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One year on from the umbrella protests

by Nickkita Lau

A year ago today, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong surprised the world by saying “no” to the Chinese government – something few countries do these days.

Since then, the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government it controls have succeeded in securing their power, but in terms of inspiring loyalty and support from Hongkongers on an ideological level, they have failed. Instead, Beijing’s refusal to address the demands from young people has pushed them further away from the “motherland” than ever before.

According to a University of Hong Kong poll conducted in June, only five percent of the city’s population aged 18 to 30 considered themselves “Chinese”, while more than 60 percent self-identified as “Hongkongers”, an unrecognised identity that displeases Beijing.

Shortly after the end of the Umbrella Movement last December, a key part of the leadership of the movement, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, began to fall apart as university students across the city voted to break away from the union.

Some interpreted it as a punishment of HKFS for misleading students into participating in the civil disobedience movement. Another explanation is that university students now disapprove of HKFS’s passive tactics. Peaceful sit-ins, rallies and song-singing have failed to bring them the “genuine universal suffrage” that they wanted.

Those who grew up believing protests and demonstrations should be “peaceful, rational and non-violent” have begun to doubt the approach adopted by the movement’s organisers. More are open to the “forceful resistance” approach promoted by the “localists” – a more radical branch of democracy supporters whose anti-parallel goods smuggling campaigns seem to have discouraged Chinese smugglers from coming to Hong Kong posing as tourists.

Hong Kong university students have long been aware and active in local politics, and many politicians jumpstarted their careers as student leaders in university. After the Movement, eyes turned to the city’s eight public universities for fear that the government would encroach on their academic freedom either for vengeance or to prevent another occupy movement. A change of approach has been evident in student-led protests.  

While the government body of Hong Kong Baptist University was selecting its new president in May, students complained that they were left out of the selection process. For the first time, they stormed into a council meeting to demand direct dialogue with the final candidate Professor Roland Chin, resulting in three additional consultation sessions before the university council made its eventual appointment.

The incident inspired University of Hong Kong students, who felt that the government and its loyalists in the governing body were using administrative tactics to get back at pro-democracy academics. The University of Hong Kong is the city’s most prestigious university and widely seen as the Umbrella Movement’s birthplace.

Pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong and China have launched a series of attacks on the university’s Faculty of Law and its academics for provoking students to participate in the unauthorised movement and indulging in politics rather than teaching and researching.

The university council, in an unprecedented move, tried to halt the promotion of former law dean Professor Johannes Chan to vice-president as  university management had recommended.  It is an extension of the movement and another battle between the democracy supporters and the government and its loyalists. Many believe that if Chan gets voted down, pro-democracy academics in other universities will be silenced soon after.

Students barged into a council meeting to ask for the immediate appointment of Chan in July. The public and government reaction was far more critical this time. Some compared the students to the “Red Guards” in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, only that they were manipulated by pro-democracy parties.

The rift between young people and the Hong Kong/Chinese government is getting even wider. The young people have become more resistant to anything that signifies Chinese influence, from the use of simplified Chinese and Putonghua to compulsory exchange programmes to China. Some even rejoiced in the recent Chinese stock market crisis.

It is important to note that Hong Kong young people do not dislike Chinese culture, which is shared by Taiwanese, Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese and people with Chinese descent around the world. What they dislike is the negative connotations that come with being a Chinese national and the ruling party of China.

For more than a century under the non-interventionist British rule, Hong Kong has developed into a city with its own character, its own language system (just ask any Putonghua speaker to read a Hong Kong blog post) and its own quasi-national identity, which are all threats to in the eyes of Beijing.

When Hong Kong youth ask for democracy and universal suffrage, they are not merely asking for the right to choose their own leaders. They are demanding the Chinese government to let them determine their own destiny. To them, the 1997 handover of sovereignty should have ended all colonial rule, not only the British.

They want Hong Kong to be its own entity, perhaps not necessarily as the independent city-state advocated by the localists – but definitely not another colony of China. 

Nickkita Lau is a PhD candidate in Media, Film and Television at the University of Auckland.


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