Reform: vetoed. Tim Mei Village: Demolished. Nine months on from September 28, 2014, the Umbrella era is over. What follows?
It started in 2013, when Benny Tai Yiu-ting proposed a large-scale civil disobedience movement, later named ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’, to press for ‘genuine universal suffrage’. Many sneered at the idea. Yet on September 28, 2014, after the first shot of tear gas was fired, an ‘Occupy’ movement larger than Tai could have imagined became reality.
The Umbrella Movement is the biggest protest since the transfer of sovereignty to China, in which protesters sat in or even slept in core business nodes in Hong Kong for 79 days. The memory is still fresh nine months on.
The streets were cleared by the police in December, and Beijing maintained a stern attitude throughout, insisting on the absoluteness of the 831 Decision. On June 18, though, LegCo vetoed the reform package, which if passed, would make vetting of candidates in future CE elections by an election committee largely appointed by Beijing a law.
Stepping down from the pedestal
Benny Tai did not try to tiptoe around the fact that the Umbrella Movement and his ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ failed to create enough pressure for Beijing to back down. 79 days of civil disobedience did not change the regime’s mind.
“When we started the movement…we estimated the baseline of the Chinese government was the decision made by People’s Standing Committee on Aug 31 2014,” he says. “We had very slight hope that we could move Beijing’s baseline. Our action just proved that we cannot move Beijing.”
As a new batch of student leaders of Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) was inaugurated in March 2015, the familiar faces who led the class strike in September last year left the limelight.
HT saw Lester Shum at Tim Mei Village when the final debate for political reform took place on June 17. He no longer wears his black HKFS T-shirt which reads ‘Freedom now!’ on it.
“I think I am just an ordinary student participating in this protest,” he says. His presence did receive attention from several media reporters, but far fewer than what he had back when the Umbrella Movement was still going on. He then met with some old friends from previous HKFS sessions outside LegCo, taking up the most basic role in the structure of Hong Kong student activism—the ordinary student protester.
Parting of ways
What came with the end of the Umbrella era was the surfacing of fault lines between different democrat leaders. The divide could be roughly summarised as adults versus youth.
Older democrats prefer the old ways: getting elected into LegCo, peaceful demonstrations, challenging the way Basic Law is carried out by the regime but not fundamentally nullify it. Younger activists are not afraid to try out new means of moving the ball forward: more substantial engagement in activism, radical protest, and even attempting to rewrite the Basic Law.
After the reform vote, Joshua Wong, convener and founder of Scholarism, plans to advocate for a rewrite of the Basic Law. “We have to re-think and rewrite the Basic Law,” he says, “We could also hold a mock suffrage to elect an unofficial CE and a mock cabinet.”
Current HKFS student leaders held a public forum outside LegCo on June 17 discussing the possibility of rewriting the Basic Law. Wong Ching-fung, president of Chinese University Student Union, challenged the injustice inherent in the Basic Law.
“The Basic Law is ultimately colonial. It legitimises pre-selection of CE candidates by the election committee, which basically is a privileged class in our city,” he says, “It should be rewritten by Hong Kong people, for Hong Kong people.”
However, Albert Ho Chun-yan, legislator since 1995 and president of Democratic Party 2006-2012, told HT that he does not support Joshua Wong’s plan. Moreover, according to Ho, the Democratic Party is generally uninterested in the idea. “We won’t consider that,” he says, “The whole concept lacks substance. What do you by ‘rewrite’? And when you say ‘by the people’, who are you referring to?”
Occupying their different roles, different fighters for Hong Kong democracy continue to carry out their duties. Looking back, students started the class strike, and Joshua Wong led the storming of the barricaded Civic Square on Sept 26. Pan-dem lawmakers fought their battle in the LegCo.
On June 17 evening, before the reform package was finally voted on, Lester Shum declared confidently that he is not quitting the fight yet. He believes there are still many injustices in the city that he should fight.
“After the veto of the reform package, it is not the end of the road,” he says. “Our education, land, housing, [and] economy are being infiltrated by the CCP and so called red capitalists. We have to move on [to these issues] and work hard,” he says.
After the vote, Labour Party’s Lee Cheuk-yan walked out of LegCo with his head held high and celebrated the brief victory with Tim Mei villagers. He has not forgotten, though, that the final goal has not been achieved yet.
“Dialogue for political reform should be re-opened. […] We must carry on the Umbrella spirit,” he says. “We still have many battles to fight: for people’s livelihood, for ‘One Country, Two System’, for democracy—all these require our collective effort.”
Moderate or radical, Benny Tai agrees that despite the difference, or he rather calls ‘diversity’, Occupy veterans still share the same goal: true democracy for Hong Kong.
“Democracy is diversity. It would be strange if there was only one voice in democracy advocacy,” he says, “The issue lies with building bridges of communication and understanding between different parties.”
The nine-month battle finally drew to a close when the reform package was vetoed on June 18; but the fight for democratisation of Hong Kong is not over yet. Under the summer heat, the city may quiet down for now. But when the autumn winds herald, they will set sail again.