“Hong Kong and China have separate passports, you see”, my tour guide stated in her broken English when I visited Hong Kong a couple of years back, her words making me question my hearing. She continued talking about how there is no restriction on the number of children you could have in Hong Kong, unlike only one in China, while I racked my brains to recall the faded memories of my Geography class. She continued pointing out the differences between the two regions while I decided not to dwell on her barely suppressed hostility towards China and simply enjoy my trip.
However, once I came back to India, my investigative nature did not let me forget the matter and I started to hunt down all possible information I could about Hong Kong and China. What I found out was that Hong Kong followed the “one country, two systems” policy. China looked after the defense and foreign affairs of Hong Kong, and in turn the city had its own set of freedom in the form of governance, judiciary and media.
Let me paint a picture of the events leading to the Umbrella Revolution and the present condition of the relationship between Hong Kong and China.
The Broken Promise – the Proverbial Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back
The British Government handed Hong Kong over to China in a sale of sorts on 1st July, 1997. It was agreed that Hong Kong would be allowed to elect its own leader by virtue of universal suffrage by 2017. But as the years passed and the year 2017 drew close, the citizens of Hong Kong realized that Beijing will not keep the promise made to them when it stated that though Hong Kong will be allowed to conduct elections and vote for the chief executive, the candidate for the election has to be approved by a committee similar to the existing pro-Beijing committees. This is when the scene turned ugly.
Citizens Rise, All Guns Blazing
On 1st July, 2003, Hong Kong witnessed the largest protest in its post-handover history. Chinese Government’s Article 23 legislation posed a veritable threat to the civil liberties that Hong Kong has been enjoying till then. This day sped up the downhill journey of the relationship between China and Hong Kong.
September 2014 marked the protests by the pro-democratic groups Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism. The Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement was supposed to be a non-violent civil disobedience movement as initiated by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Hong Kong’s students had planned and started to implement a peaceful demonstration in protest against Beijing’s election plan, with the number of protesters numbering above 100,000. “We are fighting for the future of Hong Kong,” was what they said and believed. The protesters demanded Beijing to apologize to the people of Hong Kong for its restrictive election rules. Apart from that, they called Beijing’s actions “colonial” and demanded the resignation of the topmost Hong Kong government officials.
However it erupted into a violent scene when the police used brutal force against the protesters, shooting them with rubber bullets and spraying tear gas.
Umbrella Revolution – The Namesake
Owing to the brutal force applied by the police, the protesters used goggles and surgical masks. Additionally, they wrapped themselves in plastic and used umbrellas. It was an attempt to deflect the chemicals used against them. The umbrellas proved to be of significance to the movement, thus lending the name Umbrella Revolution.
The Faces of the Movement – Not Necessarily the Masterminds
It is not possible to pin-point the linchpin of the revolution, since it was a collective movement. However, the ones who were on the forefront were Joshua Wong and Alex Chao Yong-kang. The leader of student group Scholarism, Joshua Wong’s claim to fame started with a protest in 2011 against the proposal to implement “patriotic education” curriculum in Hong Kong’s public schools. The police arrested him during the movement but let him go after a couple of days. However, this arrest had added fuel to the fire.
Hong Kong Federation of Student’s general secretary, Alex Chow Yong-kang, had also led from the front.
How the Umbrella Revolution Unfolded
The protesters called for the Occupy Central movement. An organization initiated by Benny Tai. As the police took to batons and chemical sprays, ordinary citizens of Hong Kong joined inthe movement. What had started as essentially a student protest had transformed into a city-wide protest by the citizens of Hong Kong.
“We know what we are fighting for. The police, do they know what they are fighting for?” cried a young protester, as the police tried to curb the movement and disperse the crowd around him.
On October 3, 2014, pro-Beijing groups including possible triad members and the business class who had been adversely affected by the student movement assaulted the protesters and tore down their tents and barricades around Kowloon, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. This prompted Leung Chun-ying to issue a warning against the demonstrators to remove blockades.
Rattled by the warning, politicians and university professors urged the protesters to pay heed to their own safety and leave the streets.
Even though the protesters removed the barricades allowing government officials to return to work, they remained camped outside on the streets. Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam refused to hold talks with the pro-democracy protest leaders unless they put an end to the “illegal occupation” of the protesters on the street.
A mere week after that, filmed videos appeared of plainclothes officers beating up a handcuffed protester. He was later identified as a member of the pro-democratic Civic Party, Ken Tsang. Several arrests had been made after this on suspicion of pro-democratic sentiments and activities. Afterwards, several planned talks between the protest leaders and the government did not take place..
End of Umbrella Revolution – Dowsing of the Flames
“Where has my dream city gone?” demanded a poster stuck to traffic sign. Protesters aimed to surround the government headquarters urged by the student leaders of the Occupy Central Movement. However, on 3rd December, 2014, three of the leaders of the Occupy Central Movement turned themselves in to the authorities for “participating in an unauthorized assembly”. This marked the symbolic end of the Umbrella Revolution.
Finally on 11th December, 2014, the last of the protesters and their barricades vanished. The police removed them.
A Possibility of the Phoenix to Rise from the Ashes?
The pro-democracy protesters made an attempt to assemble and rally in Hong Kong on 1st February, 2015. Unfortunately, the modest turnout suggested that the movement had lost its previous spark.
I can say with reasonable certainty that the Umbrella Revolution was not a success. Hong Kong has still not succeeded in getting its way.
The main reason for the failure could be the inability of the movement to rattle the economy and markets. After the heavy stock crash of China in June 2015, it has become even more unlikely that Beijing would want to hand out complete independence to Hong Kong.
However, in my personal opinion, the revolution is not dead. The hostility I heard in my tour guide’s voice gave me ample reason to believe that there may be an uprising just waiting to happen.