Is there ‘Hope’ for Democracy in Hong Kong after the Umbrella Movement?


 20 Feb. 2019

By Hong Yu Liu


The Umbrella Movement


The ‘umbrella movement’ was a student-leaded protest for political freedom in Hong Kong, 2014. During the campaign, students occupied several major traffic intersections in Hong Kong Island (Admiralty and Causeway Bay) and Kowloon (Mongkok), to demonstrate against the decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) regarding its proposed reform to the Hong Kong electoral system.


The NPCSC’s electoral plan requires Chief-Executive candidates of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to be nominated by an electoral committee, which is comprised by mainly pro-Beijing figures. Thousands of students and pro-democracy protesters demanded the right to nominate their own Chief Executive and urged CY Leung, the former Chief Executive, to resign.


Over 77 days of occupation, umbrellas were used by protesters to protect themselves from the police’s use of pepper spray to disperse the protesters. These umbrellas became a symbol for the movement. Some refer the protest as the ‘umbrella revolution’ because of the violence involving the police, protesters and third parties[1]. Many protesters have paid a high price for the protest, including physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and criminal charges. While most of the media attention was accorded to political celebrities such as Benny Tai[2]or Joshua Wong[3], this article aims to review the movement from the perspective of ordinary activists, to document their experience, and provide a reflection on this social movement.


The ‘Hopeless’ Political Reality


To collect different voices, the informants depicted here were chosen across the pro-democratic political spectrum in Hong Kong. As they actively took part in the umbrella movement, pseudonyms are used to safeguard their anonymity:

How do you feel about the ‘umbrella movement’ now? 


J: ‘I was passionate about social movement at that time, but not anymore. Many of them (protesters) are not sure about what are they fighting for – is it just against CY Leung’s administration? Or are we seeking for a higher purpose, for a more democratic political reform?’


 Do you feel regrets when you look back? 


J: ‘Not at all. I have to voice out. I thought I can do something for society, for my own city. Even though it [the demonstration] is not working, at least I fought this battle. Hong Kong people, they are too busy, and money is the only thing in their life. Our previous generation, who witnessed the 4th June [1989 Tiananmen Square protests], they know demonstration won’t work. We did it because we are young, we have a dream. Our next generation, as the central government becomes more dominant [in Hong Kong Government’s politics], they have no chance.’


Do you think the umbrella movement is a failure? Who should be responsible?


J: ‘It is both yes and no. It awakes people to care about democracy, but that’s it. Many of them feel hopeless to fight against the Central Government. But that is not their fault, that is nobody’s fault. It is not about determination (of the protestors). This is the political reality.’ 


Julia, 4th-year university student, pro-independence localist

Do you remember the umbrella movement, since it is four, five years ago?


T: ‘I was there, and I witness everything like an observer. I think it is worth doing it [the umbrella movement], but it is a total failure. We achieve nothing in the end.’


Do you think if there is any hope for the democracy in Hong Kong?


T: ‘I can’t say there is no hope. We should always be optimistic, but there is not much we can do. You see [...] Donald Trump is challenging the Chinese regime, maybe there will be some changes in the future.’


Tom, a supporter of Hong Kong city-state autonomy thesis

E: ‘I was a volunteer for the Secretariat of Occupy Central with Love and Peace to support those arrested during the protest. Although I studied social policy, the umbrella movement was the first time I put these concepts [social movement, civil disobedience] into practice.’


How does umbrella movement change your political belief?

E: ‘Now I see it crystal clear. To many Hong Kong people, ‘democracy’ is a term they unfamiliar with. I think many protestors in the umbrella movement don’t understand what universal suffrage is. They were there because they were outraged by the police [using tear gas to students].


Do you think if there is any hope for the democracy in Hong Kong?


E: ‘No. I am quite pessimistic about this. Maybe not even in our life.’


Edward, Assistant to a Lawmaker, member of a pan-democracy camp

After the umbrella movement, do you think if there is any hope for democracy in the future?


M: ‘No. Our chance is zero. […]. Those who say yes have lost their fucking mind.’ 


Michael, journalist, pro-independence localist


Hopeless Activism 


There is a substantial literature that studies the democratisation of Asian countries and how democracy operates in Asia. These studies are mainly political discourses or commentary on statistics, which doubtlessly provide insights into Asian political realities. If the scholarship of politics is to study power and relations, those people who are powerless, or perceive themselves to be powerless, are often marginalized in the discussion. In this article, I aim to bring their voices to the public. 


My primary focus in this article is to highlight the (perceived) political powerlessness of the young democratic activists in Hong Kong, especially those who experienced the umbrella movement. Despite the enormous efforts put into campaigning for civil nomination during the consultation period, including bargaining by occupation, the Government tabled the unrevised proposal to the Legislative Council as demanded by Beijing. Those who care about democracy are disappointed by the Government as well as the leaders of the pan-democracy camp, because the high price paid by students eventually led nowhere. The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are also reflected online. Comments such as ‘let’s wait for apocalypse’ can be easily found on social media when browsing Hong Kong’s local political news.


They are not alone. ‘Hopeless activism’ is a topic emerging in social and political science, in particular about the future of democracy, global inequality and climate change. Indeed, protesters in Hong Kong have good reasons to be pessimistic. How to motive this ‘hopeless generation’ is expected to be the next challenge for politicians in the future.


[1] Several attacks took place during the period, perpetrated mainly by anti-movement activists and suspected triad members.

[2] Associate professor of law at The University of Hong Kong; one of the three leaders initiating the civil disobedience programme‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’

[3] Founder of the Hong Kong student activist group Scholarism