Skip to main content

A Season of Discontent 不滿的季節

On 28 October, the one-month anniversary of the Umbrella Revolution, tens of thousands of citizens assembled at protest sites on both sides of the harbor. At precisely 5:58 pm, they opened their umbrellas in unison and turned the sea of people into a tsunami of colorful blossoms. The congregation then observed 87 seconds of silence, one for each shot of tear gas fired at protestors on that fateful day. It was “the day that changed everything,” the day by which we would forever divide our history: before and after 9/28.

Yellow umbrellas in full bloom

The student-led movement that put Hong Kong on the world map has a modest beginning. A small group of university students had organized a class boycott to voice their anger over Beijing’s decision to renege on a promise — a political compromise made 10 years ago to allow Hong Kong citizens to democratically elect their chief executive in 2017. The promise wasn’t supposed to have any strings attached or funny business with semantics. Earlier this year, however, in an official announcement that many viewed as a change of heart by Beijing and a death knell for democracy in Hong Kong, the Communist Party made clear that only a nomination committee would decide who could run for the top office in the next election and that the committee would comprise of mostly pro-establishment yes-men as a way to block opposition candidates from the ballot. The announcement smacks of the famous line by Henry Ford when he introduced the Model T in 1909: “Our customers can have any color they want as long as it is black.”

What started as a small-scale student protest quickly spiraled into an all-out revolution, thanks to the use of tear gas and riot gear on 28 September against unarmed protestors who had nothing but raincoats, lab goggles and folding umbrellas to fend for themselves. The heavy-handed police response backfired and drew thousands more to the streets. Suddenly, years of frustration over income inequality, skyrocketing property prices and a Beijing-appointed government that favored vested interests bubbled to the surface and boiled over. By nightfall, highways and city streets were turned into Tahrir Square, and regular citizens became Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi. Hong Kong, the Fragrant Harbor and the Pearl of the Orient, was embroiled in the biggest political event since Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Tahrir Square in Hong Kong

28 September is as much a dividing line in history as it is in society. The Umbrella Revolution, and the daily inconveniences that have come with it, has polarized the city along political lines. The middle class blames protestors for rocking the economic boat and putting the ideology of a few above the livelihood of everyone. In turn, protestors accuse non-supporters of selling out the city’s future for a paycheck. Weeks of bickering and name-calling have driven a wedge between parents and children, husbands and wives, teachers and students, and the Yellow Ribbons (student supporters) and the Blue Ribbons (police sympathizers).

While citizens squabble over the movement’s merit, they can agree on at least one thing: the students’ tenacity and leadership have caught everyone by surprise. Just a month ago, these Millennials were spoiled brats who relied on their maids to make their beds and do their laundry. They couldn’t tell Martin Luther from Martin Luther King, David Cameron from James Cameron. Today, they are distributing medical supplies and building furniture at the protest sites. They are reading Karl Marx and picking up trash in one moment, and dodging pepper spray and pushing back angry thugs in the next. It was as if Peter Pan had grown up overnight to self-organize, self-sustain and self-govern. Their generosity of spirit has made them not only model protestors but also worthy heirs to our city’s future. It takes a heart of stone not to be won over by them.

Worthy heirs to our city's future

If the pint-sized warriors have come out on top on the public opinion battlefield, then the clear loser has to be C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive. Leung’s unpopularity as a Beijing mouthpiece is matched only by the idiocy of his gaffes. On October 21, he told a New York Times reporter that universal suffrage was undesirable because it would allow social policies to skew toward the poor. The Freudian slip was followed by a snarky remark that athletes and religious groups contributed nothing to the economy. Reeling from foot-in-mouth disease and with his approval ratings approaching an impeachment level, Leung has, whether by choice or by Beijing’s order, placed himself under a self-imposed house arrest and delegated to his deputy Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) many of his duties, including negotiating with student leaders for a way to break the impasse.

