Searching for Identity: Context and Legacy of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement


Image Credit: Public Domain

Written by: Dr Malte Philipp Kaeding

The 2014 Umbrella Movement is a watershed in Hong Kong’s political and societal evolution. It marks both an end as well as a beginning of developments that fundamentally transformed the city. The significance of the Umbrella Movement lies in providing new and unexpected answers to fundamental questions of identity: what is Hong Kong, and what does it mean to be a Hong Konger?

Identity is a central question for societies in the Chinese periphery, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Indeed, the significance of national and local identity for Taiwan’s democratisation has been long established. Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, a few months prior to the Umbrella Movement, highlighted that questioning a consensus on identity could inspire significant civil society reactions. The Sunflower Movement and the Taiwanese success in building a unique identity vis-à-vis China inspired young Hong Kongers politicised in the Umbrella Movement.

This article outlines Hong Kong’s journey towards the Umbrella Movement and beyond. Hong Kong’s current situation is a far cry from the positive atmosphere of the early days of the Umbrella Movement. Yet the Taiwanese experience of resistance against authoritarianism, diaspora activism, international advocacy and cultural resilience are important sources of hope and inspiration.

With the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the issue appeared settled, and Hong Kong became part of the PRC. The surrender of the local population never consulted about any agreements determining their future, and the international community was achieved through an assurance of no change for five decades. Hong Kong would continue separate political and economic systems, guaranteed a high degree of autonomy, and the Basic Law included the promise for universal suffrage. The principle “Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong” also suggested that Hong Kongers would have more say in local politics. It emboldened those who wanted to preserve Hong Kong’s uniqueness to fight for more political participation. The key to safeguarding Hong Kong’s identity was thus achieving universal suffrage.

A decade of protests

In the following years, Hong Kong witnessed three waves of social movements in which the preservation of local identity was linked to new protest forms and demands for political participation and universal suffrage. The decade of protests began with a mass rally against the passing of a national security bill which raised fears over freedoms of expression and civil liberties, core elements of Hong Kong’s identity. On 1 July 2003, approximately five hundred thousand people peacefully marched and demanded the abandoning of the bill. The unprecedented large turn-out startled the political establishment, and the government shelved the bill indefinitely.

Peaceful mass-protest subsequently became the standard repertoire of social movements. New creative protest forms which utilised space in different ways, including sit-ins and artistic expressions were introduced in the mid and late 2000s by a new generation of activists. The so-called post-80s generation was concerned with the dominance of property developers and infrastructure projects in Hong Kong’s economic model at the expense of local culture and heritage. The movements emphasised tangible elements of Hong Kong’s identity and highlighted the erasure of common memories. Although the government did not stop the large-scale (re)development project, the renewed interest in Hong Kong heritage had a lasting influence on the Hong Kong identity.

The third wave of social movements, beginning with the so-called anti-national education protests in 2012, focused increasingly on China. Organised by students born in the 1990s, the protests linked fears for Hong Kong’s unique identity with concerns about the growing influence of the PRC and combined creative as well as mass protests forms. The government withdrew the introduction of the national education course as protests endangered the prospects of pro-establishment parties in the legislative elections. The fears over integration with mainland China were also reflective of the everyday experiences of many Hong Kongers. Unprecedented levels of Chinese mass tourism and the proliferation of parallel trading dominated their everyday experiences. Hence, protecting local identities and interests under the banner of Hong Kong localism became popular.

A movement like no other

At the end of the decade of protests, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, and academics Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, pondered how it could be ensured that upcoming reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system in 2016/17 would be the long-awaited path towards genuine universal suffrage. With a decision by the central government expected in 2014, and just a year after the successful anti-national education protests, they conceived the idea of a civil disobedience campaign entitled Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). The carefully planned OCLP was envisioned as a measured and temporary occupation of strategic sites in Hong Kong’s business district. Yet when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress published its decision, it was widely interpreted as including a pre-screening mechanism for Chief Executive election candidates, not in line with real universal suffrage. University students and key figures of the anti-national education protests launched a class boycott and protest gatherings. When the police reacted using pepper spray and arrested many activists, the OCLP leadership announced the commencement of the occupation movement. The protest turned into the Umbrella Movement after police made unprecedented use of tear gas, which motivated tens of thousands to join the protests. The occupation occurred at three sites: Admiralty and Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island and Mong Kok in Kowloon, and lasted for up to 79 days.

