The birth of a new generation under tear gas: the umbrella movement in Hong Kong

Issue: 144

Vincent Sung

The Umbrella Movement, which involves every walk of life in Hong Kong, is entirely different from Hong Kong’s previous mass protests in the past few decades. This is due to its unprecedented methods of struggle, massive disruption of public order, its peacefulness and its spontaneity. The political issue was its triggering point, but there are profound social and economical tensions underlying the movement.


Universal suffrage in the elections to parliament (the Legislative Council, LegCo) and Chief Executive has continually been the main agenda of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong since the handover to China in 1997.

The Basic Law, which is called the mini-constitution of Hong Kong, states that Hong Kong’s head of government, the Chief Executive, will eventually be elected through universal suffrage. Yet the Beijing government has been dilatory in dealing with the promise of its implementation.

In May 2013, a pro-democracy alliance, Occupy Central, led by jurisprudent Benny Tai, sociologist Chan Kin-man and pastor Zhu Yao Ming, officially set off their plan to fight for the direct election of the Chief Executive in 2017, threatening to organise an occupation of Hong Kong’s central area (the business and financial centre) to paralyse it if necessary.

One of Occupy Central’s programmes was a civil referendum (mock plebiscite) to let the people choose from three proposals for how the Chief Executive Election should be run. Nearly 800,000 people took part by voting online or in designated polling stations. Civil Nomination, which means that citizens have the right to nominate Chief Executive candidates, gained the most votes.


In August 2014, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ruled that voters will only have a choice from a list of two or three candidates after screening by a Nominating Committee, which will be formed of the present Election Committee (which is now responsible for “electing” the Chief Executive).

This Election Committee is made up of 1,200 people who are primarily pro-Beijing capitalists, politicians and others with vested interests. The present Chief Executive, CY Leung, was “elected” by this undemocratic coterie in 2012. His personal character is that of an unequivocal pro-Beijing hardliner. He is also widely regarded as an underground member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

On 22 September, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS, which is formed by the student unions of eight tertiary institutions) called for a five-day student strike. Scholarism (an activist group of secondary school students whose symbolic leader is 18 year old Joshua Wong) also echoed the call for secondary school students to join in.

On 26 September, they launched a demonstration to occupy Civic Square, which is next to the Central Government HQ, after CY Leung and high government officials had failed to address their demands. The police started to crack down on their protest and arrested two HKFS representatives and Scholarism’s Joshua Wong. But, more and more people went to the square in support of the protesting students.

It was not until then that the trio of Occupy Central leaders announced that the occupation had kicked off, a few days earlier than their original plan because of the push of the mass action. Unexpectedly, they were greeted with boos from some protesters on site, as protesters had come out to demand that the police release the three student representatives.

The police used pepper spray and ultimately tear gas to disperse the rally. However, the police brutality against peaceful students ignited a blaze of anger which has escalated into a full-scale mass movement. Thousands of people came out to support the students but the roads to Civic Square were cordoned off by the police. Protesters were stuck in nearby Admiralty, blockading the roads and setting up barricades spontaneously. The protests also spread to Mong Kok in Kowloon.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU, an independent trade union federation belonging to the pan-democracy camp) called for a general strike on 29 September but the effect has been limited.

The Dynamics of the Movement

In general, the Hong Kong media refers to the movement as Occupy Central (OC), which was a campaign initiated a year ago by the above-mentioned trio of political figures. However, although HKFS and Scholarism have also joined the alliance of OC, they have organised their own campaign independently. Young students are chiefly the dynamic force of this movement, and they are quite aware of keeping distant from the three leaders of the OC and from other pan-democrats.

Hence this movement is more than what the local media has called the OC movement as perceived by its leaders from the very beginning, which was a strategy of strictly centralised protest organised from top down.

On the contrary, the students’ protest erupted rapidly into a mass movement after the police used tear gas canisters. It is a kind of civil disobedience. Importantly it differs from Hong Kong’s previous big protests in its spontaneity, decentralisation and methods of struggle. The protesters show an exceptionally strong autonomy in the struggle.

The movement has been dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by the foreign media. Obviously, it is not a revolution. The symbol of the umbrella was a beautiful coincidence. Originally, the protesters brought along the umbrellas as protection against the rain and sun, but they could also be used as protection from the pepper spray by the police. Protesters have also used other makeshift equipment such as eye-protection glasses and clingfilm, etc.

Though it is a spontaneous mass action, protesters have shown self-discipline in the occupied sites; picking up litter, cleaning the streets and collecting rubbish for waste sorting. Many small forums have been held, with every participant having an equal opportunity to express their views. Furthermore, there has been an appeal to all protesters to show their patronage to local small shops in order to seek their support, especially in Mong Kok, which is an inner-city district where ordinary people are more likely to live.

Common people have been touched by the students’ spirit of self-sacrifice for Hong Kong’s future and have unceasingly donated water, food and different kinds of supplies to them. They protected the students when some mafia members or pro-Beijing minions (who, it has been reasonably inferred, might have been hired by pro-CY Leung influences) assaulted the protesters, even sexually harassing some women, and destroyed barricades, stalls and tents. It was shocking that the police did not stop this violence and merely stood idly by.

Social tensions

According to a UN report in 2008-9, Hong Kong has had the highest disparity in income between rich and poor of the economically advanced regions over the past decade. A report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute in 2010-11 showed that 1.2 percent of the population holds 53 percent of social wealth in Hong Kong. Most of them are property tycoons and financial oligarchs. Hong Kong’s government has seldom taken effective measures to alleviate the problems of social polarisation.

Half of the members in the LegCo are elected from so called “functional constituencies”, consisting of sectors of business, rather than by universal suffrage. Generally speaking, these LegCo members have always been vehemently opposed to universal suffrage. They also often veto any bills that protect labour rights or common people’s likelihoods. Instead, they will put forward or adopt bills on privatisation of public services or for the interests of consortiums.

“Developer hegemony” is an acute social problem in Hong Kong. The giant developers’ oligarchy, which monopolises the property market, has led to high property prices and rent. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2013 the housing prices in Hong Kong rose 9.5 percent –the second highest increase in the world. So nowadays it is almost impossible for a young couple to purchase a small apartment. Another villain causing insane housing prices is manic speculation in property, which is mostly due to the influx of mainland capital.

This developers’ oligarchy has not only dominated the property market, but has also conquered the daily lives of common people for profit, and affected transportation, telecommunications, household goods, etc. The quality of life for the working class has been deteriorating because flat wages cannot offset the high inflation rate. Small shop tenants have been expelled from community districts due to soaring rents in favour of supermarket chains, fast food restaurants and the like.

In March 2012, the 40-day dockers’ strike, the biggest strike in Hong Kong in the past few decades, was called by the Union of Hong Kong Dockers (an affiliate of HKCTU) for a wage increase and improved working conditions. Striking dockers were working for subsidiary companies of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd, which belongs to the business kingdom of Hong Kong’s and Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing (who is also a culpable symbol of developer hegemony). This strike won huge support from ordinary people, especially including solidarity action by young people.

The side effects of the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS), which allows residents of mainland China to visit Hong Kong more freely, has led to a conflict between local Hongkongers and Mainlanders with different social customs. Mainlanders have bought a large quantity of household goods such as infant formula causing inconvenience to local people, so, in early 2013, the government restricted the amount visitors can export. This IVS deformed tourism has been causing a curious paradox such that jewellery shops outnumber bakery shops in some districts.

Local rightists, who mainly claim to defend local culture and lifestyle, have been emerging over the past few years and have stirred up hatred between local Hongkongers and Mainlanders. They offensively call Mainlanders “locusts” and attack leftists as well. Some of the more extreme rightists even advocate independence or, ridiculously, the return of British colonial rule. They have attracted quite a few young people, who are very disappointed in the government, to their camps.


The leading force of the movement is young people; most of them are from the post-90s generation. Besides the foregoing discussion of spontaneity and alienation from the pan-democrat leadership, they are more militant and dare to challenge unreasonable controls on demonstrations by the police authorities.

This kind of youth militancy can be approximately traced to the 2010 “anti-high-speed rail movement” (to oppose a high-speed rail link between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, which would damage the environment in the interests of the developers’ oligarchy), when protesters blockaded the LegCo building preventing those members who seconded the bill from leaving.

Given that no concessions will be made by CY Leung’s regime (for instance, the withdrawal of the electoral reform decision by the NPCSC or his resignation), the movement confronts the question “What next?” Furious debates are emerging inside the movement about whether to retreat in order to avoid another (potentially bloody) crackdown. Another debate is about a retreat from Mong Kok, an area where the mafia triads are very active, in order to concentrate protesters in Admiralty, near the government HQ.

As the protesters have a strong sense of autonomy, they oppose setting up any rostrums and forming pickets for fear of outsiders hijacking this movement in some occupied districts. Unfortunately, local rightists can take advantage of this “hijackphobia” and put out leaflets to smear left wing activists, with slogans such as “beware of leftist idiots”.

There is a group of left wing activists called Left 21. Their members have been trying very hard to engage in this movement on an individual basis amid this detrimental atmosphere. In small forums and group discussions, they have been putting forward the idea that democracy should be linked to labour rights and livelihood.


To sum up, this movement has its social and economic dimensions. The significance is that the young people are going to revolt against social injustices such as developer hegemony, social inequality and rampant mainland capital (they think all these problems come from an undemocratic system). Otherwise, they cannot see their future in such a society.

Nevertheless, the mere spontaneity of the movement is absolutely not enough to advance it. Strategy and organisation should be taken into consideration when the protesters face a strong state apparatus (with the CCP behind it), and it is indispensable to seek support from the working class. In the meantime, the local right wing are, as always, playing Hongkongers and Mainlanders off against each other in the occupied sites, while the pro-Beijing media’s cliché labels this movement as having “interference of foreign influences”.

The CCP is presumably glad to see this movement degrading into a xenophobic campaign against Mainlanders. So, it is necessary for the local left wing to combat this tendency and unite with the Mainland Chinese in support of the movement.

The movement provides a valuable experience for common people by liberating them from “law-abiding” baggage and giving them opportunities for political enlightenment in numerous forums and meetings. No matter the final result, these determined, clever and peaceful young people with their fighting spirit have won support from the majority of Hong Kong people. This will ensure that there will be a formidable resistance force to Hong Kong’s ruling class (pro-Beijing capitalists and oligarchs) and the CCP in the future.