Why I wrote “Umbrella”, a 600-page account of the Umbrella Movement
The most comprehensive account to date of the Umbrella Movement, “Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong” is out in September.
When I set out on the project that eventually became Umbrella, my intention was simply to record my own experience of the movement, no more and no less. I’d worked for one of the leading organizations and spent a lot of time at the occupied sites. But as I wrote, I saw that the Communist Party and HK government were already propagating a distorted history, and I started to think there was value in putting down in writing what happened, from a pro-democracy perspective, and in analyzing why things happened as they did. From there, the book grew and grew — there was so much to tell.
We live in a country where a vast amount of official discourse is untruthful in one way or another: It dissembles, deceives, obfuscates, omits, and tells outright lies. Of course, the Communist Party is hardly the only regime that lies about history, but the fact that no other versions of history are allowed makes its lies especially insidious. The double mechanism of censorship and propaganda has always been central to the Party’s objective of retaining absolute power. The mechanism is used to enforce the official version of history under its rule. That official history is largely false. It whitewashes the Party’s enormous catastrophes going back to 1949- the landlord and Tibetan genocides, the anti-rightist movement, Mao’s Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Massacre, just to mention the most well-known crimes that rival those of other dictatorships of the twentieth century, indeed surpass them in terms of the number of deaths caused. If it were common knowledge among Chinese people that the Communist Party has killed more Chinese than all of the villains of modern Chinese history put together, including the Japanese, it would be harder for the Party to continue to rule. The lies seep into and become the very fabric of Chinese society, which is psychologically traumatized. And since there is no way to freely tell the truth about the causes of its traumas, which are political, people carry the traumas inside of themselves and are either ignorant of or only vaguely familiar with their roots. The Chinese are a people who don’t know their history and therefore don’t know themselves.
Because HK is, at least for now, a part of the People’s Republic of China under Communist dictatorship, we live in a place where telling the political truth is an act of resistance as well as a way of asserting our identity as HK people. Umbrella seeks to tell the truth and resist historical lies. Since the Umbrella Movement, the Communist Party has redoubled its efforts to control and mainlandize HK, and this has had a negative effect not least of all on freedom of expression. Truth-telling serves the purpose of holding the powerful accountable. There has been no accountability in HK for the denial of genuine universal suffrage. In its absence, accurate history can help to keep alive the prospect that one day justice will come. Virtually every factual assertion in Umbrella is substantiated by other sources — journalists, NGOs, official government statements. With over 700 footnotes, the book became a project in documentation. There’s still much to be told. In the coming years, probably much new information will emerge and revise, enhance and supplement the story. Many other people will tell their stories. What went on behind the scenes within the Party, the HK government and the police is largely a black hole. Still, while my interpretations and analyses are disputable, the facts of the tale aren’t. They can’t be whitewashed by the regime.
HK people were disappointed if not surprised that the world’s great states failed to support their demand for genuine suffrage. We were, after all, only insisting that the Communist Party comply with international law and HK’s own Basic Law. But even though Western governments were tepid in their response, we still thought that ordinary people elsewhere in the world would understand what was happening and support us. Many did, but not long after the movement ended, I had an eye-opening exchange with an excellent foreign correspondent. His beat was HK, and he worked for one of the most prominent news outlets in the world. In commenting on the suffrage struggle, he said in effect, “Well, it’s hard to say. Both sides have good arguments.” I thought, No, they don’t, only one does, and if a person like this journalist thinks that, then we’re not doing a good enough job getting our message out. The HK pro-democracy movement has a very compelling argument. Morality, justice, and international and HK law are on our side. We have to do a better job of telling our story. Up to the Umbrella Movement, the pro-democracy movement was too isolated. The kind of globe-trotting promotion of the cause that Joshua Wong’s been doing ever since is very necessary, and I hope Umbrella can buttress such efforts. People in the pro-democracy movement can give it to interested people elsewhere and say, If you want to know what’s going on in HK, read this. The struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is one of the most crucial global issues of this century. It will determine the direction of the world in the decades to come. HK is on the front line of that struggle. It’s a place people elsewhere should know about.
The book situates the Umbrella Movement within the history of HK’s decades-long struggle for genuine suffrage. That means not only telling about the past but focusing on the legacy of the movement, including the many political developments resulting from it, and the outlook for the future. When a spectacle like the Umbrella Movement erupts — and this goes for most nonviolent people power revolutions — , it is so compelling that it tends to be regarded out of context rather than seen as part of a long-term process. I roll my eyes when I see media conventional wisdom and even movement participants say, “It failed to achieve its objective.” Not only is that analysis simplistic to the point of inaccuracy but it adopts a very narrow frame. Why not say instead the Communist Party failed to achieve its objective (the enactment of fake suffrage), and that therefore the Umbrella Movement is arguably the only force since the Party came to power that has fought it to a draw? Why not put the focus on the fact that the Party’s failed now for twenty years to live up to one of its most basic promises at the time of the handover? Why not say the movement was a significant advance in HK’s decades-long struggle for democracy and self-determination, awakening the conscience of the HK people and the attention of the world and bringing the struggle to a new phase, the point where the Party has indisputably and perhaps irrevocably lost the hearts and minds of the people of HK and actually risks losing control of it altogether one day?
Umbrella also seeks to contribute to a better understanding of nonviolent political movements. It assesses the Umbrella Movement, analyzing what worked, what didn’t, and why, and it sets this analysis in a global context. In recent years, the literature on nonviolent resistance and revolution has been quite upbeat, focusing on success stories and how nonviolent uprisings are much more effective than violent ones. It is largely influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire and events occurring in its aftermath. But in the past decade and a half, there have been many significant movements which didn’t achieve their primary objectives, from the 2003 global protests against the invasion of Iraq to the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, just to name a few. Insofar as HK was not granted genuine suffrage, the Umbrella Movement fits that pattern, and while each of these movements has its own contexts and characteristics, the study of the Umbrella Movement can contribute to a re-evaluation of various aspects of nonviolent struggle and perhaps help to find more effective approaches in the future.
Lastly, Umbrella pays homage to the amazing people of HK who have fought so long and so hard for their basic political rights, including the right to universal suffrage and the right of self-determination. When you live in an oppressed society day in and day out, it can be very easy to become pessimistic. That’s the case in HK today — pessimism prevails. To some extent, it’s justified, but we should also recall that over these last years, so many ordinary HK people have resisted not only the regime’s attempts to deny, restrict and infringe their rights but, in doing so, also the worst tendencies in themselves and their society — political apathy and passivity, a certain kind of cynical “pragmatism”, resignation, defeatism and selfishness. Time and again, HK people have stood up. That’s heroic and should be recognized and celebrated as such, perhaps more than it is, by HK people themselves as much as by anyone else. Going back to 2003, literally millions of HK people (out of a population of 7.2 million) have stood up for their rights. How many other societies in the world have fought so hard for their political rights as HK has over the same period? Quite a few, but then again, not so many. The Umbrella Movement had a democratic, egalitarian, communitarian, creative, generous spirit and a vision for HK that is diametrically opposed to the authoritarian, elitist, rigged, unjust, unequal and ultimately brutally violent vision of the Communist Party and HK government. That Umbrella Movement vision is both a gift and tool: It should be cherished, developed and advanced, so that one day it will be realized.
This article is the first in a 5-part series on the Umbrella Movement three years after its beginning in September 2014.
Kong Tsung-gan is a writer, educator and activist living in Hong Kong. He has lived and worked in China, amongst Tibetans in India, and in a dozen other places in Africa, Europe and North America. Umbrella combines his knowledge of Hong Kong with his global perspective.
Ordering information for Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong.