Five years after the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong is once again in the midst of revolution and reclaiming.
With blood streaming from one eye, a young female medic lies slumped on the ground after being hit by a beanbag round during clashes with riot police in a Hong Kong protest. Clouds of tear gas smother the interior of a subway station where protesters are fleeing from police, stumbling over one another on escalators. In a separate incident, thugs armed with metal rods and bamboo poles launch a brazen assault on train commuters. They attack indiscriminately, even as victims fall to their knees in surrender, begging their assailants to spare the women and children cowering behind them.
Such scenes have scorched the heart of Hong Kong since the start of this “summer of unrest,” when a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China plunged the city into a state of crisis that has escalated to precipitous heights. What began as a largely peaceful anti-extradition protest that drew a historic 2 million to the streets has since transformed into an increasingly violent, anti-government and anti-police movement fighting for broader political reform, as well as an end to Beijing’s authoritarian interventions in the semi-autonomous territory.
Since June, protesters have been deadlocked with Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam – who has done little to respond to demonstrators and distanced herself at critical moments – as well as the local police. The resulting clashes have rendered the city unrecognizable. Police and protesters engage in regular battles that involve tear gas, pepper spray, bean bag rounds, and water cannons. A city-wide strike paralyzed public transport, parliament was ransacked, and a Chinese flag was thrown into the sea. At least 700 demonstrators, consisting of mainly young people, have been arrested and could be charged with rioting, a charge that carries a jail term of up to 10 years. Several protesters have committed suicide. Airport demonstrations led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights, before taking a dark turn when protesters attacked mainland Chinese men suspected of being undercover cops and a police officer drew his pistol on a crowd after being beaten with his own baton in a brawl. On August 12, China’s spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said the protests show “signs of terrorism.”
Unlike the mostly-peaceful Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement that stunned the world five years back, the current movement is seen by many protesters as the city’s “last stand” – a critical shift reflected in its rallying cry “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our time,” now ringing across the territory.
“It’s like the myth of Sisyphus. We keep pushing a rock and it keeps rolling back, and there are no results,” said George Tsang, a 27-year-old protester. “It doesn’t matter if people see you as peaceful protesters – the government still doesn’t care. The atmosphere is desperate.”
The protests mark the most significant social movement in Hong Kong history, as well as the greatest challenge to mainland Chinese rule, since the former colony was handed over to Beijing by the British in 1997. But beyond that, the movement also represents the first political awakening since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 that has traversed social divisions and established city-wide solidarity – one that has paved the way for a collective claiming of a Hong Kong identity and political community on a scale beyond anything the territory has witnessed before.
Lack of Sovereignty, Lack of Political Community
Hong Kongers were not always known for being political subjects. During the colonial era, Britain governed Hong Kong under a model of pragmatism that emphasized law and order and carried few political rights. In “Remaking Citizenship in Hong Kong,” Agnes S. Ku and Ngai Pun explain how colonial citizenship was dependent on “the making of a new urban-civic subject as a civilizing (modernizing), depoliticizing and de-nationalizing project” and the “prioritizing of economic development, with a residual conception of social welfare, over political participation.”
When Hong Kong was handed over to China, this hierarchization of neoliberal rationality and apoliticality was extended to the postcolonial legal and political structure, which continued to discourage and disallow the development of an active political community. The territory’s constitutional categorization of Hong Kongers as “permanent residents” rather than “citizens” not only minimizes the role of the government “to the maintenance of ‘law and order’ for market transactions and individual liberty,” but also continues to “deprive or devalue the political subjectivity of Hong Kongers and their political-cultural identification with the local community,” Ying Xia wrote in a 2016 paper. In addition to retaining these structures, the post-handover government also embarked on a re-nationalization project to increase Hong Kongers’ identification with China, further discouraging the formation of a local identity.
Hong Kong’s reputation for apoliticality and lack of democratization has caused scholars to compare it to Singapore as another exception to the modernization theory, which assumes economic development leads to the rise of a middle class that eventually creates social pressure for democratization. Yet unlike Singapore, Hong Kong is not a country. Its lack of sovereignty prevents it from independently amending its own political structures and processes. Although the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which established the blueprint for how Hong Kong would be ruled after the handover, supposedly guarantees Hong Kong 50 years of relative autonomy, Beijing has made it clear that it holds “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the city and the freedoms it possesses under the “one country, two systems” framework. Despite the rise in political activism throughout the years, ideological consensus is hard to achieve, and genuine democratic reforms remain systematically out of reach.
Under these unique circumstances, Hong Kong has since developed into a global hub and financial center known for its status as the world’s freest economy. The territory functions as a place for the internationalization of China’s currency that caters to the rich, and a portal for mainland Chinese companies to access foreign investors. However, with China’s rapid development in recent years, Hong Kong’s weight in China’s economy began to radically decrease. Simultaneously, it is becoming increasingly integrated into mainland China through massive infrastructure projects and economic initiatives, like Beijing’s “Greater Bay Area” project and a high-speed rail that controversially contains a section allowing mainland Chinese police officers to operate.
In short, Hong Kong is witnessing the rapid deterioration of its perceived “special status,” as the territory’s connections to the mainland continue to grow. In 2018, 1,146 mainland companies were listed in Hong Kong, making up 68 percent of the market total at US$2.6 trillion, according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. Although local tycoons occupy key economic positions, mainland Chinese companies dominate many sectors, as well as nearly half of the firms listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The city also relies on the mainland for up to 80 percent of its water and approximately 70 percent of its tourists, according to government statistics.
The influx of mainland Chinese money has skewed property prices and exacerbated social inequality in a city that has one of the highest Gini coefficients, a measure of inequality, worldwide. Official figures from last year show that a staggering 1.37 million people live below the poverty line, on approximately US$510 per month. In 2016, the richest 10 percent of Hong Kong households earned 44 times that of the poorest, and 90 percent of local households lived in homes smaller than 753 square feet. As a result, it is essentially impossible for young people to buy property without the help of wealthy parents who can provide a down payment. This reality, coupled with the pressures of a gruelling school as well as work culture, has placed intense pressure on young people.
“It doesn’t make sense to spend years just to buy a very small apartment,” said Fung, a 26-year-old structural engineer. “I’m earning twice the amount of the average wage, but I’m having trouble finding a place that gives [me] dignity.”
Yet Hong Kong’s most crucial divide is perhaps ideological. The city has traditionally been split between two camps: pro-Beijing and pro-democracy. The two sides fundamentally disagree on Hong Kong’s political status, with one seeing the territory as a part of the Chinese regime that needs to be further integrated, and the other advocating for democracy in Hong Kong as well as in China. Since 1997, the percentage of locals who identify as a Hong Konger has grown by 17 percent, reaching a record 52.9 percent this year, according to surveys by the Hong Kong University Opinion Program. The split is also generational. Among those aged 18 to 29, the portion has jumped by about 29.4 percent since 1997 to reach 75 percent this year. However, older generations still identify more with China, as many were refugees from the mainland or have strong familial roots across the border. For those above 30, 48.7 percent currently identify as a Hong Konger, which is approximately 16.8 percent more than in 1997. This age group represents about 72.8 percent of the population, census statistics show.
Even these lines contain complex spectra within themselves. For instance, within the pro-democracy camp there is, on one end, those who believe in advocating for democracy in China as the only way to achieve genuine local reforms. On the other end, there are those who favor independence. Moreover, just because one identifies as a Hong Konger does not mean one is immediately pro-democracy. As surveys by scholars Chan Chi Kit and Anthony Fung have shown, identification with Hong Kong icons and civic values such as freedom of speech does not necessarily translate into resistance against Beijing’s rule.
Jacky, a 30-year-old law student, says anti-Chinese sentiment is often caused by misunderstandings between Hong Kongers and the Chinese government due to misleading narratives from both sides. The anti-extradition bill protests are an example of such misinterpretations, he added. “[The bill] presents a threat, but it’s not a doomsday scenario. It is still subject to Hong Kong safeguards,” he said. “I don’t think China wants to cancel the existing arrangement of one country, two systems. If Hong Kong is to succeed, it needs to have a good relationship with China.”
