Party does what it can to wipe it out.” These are the roots of the parallel society that must be cultivated.

Whereas the Party can refuse to recognize referenda and block entrance to the formal political system, it can’t prevent the development of a parallel society except by taking extreme measures such as a more severe crackdown on civil liberties than what we have seen up to now. Indeed, it might eventually do that, but it’s up to us to make full use of the free space that still exists.

Key to the development of that parallel society is organizing and recruiting, reaching out to people and inviting them to join the struggle. In addition to articulation of the ultimate goal and strategizing to reach it, these should be top priorities of the council. The goal is to have a Resistance and Self-determination Committee in every HK public housing estate and neighborhood. The committees would be made up of residents of their area and linked to the council. They would carry out whatever activities they see as important and relevant in their part of town. When needed and called upon by the council, the committees can help to mobilize people in their areas, for example, for a demonstration or other activity.

Organizing of this sort is painstaking work that requires commitment and constant effort. For most groups in the freedom struggle, it would mean operating differently from how they are used to. It’s not about campaigning for the next election or trying to get people to come out to the next demonstration; it’s about creating a strong, long-lasting foundation. It’s also about shifting the culture and the society in the direction of resistance and self-determination, about growing the movement and getting people involved.

At the moment, the freedom struggle is, to put it simply, understaffed. Meanwhile, there are many frustrated, angry and aware young people out there whose energy can be channeled toward constructive ends, as well as many others awaiting the call. There is also deep pessimism. The pessimism comes from seeing the way things are but not seeing a way out. People need to be invited into the process so that they can see that, collectively, we the people are that way out. (#WeAreTheWayOut) This helps to overcome debilitating pessimism, which can otherwise easily lapse into the fatalism, resignation and apathy that the Party is all too happy to see in HK people.

As I noted a year ago, the Umbrella Movement “did more than any other event to promote a politically conscious and active citizenship, and this especially among a huge majority of young people, upwards of 80 to 90 percent of whom are in favor of democracy and genuine autonomy. This resistance is a factor that the Party will have to contend with for years and perhaps even generations to come; indeed, it could outlast the Party itself. It is not going too far to say that the fate of HK rests on what this generation of young people decides to do.”

The freedom struggle has a strong natural base. Opinion polls have for years shown upwards of two-thirds of HK people want universal suffrage and support the idea of HK becoming a democracy. Other opinion polls have shown something like one in six people identify themselves as localists. And over the last two years, still others show that anywhere from 40 to 61 percent of HK young people (classified as 18-to-29-year-olds in some polls, 15-to-24-year-olds in others) support independence. Meanwhile, fewer HK people than ever identify themselves as Chinese, 21 percent overall and only 3 percent of young people. Within those numbers lies potential for the freedom struggle, but only if we tap into it.

Given that the HK freedom struggle will be long and hard, one of the most pressing questions HK people face is, Are we up for it?

Along the way, it will almost certainly entail much greater suffering and sacrifice than we have faced up to now.

A poorer, less developed society may have the advantage of having less to lose. The distractions and creature comforts of a consumer society like HK can act as the “opium of the masses”: They’re not a real way out, but they dull the pain and allow us to look away from the fact that our society’s being undermined and usurped.

As a friend put it not long ago, “The commies sized us up and are convinced they’ve got our number. At first, they were a little bit worried, but then they saw we’re just a bunch of soft kids.” Is that the case? Time will tell.

Many might decide the struggle’s not worth it, too painful and risky, the possibility of success too remote. An increasing number might “vote with their feet”. Articles about people emigrating appear on a regular basis. At just about every social occasion these days, the question arises: “Are you getting out?”

Just what might the price of struggle be?

When Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow, Raphael Wong and twelve others were sentenced by the High Court to longer prison sentences than ever before for nonviolent protest-related crimes, people began to get a sense of what the price might be. When Edward Leung and 25 others were sentenced to extraordinarily long prison sentences for violent crimes related to the police-protester clashes of 2016, people began to get a sense of what the price might be. Now that the HK government is in the process of banning HK National Party, the very first time any political group will be outlawed in HK, people are beginning to get a sense of what the price might be. With the evidence recently presented by Demosistō and Studentlocalism, people are beginning to see that it will involve ever more pervasive surveillance, monitoring and intimidation.

More people will have to be willing to risk the prospect of prison. In the face of increasing persecution and the Party’s refusal to entertain our demands, we will have to escalate: labor strikes, public housing rent strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, even hunger strikes. None of these forms of escalation come without cost. It will become more difficult to lead ordinary lives. The burden will continue to fall disproportionately on young people, who must lead the way. Our actions may provoke a more severe crackdown. The struggle could even, at some point, entail loss of life and involve facing armed force by the Hong Kong police and Party army. It’s important to remember our adversary is one of the most violent, criminal regimes in history, up there with the Nazis and Soviet Communism in terms of number of victims, and it has massacred its own people in the streets as recently as 1989.

We will have to work together and take initiatives with great deliberation and coordination so as to appropriately balance the struggle for the goal with the risks to those involved.

And throughout we must remain resolutely nonviolent.

If we decide we are not willing to pay the price — and it may indeed be a very high price to pay; we should have no illusions — , we will suffer the consequence of watching our city die before our eyes, knowing that we decided not to do what needed to be done to prevent it.

It is not those who inflict the most but those that can suffer the most who will conquer.

- Terence MacSwiney, Irish nationalist who died in 1920 after a 74-day hunger strike in a British prison while serving a sentence for sedition

Ireland was occupied and dominated for centuries by a much more powerful and populous neighbor. Indeed, for much of that time, Britain was among the most powerful countries in the world. Somehow, throughout it all, Ireland managed to preserve a separate identity and a desire for freedom, even as the colonizer came to so dominate the Emerald Isle that its native language was virtually extinguished, replaced by English.

In the early twentieth century, after decades of intense struggle and at a time when Britain was relatively weak, Irish republicans managed to force a stalemate: Irish home rule (ie, genuine autonomy within the UK) except for five Protestant-majority counties in the north of the island. Three decades later, Irish home rule became the fully independent Republic of Ireland in 1949, but the five-county exception became Northern Ireland, a part of the UK. So the struggle went on, resulting eventually in the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, which preserved Northern Ireland but ensured the rights of its Catholic minority.

Thus, by the end of the twentieth century, after eight centuries of various forms of English domination, Ireland was able for the most part to throw off its neighbor’s colonialism and become a successful modern country.

But look at the suffering this entailed: war, famines, mass poverty, mass emigration, and, in the latter stages, both state and paramilitary terrorism, thousands killed, thousands imprisoned, young people dying on hunger strike.

Down through the centuries, one of the key markers of separate identity that helped to empower the resistance to colonial domination was the majority’s religion, Catholicism. But Catholicism was also its own form of oppression, and in recent decades, after revelations of numerous abuses perpetrated by the Church, Ireland has begun to throw off that oppression too, legalizing divorce, same-sex marriage and, soon, abortion amidst vastly declining Church attendance. Ireland is one of the great human rights success stories of recent years.

Hong Kong and Ireland have a lot in common. Both were claimed by huge and powerful neighbors that appeared to hold them in an iron grip. Few outsiders showed solidarity with their peoples, for fear of offending their powerful oppressor. Many said there was no chance of them attaining substantial autonomy because the oppressor was just too powerful and too intent on maintaining its grip. The colonizer promoted immigration, changing the demographic make-up of the society, implanting a population loyal to the colonizer, so that it could not be so clearly discerned that most people wanted home rule/autonomy/independence. And now it looks as if HK might follow in Ireland’s footsteps with mass emigration as well.

There are also important differences. Ireland was economically backward compared to Britain whereas HK is more developed than the PRC. The majority of HK’s population is considered to have the same ethnic identity as the majority of the population on the mainland (Han Chinese) whereas the Irish were considered to have a separate ethnic identity from the English (though then again, in most respects, they were no more visibly distinguishable from one another than, say, a Hong Kong person of Chinese ancestry from a mainland Chinese). The English, while oppressors, also had a liberal self-image and Ireland was less integral to their national identity whereas the Communist Party is adamantly anti-liberal, anti-democratic, Leninist, and stakes its claim to legitimacy partly on its ability to recover and maintain sovereignty over all parts of what it considers China. Hong Kong’s been ruled by China for only 21 years (though previously colonized since 1842 by the British) whereas Ireland was under Britain for centuries. Over the last century, when the Irish made the most headway in their freedom struggle, British power was in decline, whereas China is becoming more powerful. But perhaps the most important difference is the amount of suffering and sacrifice the Irish endured.

From the example of Ireland and a comparison with Hong Kong, some lessons can be derived.

Lesson #1: All long-term freedom struggles undergo “low tides” and periods in which it may even appear that the oppressed have been defeated. They need to be tenacious, to sink their roots deep so as to persevere and survive through the dark years. Resistance helps to fortify a separate identity, which in turn is one of the core strengths of resistance.

Lesson #2: In the middle of the struggle, it can often be hard to say who is winning and who is losing, and what may appear a defeat at one point could end up, looking back, to be the beginning of a bigger victory. In 1981, republican prisoners in Northern Ireland went on hunger strike. Margaret Thatcher was the British prime minister at the time, and she decided to take a hardline: Let the terrorists die. And die they did, ten in all. Then the hunger strike was called off without a single demand having been met. At the time, even Irish nationalists considered it a great victory for the Iron Lady and feared that it could even lead to the demise of the cause. But the UK’s victory proved Pyrrhic. The hunger strikers gained mass sympathy throughout Ireland. From prison, some ran for parliament in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and two won, including, most famously, Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike while an MP. It became clear that the mass popular support could be turned into victory at the ballot box, and the republican party Sinn Fein moved into electoral politics. It is now the largest party in Northern Ireland. The British could no longer deny the nationalist cause, leading to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, bringing peace to Ireland. True, nationalists did not achieve their ultimate aim of reuniting all of Ireland, but Catholics are no longer a systematically oppressed minority in the north, and there is a sense of popular sovereignty and a modicum of justice. The “failed” prison hunger strikes were the turning point. (The 1916 Easter Rising is another example of this dynamic of a loss becoming the start of a victory.)

Lesson #3: In cases like Ireland and Hong Kong, occupied and dominated by a must larger neighbor, the oppressed must be willing to endure, sacrifice and suffer, most likely over a long period of time, in order to prevail. In the HK freedom struggle, we must be savvy — able to apprise our situation honestly — but if we are to have a true commitment to freedom, we must never give up or become so demoralized as some have after the Umbrella Movement and during its subsequent years of persecution and mainlandization.

I used to work for Tibetan Children’s Villages in India. TCV educates Tibetan exile children, many of whom fled their occupied country and, without their parents, crossed the tallest mountains in the world to get a genuinely Tibetan education under the protection of the Dalai Lama. In the TCV cafeteria, his famous message hung on the wall: “Never give up. No matter what is going on, never give up. Never give up. No matter what is going on around you, never give up.”

In another context, those words might be little more than cliché, but addressed to Tibetan children who may never see their parents again and whose country is occupied, who have crossed the highest mountains in the world to simply get an education in their own language, their own religion, their own culture, and whose future as individuals and as a people is exceedingly uncertain, it’s not. That precept is baked into the way that they think, the way that they feel, the way that they experience the world, the way that they see themselves, the way that they live.

If HK people make that precept a part of who we are, then we, like the Irish, like the Tibetans, may still have a chance. As long as there is resistance, there is hope.


Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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