Three years on, the fallout from the Umbrella Movement determines the politics of Hong Kong today

Virtually every major aspect of the political situation in HK today has its origins in the Umbrella Movement, with an illegitimate and outmoded political system in perpetual crisis and a pro-democracy movement searching for the way forward.

The rise of localism; a nascent self-determination movement; candidates disqualified on political grounds from running for Legislative Council seats; Umbrella Movement leaders and grassroots activists getting elected to Legco… and then six of them getting disqualified for the way they took their oaths (but in reality for their political views); the elaborate charade of the Chief Executive “election” that installed the deputy of the deeply unpopular predecessor; prosecutions of 26 pro-democracy leaders and hundreds of ordinary activists and the jailing of 16 of them….

This does not look like a stable, just, well-functioning or legitimate political system based on the will of the people.

HK has been in slow-burn political crisis for many years, but in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, the dysfunctionality, injustice and illegality of its formal political system have become more acute and lead to alarming developments, including greater persecution.

From that, one might conclude that the 2014 struggle for genuine universal suffrage “did no good”, but the current situation is to be expected when those responsible for it, the Communist Party and HK government, refuse to even acknowledge very basic structural problems of governance, let alone address them. The system is cracking while the rulers pretend everything’s o.k. Controlled by the largest dictatorship in the world, the system purports to have aspects of liberal democracy such as rule of law and protections of some political and civil rights, while the leader, the Chief Executive, is appointed by the Party to do its bidding amongst a populace ever more resistant to Party imposition. The question is whether it will reach a point at which it can no longer bear the burden of its deep contradictions.

It doesn’t exactly suit the Communist Party to have HK in such a mess, for it reflects poorly on its rule, but the Party far prefers the status quo to any of the alternatives, in particular, to genuine suffrage and autonomy. It hopes to slowly but surely tighten its grip on virtually every area of society, but in doing so, it may strangle the city entirely, the Party’s hold a potentially death grip. Its main lesson from the Umbrella Movement was that it had to make the hard line even harder. It has stepped up efforts to control and mainlandize in the hope of eventually forcing surrender and obedience.

While the Party’s boxed itself in by its own hardline position, the pro-democracy movement, in all its fractious diversity, is, as ever, trying to get its act together and figuring out which objectives and strategies to adopt.

On 20 August, a march was held to show solidarity with 16 activists who had been sentenced the previous week to six to 13 months in prison for the nonviolent protest-related crime of unlawful assembly. Amongst them were Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law, imprisoned for seven, six and eight months respectively for their roles in the occupation of Civic Square on 26 September 2014, which triggered the street occupations that became known to the world as the Umbrella Movement.

The march turnout was unexpectedly high — in excess of 100,000 people, I estimated — , and generally agreed to be the biggest demonstration since the Umbrella Movement. Apart from the high turnout, most striking was the diversity of the participants. Of course, there were the die-hard pro-democracy marchers who have seemed to be the only ones consistently showing up at demonstrations for much of the nearly three-year period since the Umbrella Movement. But in addition to them were groups that had been shunning demonstrations as ineffectual, in particular, localists such as Hong Kong Indigenous and many students and young people. The reason was clear: All of the 16 imprisoned were young, many were students, and many were associated with the more radical wing of the pro-democracy movement. (By “radical” here, I mean more willing to engage in direct action and make political demands which go beyond the traditional pan-democratic demand for genuine universal suffrage in compliance with the Basic Law.)

Edward Leung, the Hong Kong Indigenous leader, said after the march,“Even though, in the past, we have different strategies [and] different ideologies during the whole struggle, at this moment we think stand[ing] in solidarity is the most important thing today, so that the government will know that we are not really afraid. Even though we are facing huge political oppression.”

To which I say: Great, you’re right, but what took you (and just about everyone else in the pro-democracy movement) so long?! Hopefully this is the beginning of a new phase of solidarity, unity and cooperation. Time will tell. If there was any lesson that should have been learned from the Umbrella Movement, it was the necessity of unity, of common purpose, of better coordination and cooperation between groups within the pro-democracy movement (understood in its widest sense to encompass also localist and pro-independence groups). That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to have the exact same agenda, just that everyone needs to recognize we’re allies, on the same side, with a common adversary, and it strengthens us all to work together.

