The Curious Case of the Umbrella Revolution


Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution was a strange display of people power. The 79-day resistance started with a series of student strikes in protest of Beijing's decision to, in practice, pre-screen candidates running for Hong Kong’s first direct Chief Executive Election. The student movement quickly expanded beyond police control after they fired tear gas against unarmed protestors, and triggered the dispersed protestors to occupy various parts of Hong Kong.

An unprecedented level of international media gathered in Hong Kong to cover the resistance, and called it the “Umbrella Revolution” after protestors used umbrellas to defend themselves against pepper spray. Many observers likened the Umbrella Revolution to Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement earlier in March, where students occupied the legislature and successfully forced the government to halt further trade liberalisation with China.

Nevertheless, in less than three months, the momentum of the Umbrella Revolution all but dissipated. Protestors retreated from their barricades without a single concession from the government beyond vague promises to discuss the matter. Chun-Ying Leung, the unpopular Chief Executive who approved the use of tear gas, has remained in office, and waves of arrests took place after the Umbrella Revolution ended.

While Taiwan’s students could resist Chinese encroachment, Hong Kong has been unable to sustain long-term protests in support of democracy. The failure of the Umbrella Revolution reveals a deeper contradiction in the minds of the Hong Kong people – as much as they wish for democratisation, they accept that Beijing has a say in the matter.

The root of such conflicting sentiments can be traced back to the Tiananmen Movement more than two decades ago. In the late 1980s, Hong Kong was set to return from British colonial rule to the hands of China within a decade. Despite many people started emigrating overseas in fear of Communist rule, leaders of pro-democratic parties continued to place high hopes in the reform and opening up of China, and believed political reforms would take place soon after economic liberalisation.  There was broad consensus among the leaders that Hong Kong should strive for a “democratic handover”.

In April 1989, thousands of students gathered in Tiananmen Square of Beijing to demand the Communist government to address corruption and implement democratic reforms. The Movement inspired the hopes of many Hong Kong people that China will become democratic and approve of Hong Kong’s democratisation after the Handover. The enthusiasm surrounding the Movement in Hong Kong quickly turned into disillusionment after the massacre.

The massacre, and the response to it, exemplifies the conflicted identity of the Hong Kong people. On the one hand, Hong Kong people no longer hold any hopes of a democratic Chinese government; on the other, their earnest involvement in the Movement has innately connected Hong Kong’s democratisation to the eventual democratisation of the Mainland.

In spite of their objections to Beijing’s conduct, Hong Kong people’s emotional attachment to the mainland led them to never question the legitimacy of the Handover which they never consented to, and often succumb to Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong politics. The legitimacy of the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that was not ratified by the people, was taken for granted. Beijing’s imposition of political authority over the rulings of the Hong Kong’s judiciary was protested, but eventually acknowledged by courts. While mass political protests and parliamentary objections have scuttled larger policy changes, they have been less effective in resisting more subtle erosion of Hong Kong’s authority—and they have yet to have any effect on the timetable for universal suffrage.

As leaders of pro-democratic parties position themselves as loyal opposition against a ruthless regime instead of a vanguard party mobilising the oppressed people for broad revolutionary struggle; it is not surprising that even supposedly radical protestors initially conceived the Umbrella Revolution as an occupation movement with “Love and Peace”. The ultimate objective was not to undermine Beijing’s dominance in Hong Kong, but hopefully to bargain for some political concessions. Benny Tai, the proposer of the movement, advised protestors to tie their hands to show that they have no intention to usurp political authorities, and left the occupation after the government offered to send a report detailing the events that happened in the movement to Beijing.

Counter-intuitive moves by leaders of the movement included showing an openness to negotiation by removing barricades. Most leaders quit the occupation by November as they disagreed with the student’s insistence for solid reforms. As the leaders chose to take a backseat instead of staying in the frontlines, the support for the Umbrella Revolution inevitably dwindled and ultimate failure was foreseeable since the students were not able to sustain the movement on their own.

The conflicting identity of Hong Kong people not only serves to explain the unwillingness of the movement to challenge Beijing authority through the Umbrella Revolution, but also highlights the unviability of such a weak stance in defending local interest as tensions between Hong Kong and China intensify over recent years.

Since 2003, Hong Kong has witnessed a massive surge of mainland tourists under the Individual Visit Scheme, where the Chinese government allowed citizens from major cities to travel to Hong Kong on individual basis, instead of through group tours or business visas. Many mainlanders took advantage of the scheme to crash the hospitals of Hong Kong in order to let their new-borns gain the right of abode. Others flocked to scoop up items ranging from powdered milk and diapers for babies to golden bracelets and residential flats for speculation.

The small capacity of Hong Kong was soon overwhelmed by an annual influx of 40 million mainland tourists. As the Hong Kong people struggled to cope with rising prices and shortages of goods blamed on excess demand from China, the unruly behaviours of mainland tourists further fuelled the tensions between Hong Kong and China.

Despite the locals’ intensifying grievances, the Hong Kong government has only taken marginal action to resolve them, and even then only reluctantly. In line with their long-held belief that Hong Kong’s future is inseparable from China’s, leaders of the pro-democratic parties have done little to halt Beijing from tightening its grip over the lives of the Hong Kong people, rather they perceived any political actions against mainland tourists as discriminatory, and called for the people “tolerate” uncivilised behaviour of tourists.

The inability of the leaders to transform the Umbrella Revolution into a struggle against Chinese domination stands in stark contrast with the successful Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. The Movement’s opposition to trade liberalisation with the mainland received territory-wide support as citizens united to defend Taiwan’s identity against Chinese capital and political takeover.  The murky position of Hong Kong’s movement in terms of local and mainland interest not only failed to establish the authority of student leaders among protestors, but also missed the opportunity to launch a broader appeal by connecting with disgruntled citizens to strengthen the base of support and momentum of the movement.

Fortunately, the Hong Kong people are starting to realise that tying their fates with China will only sink any hopes of them standing on their own feet. Many newly formed political groups call for the outright rejection of Beijing’s authority and campaign for the Hong Kong people’s self-determination. They have also taken the resistance to various retail hotspots to challenge the mainlanders who are overrunning Hong Kong, and put political pressure on the government to address the pressing interests of the local people.

Many commentators called the Umbrella Revolution a civic awakening of the Hong Kong people. While the people of Hong Kong step up their struggle for democracy, they also need to realise they are facing the domineering and intractable Beijing government. It is in remembrance of the spirit of the Tiananmen Movement that avoiding direct confrontation against Beijing’s hegemony is destined to fail.