Published on Independent Voices on 15 December 2014.
The moment bailiffs started removing the barricades in Hong Kong’s occupied financial district, the Umbrella Revolution seemingly drew to a final close.
This was not the anticipated ending. When tear gas fogged the sky over Hong Kong in late September, politicians and protesters alike feared a Tiananmen-style crackdown, with the People’s Liberation Army ordering in their tanks. Or when the “counter-revolution” of pro-China gangs attacked and intimidated students, commentators speculated if the movement would be broken up by violence. Neither has happened.
Ironically, the movement was halted by what was its greatest strength – spontaneity. The moment students suddenly broke into the area outside government headquarters, the movement was destined to be defined by it. The willpower of individual protesters survived the infiltration and attacks from police, gangs and counterdemonstrations.
Yet without a unifying figure or strategy, the movement could go only so far. The occupy campaign camp to be perceived as too conservative and ineffective, especially by more radical factions. “[It] needs to be taken to a new level,” Wong Yeung-tat, the leader of Civic Passion, told The New York Times. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable.”
Groups such as Civic Passion are much more openly anti-China. They speak the language of “autonomy” and “deciding our own fate”. They are confrontational and refuse to surrender to the police. And while they are far from representing mainstream public opinions, they have galvanised more clout and sympathy during the past two months than ever before.
This presents Beijing with a bigger problem than the one they feared. Before they vetted political candidates in August, the Chinese government faced a harmless minority of moderates, who espoused upon the ideals of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Now they face far more anti-authoritarian and uncompromising groups, whose ideologies are more akin to Malcolm X than Dr. King.
But the Communist Party is not the only loser. The police force in Hong Kong, long hailed as one of the best in the world (presiding over very low crime rate), are facing its toughest time in terms of citizen-police relations. While it took less than a day to reopen the roads, it will take much longer than that to wash away the horrific images of plainclothes policemen dragging a protester to a corner to beat him up, not to mention police hitting protesters with batons, pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately – all alien to this city of stability.
There is also an unexpected guest on the list of losers. David Cameron was criticised by MPs for being “weak” over China’s ban on MPs to investigate how the protests were being handled. Under the Joint Declaration, Britain is the only guarantor Hong Kong has if China breaks its promise over democratisation and autonomy. Now that the worst case scenario has become reality, however, Downing Street has done next to nothing.
Although the occupations have now concluded, we certainly haven’t seen the last of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Banners and signs saying “We will be back” were left behind by protesters. And when they return, it will be a new generation of youngsters, battle-hardened, uncompromising, and determined to put everything on the line for the sake of their future.
I recently spoke with someone who had stayed on the frontline. I asked them if the movement was too fragile, and what more can be done. “Worry not,” she said. “Hope lies not with us, but with these kids in school uniform. When they grow up, democracy will come to our city.”