How Hong Kong’s umbrella movement folded

Umbrella Revolution supporters are discouraged by their leaders’ role in the movement’s apparent demise.

There has been little indication from protest leaders as to how the movement should develop, writes Convery [Reuters]

Hong Kong police have fired round after round of tear gas into crowds of peaceful demonstrators demanding that the city’s next leadership elections be fully democratic, and arrested a student leader of the protest. That turned what had been a pro-democracy boycott of school and university classes and a picket outside government offices into a mass movement that brought more than 100,000 onto the streets in an occupation that has outlasted the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Two months later, the same police force shot streams of liquefied tear gas into crowds of peaceful demonstrators continuing to demand democratic elections and rearrested the same student leader. Among mainstream supporters of the movement’s goals, that caused barely a ripple by comparison. As police take an increasingly hard line against a much diminished crowd of demonstrators, as protest fatigue becomes overwhelming, and as hopes for political reform wither, many of those who took to the streets at the end of summer are asking themselves just how it has come to this – and just what the movement’s leaders are doing about it.

More anger

It’s not as though the outrage that spurred the “Umbrella Revolution” in the first place has gone away. There is more anger than ever at the imposition of an electoral nomination system in which a Beijing-approved committee will hand-pick candidates for the post of chief executive, and with the political and economic injustices such a system promises to entrench.

Hong Kong protesters clash with police

The latest opinion poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong also shows that almost half of all the city’s residents do not have any trust whatsoever in their government, which has stonewalled all requests by campaigners for a properly democratic system. The government is widely perceived as having sold out the city’s treasured semi-autonomous status to the ever more insistent urgings of the Chinese Communist Party.

Blaming Hong Kong and Beijing officialdom for the current atrophied state of the protest movement is easy. After all, it was the Hong Kong government that refused first to talk to representatives of the democracy movement, and then to convey their desires to the rubber-stamp mainland legislature that drafted the electoral rules they wanted changed – rules under which, come polling day in Hong Kong, only Communist Party loyalists would get a look in.

And it was the government on the mainland that stopped student protest leaders Alex Chow, Nathan Law and Eason Chung from boarding a plane bound for Beijing to take the democracy message to what many Hongkongers regard as a distant imperial capital.

Turning in on itself

What supporters of the Umbrella Revolution will find less easy is looking at the role its leaders have played in its apparent demise. An effective boycott by the relevant interlocutors, in the form of government officials, and for two months the lack of a face-to-face oppressor, in the form of police – who until last week appeared to have learned that gassing protesters was the equivalent of poking a stick into a hornet’s nest – left Hong Kong’s democracy movement to turn in on itself.

Even before the renewed police aggression of recent days, the city’s three formerly buzzing protest sites had become forlorn reminders of the movement’s early promise.

The leadership of the movement, faced with no one to talk to and no one to confront on the streets when they were at the peak of their power, has done precisely that. Even before the renewed police aggression of recent days, the city’s three formerly buzzing protest sites had become forlorn reminders of the movement’s early promise.

Benny Tai, the charismatic law professor who cofounded the original Occupy Central movement, zipped himself into a tent at the main protest camp near the Hong Kong government complex and refused to talk even to his allies for days following the cancellation of talks between officials and student leaders in early October, claiming he “could not come up with solutions to some problems”. He has since returned to teaching.

Others in the front rank of the protests, including university student union leaders Lester Shum and Alex Chow, and Joshua Wong, a teenage firebrand from the vocal school pupils’ democracy group Scholarism, have often appeared paralysed by indecision. When in early November, for instance, a pro-Beijing group won widespread media coverage of a petition opposing the occupation movement that claimed the signatures of almost one in every four Hongkongers – allegedly from individuals that included preschool children, tourists and people paid to sign multiple times – it was more than the democracy camp’s leaders could do even to challenge its rigour.

Occupation crumbles

Even now, as the occupation crumbles amid a crackdown involving a quarter of the city’s entire police force, there has been little indication from protest leaders as to how the movement should develop and how its supporters might continue to work together to achieve their democratic aims.

The remarkable degree of self-organisation by protesters has demonstrated that there is no shortage of support for the democratic cause in Hong Kong. Yet, a lack of direction from the front as police act with an impunity they appeared to have lost in the protest’s early days, is failing a movement that arose with minimal leadership but which, in order to progress towards its goals, demands strong leaders.

For the time being, the task of maintaining the momentum of protest may be left to perhaps the most dedicated supporters of the movement, whose scattered acts of civil disobedience have in recent days provoked ever more determination by the police to crush it. But in the longer term, Hong Kong’s democracy advocates will realise that dedication is nothing without direction, and when they do, the forces ranged against them may well find themselves facing a more muscular protest leadership with bolder plans to advance their cause.

Padraic Convery is an Asia-based journalist who has spent almost a decade working at news organisations in the region.