In December 2014, towards the end of the Umbrella Movement, leaders such as Benny Tai (now on trial) and Alex Chow (now in prison) proposed that a coalition or coordinating body be set up afterwards. But that is not what occurred. Instead, ensuing developments could be characterized as “fragmentation”, if you choose to put a negative spin on it, or “ferment, innovation and initiative”, if you prefer the positive. Things moved so quickly it was hard to keep up. There was the virtual disintegration of Hong Kong Federation of Students through a disaffiliation referendum campaign, resulting in five student unions leaving HKFS, including the largest and most influential, the University of Hong Kong’s. There was the rise of localism and the high-profile anti-parallel trade protests. There was the founding of new political parties like Demosistō, Youngspiration and Democracy Groundwork. There were the Chinese New Year 2016 clashes in Mong Kok between police and protesters, many of whom came from localist backgrounds. There was the remarkable success of new, young candidates in the 2016 Legislative Council elections, including Chu Hoi-dick (who got more votes than any other Legco candidate ever), Nathan Law, Lau Siu-lai, Baggio Leung, Yau Wai-ching, Cheng Chung-tai and others.

All of this happened almost as if through a process of spontaneous combustion. No one controlled it, and sometimes there seemed little rhyme or reason to it. Out of these action-packed three years since the Umbrella Movement, what has emerged in terms of ideologies, objectives and strategies? Is the whole wide spectrum of the pro-democracy movement really any closer to the kind of mutual solidarity and cooperation which Edward Leung advocated on 20 August?

In the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, two key questions faced young people especially: 1) where to go in terms of ideology and objective and 2) whether or not to seek to participate in the rigged formal political system.

For many, the Communist Party’s refusal to allow genuine universal suffrage, in spite of the huge pro-suffrage campaign, was a clear signal that it will never grant real suffrage. Its refusal effectively tore up the implied contract of the last twenty years between Party and HK people, according to which HK people would grudgingly recognize the Party’s sovereignty over HK in return for the Party grudgingly allowing HK people to elect their own Chief Executive and representatives in the Legislative Council (currently only half of the 70 are elected according to principles of universal suffrage). Now that the Party has not only showed that it will not honor its pledge but is also further tightening the screws on HK, what to do?

The main ideological responses to this dilemma have been to call for either self-determination or independence, both of which eschew as futile the decades-long demand that the Party comply with the Basic Law and international law and enact genuine suffrage. Indeed, these positions regard the whole Basic Law skeptically as an impediment to their aims rather than the guarantor of their rights (the premise heretofore). Now that the Party has reneged on its promise, all bets are off, and HK must go its own way.

The self-determinationists, such as Demosistō and Chu Hoi-dick, stress that HK people have never in their history had the right to decide their political status, even though this is a basic human right, the only one that appears — as Article 1 no less — in both seminal international human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (HK is party to both covenants and Basic Law Article 39 obliges it to uphold all rights in both.) Self-determination encompasses all possible options, from full assimilation with the People’s Republic of China to perpetuation of the “one country, two systems” policy to full independence. Whatever the case, the argument goes, it should be up to the HK people to decide.

Those advocating independence say self-determination is just pussy-footing around; HK would be far better off independent, and it’s important to stand strong for a clear, unambiguous goal.

Since the Umbrella Movement, localism has undoubtedly been the most influential political force, not so much in terms of the impact of specific localist groups as in terms of the appeal of its ethos of defending HK and asserting a distinct HK identity. There has been great enthusiasm for this newfound “HK nationalism” across wide swathes of society, including amongst many who wouldn’t identify themselves as localists.

In June 2015, at the protests outside of Legco just before the defeat of the HK government’s fake suffrage proposal, Joshua Wong was already starting to articulate his ideas about self-determination. These were clearly influenced by localism. Even more traditional pan-democratic parties such as Civic Party and ADPL published manifestoes with localism-tinged statements. The localists were obviously on to something, both in terms of identifying a major issue, the mainlandization of HK, and tapping into the desires and resentments of HK people, especially young people.

But localist groups have largely failed to articulate a positive vision or an overall strategy for combatting mainlandization. Some localists have advocated independence, but beyond saying they think HK should be independent, they’ve done little to flesh out that idea, let alone sketch out a road map leading to that goal. The manifestations of mainlandization in HK are numerous, and the Party has stepped up its efforts to control and integrate HK with the mainland. A serious comprehensive localist strategy would identify these and devise ways of opposing them. [Mainlandizaton will be the subject of the fourth article in this 5-article series.]

Instead, the localists have largely confined themselves to street protests. While the anti-parallel trade protests of spring 2015 resonated because many in HK found parallel trading and the related presence of tens of millions of mainland tourists per year annoying, in the bigger scheme of things, parallel trading doesn’t even rank close to the top of the list of threats posed by mainlandization.

Localism was the main influence on the campaigns for university student unions to disaffiliate themselves from HKFS. These achieved their immediate goal of the disaffiliation of five student unions, but they destroyed a perhaps flawed but influential organization without replacing it with anything else.

Indeed, much of the localists’ political work has had a nihilistic edge to it, and also a tendency toward what Liu Xiaobo would call “enemy thinking”, an at-times xenophobic tinge and a propensity to attack its natural allies. This has lead to little to no cooperation with others in the pro-democracy movement (indeed, some localists even go so far as to disavow belonging to that movement). Localist anger at their elders in the resistance is understandable, but acting it out has not been politically astute.

On top of all that, their role in the Mong Kok clashes with police during Chinese New Year 2016 has put them on the defensive. Through prosecutions, the Hong Kong government is attempting to decimate them, and they’ve all but gone underground. In fact, the 20 August march was the first time in ages I’d seen groups like Hong Kong Indigenous, replete with banners, out in public.

Localist groups have been strategically naïve, taking the substantial momentum they had and driving it down a dead-end street. There are still many in HK, especially young people, with a generally localist outlook, but localism as a political force appears stalled and even threatened, much of the damage being essentially self-inflicted.

While calls for HK independence have attracted a lot of media attention and Party opprobrium, there isn’t really a pro-independence movement. A lot of sentiment in the city leans in that direction, and these days even a good many middle-of-the-road people dream of independence, but that’s different from it emerging as a political force. So far, the HK National Party is the only one to advocate independence as part of its platform. While many in the media have characterized Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching as “pro-independence” and they have made statements encouraging such characterization, their party, Youngspiration, has not officially advocated independence. In fact, its original position was much closer to that of Demosistō: It too called for a referendum to determine HK’s political status.

It remains to be seen whether any actual political movement will grow out of the groundswell of grassroots enthusiasm for independence. The recent appearance of HK independence banners and posters at six universities in the first week of the school year indicated both that the aspiration is alive and, because almost all were put up anonymously, the trepidation independence advocates feel about stepping out of the shadows given the intimidation by the Party and HK government.

The crucial question regarding both self-determination and independence is, how to get there? Their advocates are often criticized for being “unrealistic”. But after the fake suffrage fiasco of 2014–2015, can it really be said that continuing to demand genuine universal suffrage is any more realistic than, say, self-determination or independence? The dilemma of the HK people is that we have no “realistic” recourse to gain our basic human rights, whether the right to universal suffrage or the right of self-determination. [Self-determination will be the subject of the fifth and final article in this series.]

After the Umbrella Movement, apart from the question of which ideological position to adopt in response to the Party’s refusal to grant genuine suffrage, there was the question of whether or not to attempt to enter the formal political system. To do so would risk conferring legitimacy on a system that both independence advocates and self-determinationists regard as illegitimate, while not doing so would lock them out of a platform for propagating their ideas. Eventually, virtually all decided to run for Legco.

The result has been like watching a head-on collision. First, the Electoral Affairs Commission, a governmental agency, disqualified some candidates on political grounds, due to suspicions that they did not truly, deep in their hearts, accept the Basic Law, especially Article 1 which asserts that the Hong Kong Special Administration Region is an inalienable part of People’s Republic of China. In spite of this, the new candidates who were allowed to run did remarkably well.

The Party and HK government couldn’t abide their success and tried to kick out as many out as possible. They have succeeded so far in ejecting six, Baggio Leung, Yau Wai-ching, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai, Nathan Law and Edward Yiu. This has sent the message that there is no room for the political views of a great many HK people inside a political system that is rigged to begin with, further constricting the political space in HK. (The six received 185,727 votes, over 8% of the 2,202,283 total votes cast.)

In flushing them out, the Party and HK government have put their finger on an inherent tension: Can you have so many representatives operating within a system which they do not regard as illegitimate? Up to now, pan-democrats have sat in Legco even though they do not accept the lack of universal suffrage, but they never questioned the political status of HKSAR as “an inalienable part of the PRC”. Now the Party was faced with the prospect of a growing number of representatives who regarded the Basic Law and “one country, two systems” as failed and in need of total reform if not replacement.

Democratic political systems that work are based on wide consensus that the system is legitimate. When a substantial portion of the population does not consent to the political system, there is a political crisis. Such is the situation in HK at the moment. Rather than acknowledging and addressing the problems, the Party and HK government’s response to this crisis has been to further restrict participation, going beyond the tried and true rigged system — which guarantees that the CE and a majority in Legco are Party loyalists — to devising new methods (EAC disqualifications, Basic Law “interpretation”, disqualifications of elected Legco members, and criminal prosecutions which render threatening potential candidates ineligible to run) to simply exclude those who symbolize the lack of consent. These actions accomplish little more than to further discredit the system.

