Ripples of Occupy One Year On: Occupation, Umbrellas, and our Protest Future

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Not so long ago in a place not so far away, an unprecedented tide of passionate protests captured the attention of both international observers and citizens at home. Christened the Umbrella Movement (the Movement), the 79 days of civil disobedience in the heart of Hong Kong last year forever changed the political landscape of this city. Disillusioned with the old establishment, many have sought fresh outlets to express their views, and in cases where no such outlets existed, they have fashioned new organisations with audacious messages and aggressive tactics.

Tried and traditional 

Some of those hardest hit by these changes were the organisers of the city’s ritual July 1 march. Founded in September 2002 in response to the proposed Article 23 legislation, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) has been the chief organiser of the annual protest held on Hong Kong’s Handover commemoration day for 12 years. Its first and most successful July 1 protest in 2003 drew over 500,000 marchers, a number exceeded only by the rally supporting the Tiananmen Square protests in May 1989, which saw 1.5 million protesters. The numbers have risen and fallen with public discontent with local and mainland governments. In 2014, Beijing’s White Paper on Hong Kong’s (non) democratic future led to another big turnout. This year, Occupy exhaustion and the rise of alternative protests saw the number drop, with only 48,000 participats.

Despite unpredictable changes in Hong Kong’s political landscape, coupled with increasingly popular forms of radical protest, Daisy Chan Sin-ying (陳倩瑩), the current convener of CHRF, remains confident in the relevance of traditional protest in the city.

“I don’t worry about the numbers,” she says, referring to low numbers of participants in the past recent July 1 march. “We’re not competing for numbers at our events. If more people participate in civil disobedience movements instead of more moderate forms of protest, the government will realise that they are facing a growing governance threat, forcing them to respond to public opinion and enact policy changes. We see it as progress when people deepen their participation in more radical forms of protest. There is no competition here.”

A sparser than usual July 1 crowd. (Photo: Michael Wong)

When asked about CHRF’s response to new forms of protest, Chan says her organisation will not be adopting them in the short term. “In the past few years, CHRF has been cooperating with organisations participating in civil disobedience like Occupy Central, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), and Scholarism,” says Chan.“But I think, at least at the moment, it’s very unlikely that CHRF will be conducting any civil disobedience movements. That’s because within our organisation, we have groups like unions or professional groups – such as teachers – who can’t afford to be adversely affected by the consequences of participating in civil disobedience. Until it appears that a large majority of society have chosen to use civil disobedience as their method of protest, we will maintain our current cooperation [with groups that use civil disobedience], to ensure that participants can comfortably express their opinions.”

While many are concerned with growing political factionalism and the birth of new radical political organisations, Chan is unbothered by these developments. “In district council or LegCo elections [where the pan-democratic parties] need to compete with pro-establishment parties for seats, I believe that most groups can cooperate and unite. Of course, there is news now that some new groups don’t want to cooperate with the pan-democratic camp, such as Youngspiration. But whether they succeed or fail depends on the acceptance and support they receive from the public. On the surface, the birth of new and different organisations may seem like political fragmentation, but it reflects changes in public opinion. In terms of support for pan-democratic groups versus pro-establishment groups, I don’t think these new organisations will really shift the balance of power there.”

The ‘old’ young boys

HKFS, one of the organisations at the heart of the Movement, was also increasingly challenged, both by external forces and from within. Disappointed by the once prominent Federation’s indecision to take further action during the Movement and discontent with its internal politics, some university students initiated a wave of ‘separatist’ concern groups, leading to three member universities (Hong Kong University, Polytechnic University and Baptist University) quitting the federation. City University students voted to leave, but the vote is facing a procedural challenge that remains unresolved.

Nathan Law Kwun-chung ( 羅冠聰 ), who took over the post of Secretary General of the troubled HKFS in April this year, tells HT that even given how much the Federation has suffered from the events, things might not be as bad as it seems.

