Hong Kong’s umbrella protests are here to stay
Ian Rowen, The Guardian
Wednesday 12 November 2014 04.03 EST
As world leaders meet in Beijing for the Apec forum, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy umbrella movement continues. Even if the tens of thousands of protesters who poured on to the streets after the police launched 87 rounds of teargas at students on 28 September have shrunk in number, the occupations have endured far longer than anyone expected.
Although the protest’s goals may not be met before the next major election, in 2017, it has already succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its originators. None of them expected the occupation to get this big or last this long.
More cosmopolitan, inclusive, and networked than previous social movements in the region, the umbrella revolution is arguably “the first ever genuine movement for freedom on Chinese soil,” as a visitor from Beijing put it to me last week. We were speaking next to my tent, in the Admiralty occupation, where I have been camping in order to conduct research on mainland Chinese people’s engagement with political protests and to examine what that entails for the future of the region.
On 5 November, a contingent of Cantonese speakers wearing red-tinted Guy Fawkes masks paraded through the streets. The next day, a group of yellow umbrella-bearing secondary students, organised informally via WhatsApp instant messenger, formed the shape of the Chinese character for “umbrella” and sang odes of freedom to media crews.
As rain fell on Friday night, middle-class families distributed ginseng tea to occupiers huddled in makeshift but well-stocked supply stations.
History was made the next day, when Hong Kong’s annual gay pride parade culminated in Tamar park, adjacent to the Admiralty occupation. Entering a sea of rainbow umbrellas, leaders from the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), the most prominent of the pro-democracy activists, joined the event, linking their call for genuine universal suffrage to wider concerns for social justice.
Sunday ended with a march to the China Liaison Office, responsible for coordinating the policies of the Beijing leadership with the Hong Kong administration, where an estimated 1,000 protesters placed yellow ribbons around the railings.
Beijing’s aspersions about sinister western forces aside, no one group is directing this occupation. Although HKFS was recently found to be the territory’s most popular political group in a Hong Kong University poll, receiving more public support than any pro-Beijing or pan-democrat party, they are not in charge. Even if they or Scholarism – another prominent student group, led by the 18-year-old Joshua Wong – issued calls to retreat, it is far from certain that all demonstrators would heed them.
The government also has its hands tied. Given the high degree of international media attention Hong Kong received after earlier police actions, an immediate, Tiananmen-style crackdown is unlikely. Teargas and pepper spray might just send more people back into the streets.
While the Leung administration may be preparing to clear the occupation with force, it could just as well be betting that it will win a war of attrition. But subtropical Hong Kong is not New York, where Occupy Wall Street faltered when it faced a cold winter and a lack of clear demands.
Although the numbers of people protesting in Hong Kong may fluctuate or dwindle, the occupation is still unlikely to be cleared without force or a significant concession from the government.