For 79 days, they peacefully occupied a hub of Asian commerce, galvanizing public attention on Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy. Their yellow umbrellas and seemingly leaderless organization became famous worldwide, symbols of a movement daring to stand up to Beijing.
Yet one year later, many involved in the Umbrella Movement use words such as “failure” and “frustration” to assess the impact of their 2014 protests, which are likely to be studied and analyzed for decades.
“The failure of the Umbrella movement was that we could not achieve more,” said Agnes Chow Ting, 18, a strategist and former spokeswoman for Scholarism, one of several high school and college groups that sparked the occupations. “Instead of being disappointed, we should think about what we can learn from this.”
Failure? Similar campaigns of civil disobedience took years or decades to achieve results. Yet among Hong Kong’s youth, there was an expectation that the massive protests – which drew hundreds of thousands of supporters to the city’s streets – would result in concessions from Beijing or at least the resignation of Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, also known as C.Y. Leung.
Neither of those things happened. Now many of these pro-democracy activists are assessing whether they should abandon their past tactics – including adherence to non-violence. Completely obliterated is the notion that Hong Kong’s government, in its current form, will press Beijing to fulfill promises made when China resumed control of the British colony in 1997.
Sebastian Veg, a Sinologist based in Hong Kong, said that, for democracy supporters, the protest euphoria has long faded. In its wake has come a hardening of distrust toward the Chinese Communist Party that could pull the movement in different directions.
Barack Obama was expected to bring up China’s human rights record during Xi Jinping’s recent swing through Washington. There was no immediate indication that the two leaders discussed Hong Kong, however.
“Beijing is adamant it won’t give an inch to the pan-democrats,” said Veg, who directs the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China. Chinese officials, he said, “keep lecturing Hong Kong on how it should behave, one lecture after another. People don’t want to engage in politics because they see all the avenues as blocked.”
The one-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s street occupations come as Chinese President Xi Jinping concludes a visit to the United States, including meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama. While Obama was expected to bring up China’s human right record, there was no immediate indication that the two leaders discussed Hong Kong’s situation, a reflection of how it no longer commands the international attention it did one year ago.
Hong Kong’s street protests mushroomed last year after a committee of China’s National People’s Congress issued a ruling on Hong Kong’s elections process for selecting a new chief executive in 2017. The ruling effectively empowered Beijing to vet any and all candidates for office, which democracy activists say was an abrogation of treaty promises made when Great Britain agreed to transfer Hong Kong to China.
On September 26 last year, members of Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students began demonstrations at the government headquarters in Admiralty, in downtown Hong Kong. More established pro-democracy groups, including Occupy Hong Kong with Love and Peace, soon joined them. On Sept. 28, police used tear gas and pepper spray on protesters, prompting tens of thousands to join in the protests and occupy other parts of town.
As days turned into weeks, protesters transformed the main occupation site into a mini city, with makeshift “study stations” for the students and organized food preparation, water hauling and trash pickup. Banners and protest art flourished, and Hong Kong tourists – including some from mainland China – wandered through the encampment, gazing at the spectacle.
“It felt like it wasn’t real,” recalls Chow of the Scholarism group. “I couldn’t imagine we would have a day where so many people were on the street in Admiralty. It was like a dream when I look back on it.”
Leaders of the protests have been barred from traveling to China. One even has been barred from Malaysia, whose president is friendly to Beijing.
But as the weeks went on, the disruptions caused by the protests – and the divisions within the Umbrella Movement – started to weigh on the city. Business owners filed lawsuits and pressed the Hong Kong government to clear the protest sites. Organized thugs showed up and picked fights, testing the non-violent resolve of protesters, including some still in high school.
By December, police and clean-up crews had cleared away all remnants of the Umbrella Movement. A period of self-reflection and recriminations began.
In a Hong Kong café last week, Ka-Chai Kwok and Bowie Lam talked about the post-occupation mood of their fellow activists.
“After the movement ended, there were lots of doubts about the approach taken,” said Kwok, 27. “People were challenging the traditional groups. They were angry. They didn’t want these groups and their leaders making decisions for them.”
“That was not fair,” interjected Lam, 28. “In these kinds of movements, you need to have people who are organized and can direct action.”
The splits within the movement do not appear to be narrowing. One new wrinkle is the rise of groups such as “Hong Kong Indigenous,” which argues that Hong Kongers are “losing our rights and indigenous values to the Chinese Communist Party.” The group argues for a more aggressive form of direct action, and it appeals to local residents who are fed up with the droves of mainland Chinese tourists that visit Hong Kong each day.
On social media, Hong Kong netizens regularly complain about “locusts,” a derogatory term for Chinese tourists. Almost every week there are small street protests in Mong Kok, a working-class Hong Kong neighborhood that has been transformed by jewelry shops and high-end retail catering to tourists from mainland.
“These kind of protests happened before Occupy,” said Bastien Wai-Chung, a social activist who has been monitoring events in Mong Kok. “What’s different now is the pervasiveness of the concern over this.”
As the one-year anniversary of the protests neared, there seemed to be little enthusiasm for a large-scale commemoration, by either activists or the Hong Kong establishment. Some democracy supporters have announced plans for a 15-minute silent rally on Monday outside government headquarters, but that may be the only marking of the Sept. 28 date.
According to a recent story in the Hong Kong Free Press, curators have struggled to find a gallery willing to display a collection of protest art that was recovered from occupation zones last year. Any such display at a government-funded institution, said Veg, “would not be acceptable” in the current political climate.
Veg, who has written extensively about Hong Kong politics, says protest leaders are being too hard on themselves by declaring their efforts to be a failure. In June, he noted, Hong Kong’s legislature – composed of a majority of democracy advocates – rejected Beijing’s elections proposal. That, he said, deprived the Chinese Communist Party of bragging rights that it had granted “universal suffrage” to Hong Kong, a huge propaganda setback for Beijing.
Still, by failing to endorse the elections proposal, Hong Kong is now left with the status quo, in which China’s leaders will continue to directly select the region’s chief executive. That reality has prompted some activists to ponder various long-term strategies for securing Hong Kong’s self-governance.
Scholarism leader Joshua Wong, who was in the United States over the last week, has floated the idea of a series of civic referendums to help Hong Kong could shape its future after 2047. That’s the year that mainland China attains full control of the former British colony, including its currency, court system and freedom of speech.
While referendums are not allowed under current Hong Kong law, the 18-year-old Wong envisions a series of unofficial ballot measure that would continue to apply pressure on Beijing, and possibly lead to a new constitution for Hong Kong.
“If Hong Kong could exercise democratic self-governance under the sovereignty of China, it would not be necessary for us to take this step on the path toward independence,” Wong wrote in an essay Thursday in Time Magazine.
For Wong and other activists, their decision to confront Beijing has come with a price. He and other student leaders have been barred from traveling to China. Malaysia, whose president is friendly to Beijing, prevented Wong from entering the country in May.
Chow, a student at Hong Kong Baptist University who joined Scholarism when she was 15, said she has come to terms with the likelihood that she will be blacklisted for life. That means no prospect of a Hong Kong government job or travel to the mainland.
“It is ridiculous and ironic,” she said. “The government keeps saying the students of Hong Kong should learn more about China. But now there are so many of us who cannot visit the mainland, so there is now way we can have any independent thinking about it.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth