If you were to look at a picture of Hong Kong’s Civic Square in 2014, you would find a peculiar sight: a square filed with men, women, and even children, holding up brightly colored umbrellas of all sizes. These umbrellas weren’t for artistic or symbolic display. Rather, they were utilized for resistance: to block police pepper spray attacks from reaching the eyes of over 100,000 protesters for over 79 days of protests. The umbrella protest, nicknamed the Umbrella Movement, occurred over 4 years ago in Hong Kong.
However, its legacy in the city-state, which is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, has had long-lasting effects domestically and regionally. The Umbrella Movement spurred numerous other movements and was the catalyst for a massive overhaul in the small Chinese estuary. With the protest leaders of this movement scheduled to go on trial this month, it is evident that more trouble is on the horizon for the Hong Kong government.
How Did We Get Here?
With all this said, it is important to consider the question: what sparked the 2014 Hong Kong Protests? Primarily led by students from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the protests centered around proposed electoral reform, which many students and Hong Kong citizens viewed as an overreach of the Chinese Communist Party’s control of Hong Kong elections.
The 2014 Umbrella Revolution was not a singular occurrence; it was cited as the reason for a plethora of other protests which stretched well into 2017. For example, the Mong Kok Riots of 2016, which involved the worst outbreak of rioting since the 1960s, have been famously linked to the 2014 Umbrella Revolution.
This is because the 2014 protests helped create a new political vacuum of anti-establishment discontent, with a number of anti-government groups forming at the same time as approval ratings of Leung Chun-Ying, the former Chief Executive of Hong Kong plummeted. As the Mong Kok Riots focused on street vendor discontent with a crackdown in government policies, similar to those witnessed in post-2014 riots, it is evident that the spirit of the Umbrella Movement did not die with the riots themselves.
With a population of just under 8 million, Hong Kong is a relatively small power on the global stage. However, despite its small size, Hong Kong’s geopolitical significance cannot be understated. A former British protectorate in 1984, Hong Kong was legally signed back to Chinese control under the Sino-British joint declaration. But because of the long legacy of British domination, China granted Hong Kong a semi-autonomous government, which implemented an uncharacteristically capitalist economy — the 10th largest trading entity in the world. This unique economic and political structure makes Hong Kong an invaluable commodity for China as a capitalist enclave, and as an opening to the world of trading and investment for the People’s Republic.
Understanding the strategic value of Hong Kong, the Chinese government responded swiftly to protests, and is still involved today in Hong Kong’s transitional justice efforts. Since 2014, the Chinese government has held a shorter leash on Hong Kong, releasing numerous statements disparaging democratic protesters and furthering physical integration of China and Hong Kong by building of high speed transit.
Similarly, the Chinese government has cracked down on free speech, with the expulsion of a foreign journalist, Victor Mallet in 2018, the first journalist to face expulsion since 1997. Additionally, Beijing has put ‘intense pressure’ on Hong Kong officials to prosecute and “make and example of” protest leaders.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Simply put it, Hong Kong is a vital organ for the economic success of China, and Beijing knows it. The same can be said for Western powers opposing Chinese protectionism of the city-state. For example, United States Senator Marco Rubio tried to nominate the heads of the 2014 protests for a Nobel Peace Prize, a concerted effort to shame the Chinese government for pressuring the Hong Kong judiciary.
The United States made this connection clear through a State Department statement released last week reading, “the United States supports the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, and pursues cooperation with Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China, in keeping with the US-Hong Kong Policy Act.” Similarly, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong expressed concern that the restriction of press freedom has damaged the territory’s competitiveness as a financial epicentre, a sentiment driven less by humanitarian concerns and more-so by American prosperity in the region.
This support of a two system principle is integral for the United States, which hosts a $22.7 billion industry in Hong Kong that includes over 1000 US firms operating in the city as gateway to Eastern Asia. This support, however, relates back to the fact that ‘Umbrella Revolution leaders’ were acting as agents of the West, to “mislead society,” as claimed by Chinese Deputy Secretary General Li Fei.
Much to American dismay, Hong Kong has begun to succumb to Chinese pressure to repress their domestic population. For example, security at pro-independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei’s trial was noted to be at an “unprecedented high,” upsetting many because journalists and live streams, traditionally present at these events, were barred from the court.
Many have chalked this up to the Hong Kong government wanting to keep these trials quiet by insulating public complaints. This outrage has been noted by presiding Justice Wong, who stated to jury members that “this [case] may have touches of political colours and background.” Wong acknowledged that jurors “may have certain political views or impressions [of the incident],” yet urged them to look at the evidence of the case, and not act on their emotions.
While legally it is important for the jury to act impartially, emotions still run strong for many Hong Kong citizens. Benny Tai, another pro-democracy leader on trial for his involvement in the Occupy Central movement, performed a stirring speech, stating that “what is on trial is not just the nine of us [protest leaders]. What is on trial also is the high degree of autonomy and the rule of law that all Hong Kong people are entitled to.” Tai was met with the cheers of over 100 supporters wielding umbrellas in front of the West Kowloon courthouse.
The bulk of these court decisions have yet to be decided, with all nine protest leaders pleading innocence to a myriad of charges that culminate in roughly 7 years of jail time if found guilty. To many, it may seem that these court decisions represent an end of an era, a final rest to the riots of the past. But to many others, it is the continuance of a long struggle for democracy in Hong Kong.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Feature image by Katie Brinn, published online by Studio Incendo. Via Flickr Creative Commons.