In Hong Kong, Past Protests Fuel Progress

Following an unprecedented outpouring of two million people on to the streets of Hong Kong, chief executive Carrie Lam has announced the suspension of the planned extradition bill — a document that would allow the Chinese government to extradite individuals to the mainland at their own discretion. As pressure continued to mount, Lam, in uncharacteristic fashion, made a public apology claiming responsibility for her role in the unrest. These developments come just five years after the Umbrella Movement, where the student-led initiative was unsuccessful in its efforts to achieve greater democracy. Whilst the protests continue as many Hong Kong people call for more substantial demands, these minor victories should be acknowledged as major achievements in a place where political progress is famously difficult to achieve.

“I’ve still got much to learn… in listening more to all walks of life and in taking our society forward.” That was the emotional plea of Carrie Lam, whose words marked a surprising moment of progress in the traditionally immovable political environment of Hong Kong. But Lam was not the only one quick to backtrack on the bill following this intense public outcry. Speaking to the South China Morning Post earlier, Beijing-appointed governmental adviser Fanny Law said, “I’m willing [to say sorry] as I really thought at that time 99.9 percent of Hongkongers would not be affected by the bill.”

A few verbal apologies and an agreement to suspend (but not remove) a piece of legislation may seem scant positives in a society demanding wholesale reform, but for Hong Kong it is momentous. Hong Kong is technically still administered under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’, which was introduced under Deng Xiaoping as an agreement that should allow Hong Kongers executive control until 2040. This separation emerged because Britain ruled Hong Kong as a separate colony for a hundred years, a period that culturally isolated it from the rest of mainland China, making a clean exchange from the British back to the Chinese in 1941 not as simple as it would seem.

The success of the protests thus far is due in large part to lessons learnt from the Umbrella Movement. Instead of the charismatic leadership from Joshua Wong and his fellow student activists, these protests lack a central leadership figure. Mobilization and organization therefore isn’t dictated through a megaphone addressing a crowd, but rather via an encrypted messaging app, Telegram. With the assistance of the Civil Human Rights Front, users contact one another to organize ‘one person picnics’ and ‘painting on your own’ as indirect calls to public assembly.

This surreptitious approach is a necessity in Hong Kong, where any gathering of three or more people can be deemed unlawful assembly, a charge that saw the aforementioned Wong spend time behind bars. Additionally impressive supply lines have been organised to disseminate food, water, and even masks and umbrellas, as a means of protection against police tear gas. Planned ‘car crashes’ have assisted protesters to block major roads, which again, was entirely organised online.

As individuals campaigning for greater freedom, these protesters understand that their value is in their virtue. By eschewing a leadership figure and remaining nonviolent, these protests have already yielded more promising results than was achieved in the two-month Umbrella Movement. Ultimately however, the fact remains that Hong Kong is a highly lucrative financial hub and trading port, a reality that solidifies Chinese intentions of ownership. Yet, protests persist in hopes of completely reforming the cities future. Already it’s clear that these democratically minded Hong Kongers have learned a great deal in the five years since they last took to the streets. History informed this progress, but with a history as complicated as Hong Kong’s, the future still remains largely uncertain.

Oliver Lees