The traditional pan-democrats, meanwhile, have largely buried their heads in the mud. Their response to the Party’s denial of universal suffrage has been to continue to demand universal suffrage. They can sometimes seem to be caught in a time warp: Hello? Didn’t the Party already rule that out?

Their decision to support establishmentarian par excellence John Tsang in this year’s Chief Executive selection threw into question whether they had learned much at all from the Umbrella Movement. The pan-democrats had several hundred votes, more than ever before, in the closed-circle process involving about 1,200 electors, but there were no pro-democracy candidates. Though reluctant, Long Hair declared his candidacy, as he believed there needed to be a protest candidate. The pan-democrats didn’t back him since he stood no chance of getting elected. Instead, styling themselves kingmakers, they went for John Tsang, the Finance Secretary in the despised Leung Chun-ying administration. Not only was Tsang about as firmly establishment as you can get, his financial policies had for years been to the detriment of the great majority of HK people, contributing to the greatest income inequality in the world amongst developed economies. The pan-democrats apparently didn’t understand that the CE selection is rigged, the result predetermined by the Communist Party. Their support for an establishment candidate with no track record of advocating genuine suffrage leant legitimacy to what, from the perspective of international law, is an illegal process (for it constitutes the appointment of the head of the government by means other than universal suffrage). After all these years, how could they be so naive? Their actions cast serious doubt on their acumen as political strategists as well as on how clearly they are able to see the nature of their adversary after all these years. They have some good young politicians and a solid vote bank, representing moderate voters, so they have a recipe for survival, and their ability to work within the system to express displeasure with the government and frustrate its efforts to enact unjust policies is valuable, but it’s hard to see how they can possibly take the lead in finding a way forward. They operate ever more as traditional political parties in a system that is acutely distorted.

The above characterizations of localists, self-determinationists and pan-democrats might lead some to conclude that the pro-democracy movement is directionless and diffuse. There’s some truth to that, but it’s also developing and not necessarily that far from consolidation.

Many within the movement have lamented a lack of leadership, and in particular of charismatic leadership, but one shouldn’t wish for a savior. The strength of the movement is that it’s based on the people. Remember: It wasn’t because OCLP or HKFS gave the command that the Umbrella Movement took off — the people followed their own conscience. Basically what those looking for strong leadership mean is they want a unifying figure, a Mandela. But we are capable of achieving that unity ourselves. There are lots of good leaders out there, pretty much across the pro-democracy spectrum. Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Long Hair, Fernando Cheung, Adrian Yeung, Ted Hui, Lau Siu-lai, Chu Hoi-dick are the ones who immediately come to mind, but there are plenty of others.

Leadership isn’t really the main problem of the pro-democracy movement. The key weaknesses are lack of unity and insufficient strategizing and organizing, and these have been present for years, preceding the Umbrella Movement. Independent civil society is still weak. Pro-democracy political parties are pathetically small. For that reason, when the Umbrella Movement needed to “escalate outwards”, for example through labor stoppages and rent and consumer boycotts, it hadn’t the culture or organizational foundation upon which to do so. The pro-democracy movement needn’t and shouldn’t be Leninist (like the Party), but it needs to be less laissez-faire and more pro-active in comprehensively and strategically diagnosing and addressing its deficits.

What is needed at the moment is a kind of council bringing the whole pro-democracy spectrum together. It would foster unity and solidarity as well as coordination, communication, and strategic thinking and planning. Maybe, after the 20 August demonstration, the movement is finally ready for what Benny Tai and Alex Chow proposed way back in December 2014. Call it the Resistance Coalition. The need for resistance, after all, is something all groups can agree on, whether localist or self-determinationist or pan-democrat, whatever their other differences.

Apart from resistance, which is essentially defensive, the movement also needs to work toward a positive goal. Here, the umbrella term can be self-determination. Thus, a Resistance and Self-Determination Coalition. Even a good many pan-democrats espouse what they call “internal self-determination”, which pretty much means simply what was promised to HK by the Party to begin with, namely, a “high degree of autonomy”, so it shouldn’t be all that hard to unite under that term.

As with all coalitions, it would mean everyone compromising in some area. Pan-democrats and localists would have to swallow their dislike of one another. Pan-democrats would also have to stand up to the Party propaganda that would brand them crypto-independence advocates for even associating with localists. The localists, in turn, would have to agree to not advocate violence and also downplay any independence aspirations they may have.