On September 28, the police used tear gas in attempt to disperse the crowd, but instead drew out more angry Hongkongers.

“Bearing in mind that our campaigns had always been open to non-members, I do not see a necessity for us or any group to dictate what people should expect from student movements. We have sustained communications and cooperation with students’ unions that left the federation with a focus on promoting academic freedom, including coordinating with Hong Kong University Students’ Union in protest of Government meddling with the university’s senior appointment.”

“While the issue of whether to go for organisational diversity or unity will be addressed at some point in the future, many social and student bodies, including us, have in fact turned from joining mass rallies to developing ideological discourse for the city’s democratisation,” Law says.

New blood

Among the bodies was student activist group Scholarism, with Joshua Wong Chi-fung ( 黃之鋒 ) as its convener. Wong is optimistic that many students from the 2000s generation will provide new blood for the pro-democracy force.

“The Movement was an enlightenment for the students – just like the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 to youth at that time.” – Joshua Wong, Scholarism

“The Movement was an enlightenment for the students – just like the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 to youth at that time,” Wong says, “We will continue to promote democracy while addressing issues in schools including the use of Putonghua to teach Chinese Language Subject ( 普教中 ), Basic Law teaching materials, and more recently lead-in-water on campus.”

The group is also advocating constitutional amendment ( 修 憲 ) and the establishment of a shadow government to achieve self-determination. However, Wong does not see the ideas being endorsed by many of the pro-democracy players in the near future.

Joshua Wong (left) and Alex Chow, were leading figures during the Occupy Movement in Admiralty.

“The pan-democrats are still too obsessed with restarting the five-step political reform process, which would not yield any fruitful outcome so long as Beijing dictates the content of the reform package. Meanwhile, localist groups do not seem to be paying too much attention to actually reforming the political structure,” Wong explains.

The youth are revolting 

While the student bodies have focused on discourse, localist group Hong Kong Indigenous (HKI) has been at the forefront of some of Hong Kong’s more recent protests. The group was one of many born out of the Movement.

Their actions have been branded “radical” and they actively promote the idea of “fighting violence with force” (以武制暴). HKI’s convenor Ray Wong Toi-yeung ( 黃台仰 ) and spokesperson Edward Leung Tin- kei ( 梁天琦 ) were avid participants from the beginning of the Movement, and their methods and political beliefs today are direct consequences of their days on Harcourt Road.

“I was once a peaceful protester,” Ray Wong says, with a chuckle.

In the early mornings of October 1 last year, before the Chief Executive and other prominent political figures would attend the National Day flag raising ceremony in Golden Bauhinia Square, Ray Wong held up a sign asking fellow Occupy protesters to calm down and refrain from storming the event. To many localists, that morning has become a notorious example of how peaceful protesters stood in the way of timely escalation. Wong thinks differently now.

In the early stages of the Occupy Movement, the majority supported peaceful non-violent protests. Ray Wong was one of them (not pictured).
In the early stages of the Occupy Movement, the majority supported peaceful non-violent protests. Ray Wong was one of them (not pictured).

“After the 79 days were over we lost all hope in peaceful protests, and that’s why we’ve become ‘radical’,” explains Ray Wong. He and Edward Leung argue pan-democrat political figures and members of established activist circles undermined the Movement by insisting on keeping the protests peaceful.

“I was once a peaceful protester,” Ray Wong says, with a chuckle.

“As it developed, I saw that all the traditional activist groups, parties, and student groups, were in fact a large clique. Whatever was happening – such as whether they should escalate, how it should be done, what vocabulary to use – all had to go through all of these groups. Even though it was led by the student groups, it needed approval from all these people. That limited the Movement immensely,” says Edward Leung. This motivated Ray Wong, and many others, to establish their own organisations to make sure their voices weren’t drowned out.

Method to their meticulous madness

In February and March this year, the group led protests in several parallel trader hotspots, leading to confrontations with the Police, and numerous arrests. The protests provoked a huge backlash from the public, but mainland authorities soon announced the multiple-entry permit plan would be replaced by a one-entry-per-week permit plan, although the Chief Executive claimed it was a result of negotiations that happened long before the protests. A similar protest was held this month given recent rise in parallel trader activity. Ray Wong was briefly arrested after a confrontation with counter-protesters.

“The mainstream might consider our methods radical. But it’s because the organisations in the past have insisted on relatively mild protests, and not an appropriate intensity based on the severeness of the matter,” argued Ray Wong.

Edward Leung believes when there is no more room for discussion, their relatively radical methods could put more pressure on the administration. “Our ‘Reclaim Sheung Shui’ protests were carried out because the government ignored what parallel traders were doing. Since the Government wouldn’t do anything, why not take it to the streets and use our own methods to tell this administration, ‘If you don’t do anything, only more chaos will ensue.’ We need to let them know what the cost is, unless they correct unjust policies.”

“In the next ten years, localists will overtake pan-dems,” predicts Ray Wong.

Those methods involved leading fellow protestors in direct confrontation with parallel traders to tell them they weren’t welcome, “I didn’t have to initiate any conflicts,” explains Ray Wong. “[Once the two parties met], the angry reaction was expected.”

Many of the participants in Admiralty felt disillusioned by the leadership of the movement, and chose to join the relatively decentralised protest site in Mong Kok instead.

Beyond leading new modes of protest in Hong Kong, HKI hopes localists will displace the traditional pan-dems completely in the political landscape. “The [LegCo] elections next year will be critical. It will give localists a larger platform to promote their ideas. A chance to publicly debate with pan-dems and even the pro-establishment,” says Ray Wong. The duo believe that, given their mishaps during the Movement, the traditional pan-dem camp’s influence will slowly wane and their ability to mobilise will diminish.

“In the next ten years, localists will overtake pan-dems,” predicts Ray Wong.

Grudging understanding for pan-dems

In spite of their many critiques of the pan-dems, Ray Wong and HKI have learned that some things they’ve criticised the pan-dems for are actually quite necessary. “I used to be very adamant we wouldn’t run in elections, or solicit donation at our booths. But we’ve found the need to do certain things to survive. We didn’t want a street booth during the July 1 march, but this year we did. On one hand we wanted to tell people about our members who were arrested and found guilty in court, but at the same time we had to sell t-shirts.”

“The initial reason we set up HKI, was because organisations and parties have ignored our voices in the past. Now that we’ve established ourselves, we aren’t going to start doing what we hated.” – Ray Wong, Hong Kong Indigenous

“We found there are lots of costs that come with running a political organisation. Putting up booths, printing leaflets, booking vans. These are all costs, and we can’t rely on internal donations from young members who might not have established careers. We’ve had to find ways to cover those costs.”

When asked whether they’ve come to understand the pan-dems a bit more, Ray Wong says, “We have. Admittedly, we have.”

On September 13, Ray Wong accepted an invitation to speak at a rally jointly held by HKFS, Scholarism, and the League of Social Democrats (LSD). After photos of Ray Wong posing next to ex-HKFS deputy Secretary General Lester Shum ( 岑敖暉 ) and LSD’s Raphael Wong (黃浩銘 ) surfaced, Ray Wong received an overwhelming amount of criticism, some going as far as accusing him of “colluding with the thieves”.

Despite the adverse reaction, Ray Wong came short of ruling out any possibility of collaboration in the future, “The initial reason we set up HKI, was because organisations and parties have ignored our voices in the past. Now that we’ve established ourselves, we aren’t going to start doing what we hated.”

It remains unlikely that the broader localist community will be ready to work with the traditional pan-dems anytime soon. Hardline positions from Beijing seem to have driven many people to a more radical form of protest that is the new norm in Hong Kong. The old pan-dems seem unable to stop this new generation from looking for more forceful ways to defend their home. Soon, the local administrators may wish for the good old days of half a million peaceful marchers – they may not like the new opposition their policies have produced.

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