Cindy, a lower-middle class resident in her 40s who identifies as pro-Beijing, echoes his sentiments. “The bill wasn’t explained well to the public,” she said. “As for the clashes, both police and protesters should be responsible for their actions. The police are just doing their job. If they don’t, then who will enforce order and keep the city safe?”
On a deeper level, the fundamental divide is a tear at the fabric of society that plays out not only on the political stage, but also within the private sphere during interactions with loved ones. “Politics are becoming more agitated. Once the TV is on, you see it, and families argue,” said Tsang, who lives with his father, adding that such feuds have become a regular occurrence among many and are causing a mental health crisis. “It ruins our family relationships, and everyone ends up unhappy. If your parents are pro-Beijing, they might say some very hurtful things. Sometimes, I can’t sleep because of it.”
The Legacy of the Failed Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement
In 2014, tens of thousands advocated for universal suffrage and other electoral reforms by participating in peaceful protests and sit-ins, leading to an unprecedented 79-day occupation of the city’s busiest roads. Known as “Occupy Central” and the “Umbrella Movement,” the demonstrations were, in many ways, a turning point for the city. There was true hope among participants that they could achieve their demands for genuine reform. Not only were the protests massive in size, but they were also conducted under the leadership of mostly students, who steered the movement and negotiated with government officials. The fact that police deployed tear gas on mostly young demonstrators on a previously unseen scale was yet another shocking departure from previous conflicts. It triggered an erosion of public trust that has continued to this day.
The use of force traumatized many in the community, including Fung, who was a university student when the movement began. He had never participated in any protest before 2014 but felt compelled to join in and express his dissatisfaction with the government. “It was crazy because I’d never seen tear gas before in my life. People started running away, I started coughing and my eyes started tearing up,” he recalls. “But the saddest part was seeing middle-aged or older people break down. I saw women lying on the floor, just crying.”
Despite the enormity of the protests, a mixture of political forces, social divisions, and judicial actions taken by the local government to shut down illegal occupations ultimately contributed to its failure. Although there was widespread condemnation of the use of tear gas, the community remained fractured in critical ways. On issues central to the movement, public opinion was highly divided. A poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong released in November 2014 found that 46.7 percent of Hong Kongers wanted to veto Beijing’s reform proposal for universal suffrage, a key demand of the protesters, while 43.5 percent didn’t support the Occupy Movement. During the protests and in the years following, leaders from various student unions, as well as democratic politicians, held differing views that often resulted in conflicts between organizers.
Failure following such a massive effort was a devastating blow that ushered in a period of pervasive fatigue. Turnout for the annual pro-democracy protests, among other demonstrations, dipped. Many became disillusioned with the system, and some began advocating for more radical actions, including the use of violence. Crackdowns by local authorities and Beijing also fanned the emergence of a growing “localist” independence movement that produced several elected officials in the September 2016 election, which drew a record 58 percent of the electorate. This also had the effect of fragmenting the broader pan-democratic camp, which lost a number of seats to such candidates. “Ironically, the fear of granting Hong Kong sufficient autonomy is resulting in exactly what the Chinese government was worried could be the result for democratization,” Stephan Ortmann explained in a 2016 paper.
Like many young people, Tsang became disillusioned after 2014. Although he wasn’t necessarily against the Chinese regime during the Umbrella Movement and took part primarily to push for true universal suffrage, his thinking has since shifted. He also plans to leave the city if he has the opportunity, joining a growing number who are looking to emigrate. “Being independent wouldn’t free us from conflict with China, but at least we would have authority over our own land,” Tsang said. “I know in reality, it’s not easy. I just feel hopeless.”
The local government reacted to localism by disqualifying and barring candidates advocating independence, as well as increasingly tolerating rival rallies from counter movements supporting China. Authorities also prosecuted and jailed activists for participating in the movement, including student leader Joshua Wong, who became an icon of the protests. In 2017, the heads of all 10 local universities released a statement condemning calls for independence and stating that “freedom of expression is not absolute.” Meanwhile, press freedom has deteriorated. Five Hong Kong booksellers who published sensational political books about Chinese leaders disappeared before re-emerging in police custody in mainland China, and a foreign journalist was denied a visa renewal after hosting an event featuring a pro-independence party leader.
The Bill That Galvanized the City
For a time, it appeared as if nothing could galvanize Hong Kongers again. Until the extradition bill, that is. On June 16, 2019, 2 million people – almost 30 percent of the population – marched against the proposed legislation, under sweltering heat that reached 30.1 degrees Celsius (86 F) with up to 85 percent humidity. It was the first time the city reached collective consensus on such a massive scale since May 21, 1989, two weeks before the Tiananmen Square massacre, when an estimated 1.5 million flooded the streets in support of pro-democracy protesters in China. Unlike in 2014, the extradition bill touched a nerve that struck fear into the majority of Hong Kongers regardless of their socioeconomic status or political orientation — the possibility for citizens to be exposed to the mainland’s legal system. Rule of law, and in particular a legal system independent from that of China’s, has always been a core part of Hong Kong’s identity, despite recent controversies that have led to a deterioration of trust in authority.
The current generation of protesters learned valuable lessons from the Umbrella Movement. Unlike in 2014, this movement is “leaderless,” with participants adopting flexible strategies that go beyond the peaceful sit-ins and occupations of the past. Flash mobs emerge and vanish before reappearing in another part of the city; public calls on people to join demonstrations only appear online after a protest has gained traction; various buildings have been stormed; and artists have covered the city in political art in an extraordinary demonstration of visual defiance.
Rather than relying on traditional platforms, protesters have organized on social media and produced a list of five evolving demands: the bill’s complete withdrawal, the withdrawal of the characterization of June 12 protests as “riots,” the release of arrested prisoners without conditions, the launching of an independent commission of inquiry into police misconduct, and universal suffrage (starting with Carrie Lam’s resignation as chief executive). A direct form of democracy within the protest movement is achievable through discussion groups on platforms like Telegram and LIHKG, which serve as “town halls” enabling protesters to offer suggestions that can be voted up or down by their peers.
It is unclear where the movement will lead, as conditions continues to worsen and Beijing grows increasingly wary. In recent weeks, Chinese troops have amassed in Shenzhen, the mainland city neighboring Hong Kong, and participated in a drill that included anti-riot measures as part of preparations for the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary celebration in October. Their presence, and the release of a video by state media showing riot officers charging at men dressed in black, sends a strong warning that Beijing may be willing to use force to contain the situation, if necessary. Since the start of the crisis, meanwhile, Hong Kong police have fired nearly 2,000 tear gas cannisters.
There is also anguish over the protests’ detrimental effects on Hong Kong businesses and financial markets, which have suffered a result of the U.S.-China trade war and slowdown in China. Weak economic growth has pushed the government to implement a US$2.4 billion stimulus package in an attempt to avert a recession. “I’m concerned about the economy and Hong Kong’s future,” Jacky said. “I don’t think the protests will reap positive benefits. Both sides have crossed the line into violence. I don’t think Hong Kong will gain democratic reforms this way, and the city will be negatively affected.”
Despite the apparent helplessness of the situation and alienating violence among radical protesters, many are moved by the collectivism of the movement and feel pride in the city’s young people for taking action. On August 18, an estimated 1.7 million – almost one in four Hong Kongers – participated in the second-largest protest this summer, which remained peaceful. In late August, over 200,000 joined hands to form a 30-mile human chain across the city that reached the top of Hong Kong’s iconic Lion Rock mountain, producing a halo of lighted mobile phones.
Yan Tse, a 38-year-old accountant who has supported young people on the sidelines of various demonstrations, says witnessing unity among protesters has given her hope for the future.
“I used to think Hong Kongers were cold and apathetic and had a negative view of young people. But they have matured since 2014. The Umbrella Movement taught them what freedom is and how to protect what you have,” Tse said. “I think the violence is forced upon [them] by the government. Actually, everyone is scared, and no one wants to be on the frontlines, but they do it anyway. For me, I don’t want to just accept the situation even if nothing changes. I want to be able to look myself in the face – and know that I tried.”