The Unsettled Legacy of the Umbrella Movement

Ming-sho Ho is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University. He recently promoted his latest book Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven:Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Temple University Press, 2019) at SOAS’s Taiwan Studies Centre and the Centre for Asia Studies at Trinity College Dublin. In his blog, for Hong Kong Insight, Ho highlights some of the book’s key arguments and reflects on the political situation in Hong Kong since it was published.

On April 8, nine leading participants of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, a massive occupy protest that lasted for 79 days in 2014 to demand the genuine suffrage for the territory’s top leadership, were found guilty. Their charges included conspiracy to commit public nuisance and incitement to commit public nuisance.

The nine defendants come from different parts of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement, ranging from 75-year-old Chu Yiu-ming, a Baptist priest and human rights veteran to 25-year-old Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, a former student leader. While Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chun are sitting members of the Legislative Council, whose political status is thought to be at risk with the verdict, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man are college professors, who initiated the Occupy Central with Love and Peace in 2013 in partnership with Reverend Chu.

Image Credit: Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution by Studio Incendo/Flickr, licence CC BY 2.0 

In retrospect, this is not the first time that Umbrella participants were sent to jail. In August 2017, an appellate court decision revised the previously lenient verdicts for three youthful leaders, Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law. The “Fishball Revolution”, a post-Umbrella disturbance in the lunar New Year in 2016, was also severely punished. Even though the overnight conflict involved zero death, participants were sentenced up to seven years in prison, and Edward Leung Tin-kei, a charismatic student leader, received a six-year sentencing in June 2018.

In addition, Beijing urged the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to further constrain the exercising of political rights. Prior to the 2016 Legislative Council elections, up to six citizens were barred from participating. Afterwards, a Beijing-initiated legal interpretation made political use of the technicalities, regarding the swearing-in ceremony, so that six elected council members were eventually deprived of their status. In 2018, a would-be candidate from Demosisto, a new party led by Joshua Wong, was prohibited from joining a by-election, which signified that Wong’s youthful comrades were practically deprived of their political rights by an administrative directive. The Hong Kong National Party, a pro-independence organization, was ordered to be disbanded.

Indeed, the progressive narrowing of the political space meant a more unfriendly environment for Hong Kong’s prodemocracy forces, which were forced into a defensive position. In my recently published book, Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven, I analyzed the divergent outcomes of two large-scale incidents of civil disobedience. Even though the two movements inspired a stream of post-occupy protests and youthful political participation, Hong Kong’s political opposition became more fractured with entrance of political aspirants and at the same time faced increasing repression, whereas Taiwan’s activists facilitated the peaceful regime in 2016 and elevated the New Power Party, a post-Sunflower new political party, into the third largest party in the legislature.

The different post-occupy trajectories largely have to do with Beijing’s understanding of the two incidents. From the very beginning, Hong Kong government leaders embraced a conspiracy-theory understanding by characterizing the Umbrella Movement as an incident of foreign instigation. Beijing apparently held onto this view and decided to take a hostile attitude in handling its demands. By contrast, Taiwan’s then ruling party, the Kuomintang, maintained the Sunflower Movement was a behind-the-scene manipulation by the Democratic Progressive Party, and there was evidence Beijing seemed to accept this interpretation initially, but later came to the recognition that the massive protest reflected a genuine grievance. As such, Beijing did not evince hostile criticisms against the Sunflower Movement, but instead, offered more economic benefits particularly targeting young Taiwanese. More recently, the Chinese government adopted an antagonistic policy towards the Democratic Progressive Party government by suspending official channels, stripping Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, and the sending of warships and fighter jets in the vicinity but it also took care to frame these measures as a response only to government incumbents, not to the people.

Is the Umbrella Movement a failure? There are major setbacks in the domestic front, but the dramatic outbreak of a peaceful resistance has won sympathy across the globe. After the incident, major nations in the democratic West have become more vocally concerned about Hong Kong’s human rights conditions. It remains to be seen how Hongkongers can sustain their campaign against the spell of political headwind. If there is going to be another round of confrontation, on a similar scale, Hongkongers’ new international allies are sure to be a critical asset.