The Umbrella Movement marks the culmination of the fight for universal suffrage. Although the protesters did not achieve their goal and protest sites were ultimately cleared, the movement introduced novel forms of political participation and protest, including direct actions, and it also socialised and politicised an entire generation. The occupation sites offered new opportunities for communication and community building, creating a new sense of space and locality. The realisation that a different Hong Kong could be possible was empowering. The Admiralty and Mong Kok occupation sites experimented and experienced different meanings of what Hong Kong is and what it means to be a Hong Konger. Despite the socio-demographic variations, and differences in perspectives on leadership, forms and aims of the movement, they were united in the hope to alter the status quo and create a better Hong Kong, resulting in a significant strengthening of the Hong Kong identity.

The Umbrella Movement gained significant international media attention with live reports from occupation sites focusing on the creative and peaceful atmosphere. It also rekindled academic interest in Hong Kong. Hong Kong academics and Western sinologists who built their careers on researching China became interested in the territory and many contributed to the rapid institutionalisation of the new emerging research field of Hong Kong Studies. The movement is a culmination of waves of protests since 1997, and so-called Umbrella soldiers, leaders, and participants of the movement, would shape Hong Kong politics in the coming years. The Umbrella Movement also marks the end of the hope that negotiations with the central government will grant genuine Hong Kong universal suffrage. This realisation contributed to the dramatic growth of localism after the end of the Umbrella Movement. Localism, protecting and defending Hong Kong identity and alternative ways of envisioning relations with mainland China, became the mainstream view among the young generation. Localists were inspired by the actions of the Taiwanese during the Sunflower Movement and “provided hope” to Hong Kong activists.

Beyond the Umbrella Movement

Localism reached its high point in 2016, beginning with civil unrest during the lunar new year in Mong Kok after police and localist protestors clashed over a crackdown on unlicensed street hawkers in the area. Although the so-called fishball revolution was declared a riot by authorities, localists gained territory-wide recognition and emerged as the third political force. As authorities launched a hard-line crackdown on localists, concerns over Chinese interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, through, for example, the Basic Law interpretations, grew. Localists were imprisoned, barred from running in elections, legislators were disqualified, and a political party was banned. This atmosphere, fear for Hong Kong’s unique identity and society, transformed mass protests against an amendment to the fugitive bill into the 2019-20 Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, the largest protests in Hong Kong’s history. Universal suffrage became a key demand for the first time since the Umbrella Movement, and localism and its tactics finally became mainstream. Lessons learned from the Umbrella Movement ensured extraordinary unity between radical and peaceful protestors, and the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement gained a level of mainstream support earlier movements could only dream of. Yet the intensity of suppression was also unmatched. Extreme scenes of police brutality became normalised during the protests. Thousands were imprisoned or waiting for their court dates, and many more were forced into exile or hiding. The 2020 and 2024 national security laws ensure that open opposition in Hong Kong is nearly impossible and international links forged since the Umbrella Movement are cut.

Currently, the question of what Hong Kong is and what it means to be a Hong Konger is more difficult to answer than ever. With more and more Hong Kongers joining the diaspora, the lessons of the Umbrella Movement that inspired the movement five years later are crucial. The spirit of ten years ago might provide some guidance: community and solidarity, creativity, and equality. Taiwan’s history of social movements shows that resilience and persistence bring hope.

Dr Malte Philipp Kaeding is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Surrey. He is the Director of the Hong Kong Studies Hub and a co-founder and co-convenor of the Hong Kong Studies Association.