We are in the era of resistance, and this must be embraced. 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. Indeed, the fact that widespread resistance exists is in itself an accomplishment as well as a foundation upon which to build the future. It’s often said that it’s very hard to mobilize people around most any long-term objective; people will much more readily come out in reaction to something in particular, like the jailing of the 16 political prisoners in August. But resistance is a culture. It needs to be cultivated, and rather than grim, it can and should be very joyful.

The Resistance and Self-determination Coalition would, in one sense, function much as the working group that already exists amongst pan-democrats in Legco but be broader and embrace groups both in and outside of Legco. It would work at articulating and coordinating both defensive strategies and tactics — how to prevent the worst from happening, how to resist — and positive ones — how to move toward fulfilling the movement’s goals and objectives, how to attain self-determination.

Apart from providing leadership to the movement, it must also work to strengthen the presence of the resistance at the grassroots level, through local committees in neighborhoods and public housing estates, so that it has a presence everywhere in the city. In short, the movement has to organize.

There is a difference between mobilizing and organizing. The pro-democracy movement is pretty good at mobilizing, getting people out on the streets. But it’s poor at organizing. That’s where the focus needs to be. A more organized movement would also make it easier to mobilize when necessary.

Most in the pro-democracy movement are still wedded to a mobilization model. In this sense, very little’s changed since the Umbrella Movement. According to that model, you have a small cohort of activists who are basically doing it full-time, surrounded by a small core of supporters who can be counted on to mobilize whenever needed. Between them and the masses, there is a large gap. This leaves the full-time activists and their supporters isolated and the masses passive and uninvolved, except on the few occasions, like the Umbrella Movement, when they’re motivated to join in.

The gap between the full-time activists and their supporters, on the one hand, and the masses on the other needs to be bridged in a long-lasting way, not just a one-off. The pro-democracy movement has to have a presence in every community in the city, every neighborhood, every public housing estate, and that presence has to be people who live in those places. Those are the sorts of leaders the movement really needs. If you go to a public housing estate, where half of HK lives, the first thing you see is the DAB office of the local district councilor. It’s as if the pro-democracy movement has conceded that whole territory to the adversary. Cultivating a strong, , widespread, enduring network is a basic principle of organizing that the movement hasn’t even started to come to terms with. This period when people don’t see any immediate breakthroughs or advances on the horizon and seem to be waiting for “the next big thing” is the perfect opportunity to do that sort of constructive, long-term work.

The political situation in HK is at an impasse, perhaps even a breaking point, but then again, it has been for years, and while it has become even more acute since the Umbrella Movement, the current situation can continue indefinitely. The Party sees this as working to its advantage: While shoring up the status quo, it is increasing its control. But the more it imposes control, the more it alienates, and every act of oppression is an opportunity the pro-democracy movement can take advantage of.

After the imprisonment of the 16 — all excellent, good-hearted, idealistic young people — , it’s become widely apparent to HK people that the Party and HK government are ready and willing to eat our kids. The opportunities for resistance that awareness provides are numerous. Part of the formula of the Umbrella Movement, remember, was people coming out to protect and stand in solidarity with the students.

As long as people continue to resist in significant numbers, the Party, no matter how much it might putatively control, simply can’t have its way in HK. It’s up to HK people to support and join the political groups leading the resistance. It’s up to those groups to improve their abilities to collaborate, strategize and organize. If localists, traditional pan-democrats and self-determinationists can find ways to cooperate and support one another, their power will increase exponentially.

That’s easier said than done, and it’s important to recall that some of these groups are under such fierce attack by the Party and HK government that their very existence is threatened. A Taiwanese academic recently asked me how I foresaw links between the HK pro-democracy movement and the progressive political forces of Taiwan developing in the next five years. Well, I said, that depends first and foremost on whether or not some of the HK groups even exist in five years. Nothing should be taken for granted. The Party would like to emerge from this period having obliterated any group that does not abide by the terms of its rule. Then again, the HK resistance and self-determination movement could very well outlast the Party itself. That’s how precarious and volatile the situation is. HK could go in many different directions, and while the Party will do its best to control every element it can, the direction HK goes will largely depend on the actions of the HK people.

This article is the third in a 5-part series on the Umbrella Movement three years after its beginning in September 2014. The first article is Why I wrote ‘Umbrella’, a 600-page account of the Umbrella Movement”. The second isThe Umbrella Movement after three years: So much accomplished, and much still to do”.

Kong Tsung-gan is the author of Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong. He envisions a day when September 28 will be HK’s national day and “Raise Your Umbrellas” its national song.



Author of three books on the Hong Kong freedom struggle

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store