Another big loser in the political firestorm is the Hong Kong police force. Once revered in the region for their professionalism and restraint, they now see their hard-earned reputation slip through their batons. They have managed to alienate both the Yellow Ribbons by their inaction during the many thug attacks and the Blue Ribbons by their failure to reopen the streets. They squandered their last ounce of public trust when a pack of uniformed officers were caught on camera beating up a protestor in a back alley. As if that weren’t bad enough, a few days after the incriminating video went viral on social media, they were thrown under the bus by their own boss. In a television interview, C.Y. Leung denied any personal involvement in the decision to use tear gas on protestors and said it was the frontline officers who had made the call.

Hong Kong's finest

Still, the biggest loser is probably Beijing itself. Its reaction to the movement has exposed the many cracks in the senior leadership. First, it has become clear that the Communist Party knows pitifully little about how Hong Kong people operate. 17 years after the Handover, Beijing continues to underestimate and misread Hong Kong citizens by assuming that they would be docile enough to swallow a broken promise for the sake of stability, or that protestors would be too squeamish to stay on the streets when a crackdown is threatened. Second, we now know that China is shockingly ill-prepared for a modern, bottom-up political movement. As if they had learned nothing from Egypt and Turkey, the Communists are still trying to fight 21st Century warfare with last century weapons: batons, tear gas and hired thugs. Finally and most remarkably, that the protests were allowed to go on for so long and that there have been many conflicting whispers from Beijing over C.Y. Leung’s political fate has revealed the leadership’s indecision and inconsistencies. Many point to the escalating factional infighting within the politburo since Xi Jinping (習近平) took the throne two years ago.

Excellent PR

With winter fast approaching and both protestors and authorities running out of patience and energy, the million-dollar question lingers: what’s next for the Umbrella Revolution? Will student leaders sit down for more talks with government officials in the coming weeks? Will negotiation achieve anything given Beijing’s tough stance? How is this all going to end if neither side is willing to yield an inch? Therein lies the strength of a post-modern political movement: none of that matters. Success is no longer defined by results, but by social awakening and transformation of the collective consciousness. A new way of life has already coagulated in Hong Kong, and a whole generation of young citizens have woken from their existential slumber. Above all, a new Lion Rock Spirit has taken hold, one that is based on social justice and civic participation instead of hunkering down for trickle-down economic benefits. Draped in bright yellow, Hong Kong has finally come of age and is ready to be taken seriously.

The new Lion Rock Spirit
____________________________

This article appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column “The Urban Confessional.”


As published in MANIFESTO


Popular Posts

Book Review: "Generation HK" 書評:《香港世代》

Unpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.
It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Who is Agnes Chow? 誰是周庭?

It was roughly six months ago when Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, lost his job. He and five other pro-democracy lawmakers had strayed from the prescribed oath during the swearing-in ceremony, and were ousted from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law. Many saw the unseating of six democratically-elected lawmakers, dubbed “Oathgate” in the local press, as a calculated political move to purge the legislature of the opposition.

The time to fill some of these vacated seats is finally upon us. Four by-elections will be held simultaneously on March 11, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and for the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape sector.
Barely old enough to run, 21-year-old Agnes Chow (周庭) of pro-democracy party Demosisto has thrown her hat into the ring hoping to win back Law’s Hong Kong Island seat. Her decision to run has not come without a price: she has deferred …

As You LIKE It 人人讚好

Social media are the greatest invention of the 21st Century, not least because they provide ready fillers for life’s many dull moments. The virtual world is the perfect antidote to our real life drudgery. Bring on the mile-long taxi line, the interminable Monday morning meeting and even the deadly silent treatment from an upset spouse. All we need to do is whip out our phones, drop our heads and, with a flick of the thumb, wade through stream after mind-numbing stream of news feeds and tweets. In the parallel universe of restaurant check-ins, vacation selfies and baby videos, we are the celebrities and we are the groupies. No one wants to admit it, but many of us have started to reorganize our lives based on how the status update would look on our carefully manicured timeline.

It is therefore all the more important to observe proper online decorum and protect our virtual image. The idea that anything goes in Cyberspace, or that a random post is as consequence-free as tossing a bottl…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…