Thousands of peaceful occupiers were retreating away from the advancing police forces as officers were launching tear gas at the protesting crowds – that was the most memorable scene that I recall from participating in the Hong Kong Democratic Protests, known as the Umbrella Movement, in late September of 2014.
Five months ago, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee voted to change Hong Kong’s method of electing its chief executive, claiming that only candidates that are approved by the nominating committee shall be allowed to run for the elections. It is a decision that thousands of Hong Kong citizens feared ever since the Hong Kong Handover from the British government in 1997. The Chinese officials had made a statement that all running candidates must “love the country and love Hong Kong.”
However, that was not how Hong Kong’s pro-democracy occupiers saw it. Beginning late September, pro-democracy occupiers and thousands of students had occupied major districts of the city to demand full universal suffrage for Hong Kong. Occupiers continued to hold their grounds in the protest sites despite police forces using brutality and harsh strategies to clear different areas of the occupied sites. Umbrellas became the famous protest symbol after occupiers used them to protect themselves from tear gases and pepper sprays.
The most influential and famous student leader known to the world in the protests is an 18-year-old named Joshua Wong, who is a leader of a city-wide high school activism group known as Scholarism. Having him labeled as an “extremist” by the Mainland Chinese media when he was not even old enough to drive during the time of the protest, he is known as one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong. Under Wong’s leadership and its ally Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), Scholarism successfully developed a plan to reform Hong Kong’s electoral system to strive for universal suffrage.
Despite that the Hong Kong protests had ended when police forces finished clearing the last protest site in mid-December, the Hong Kong protests showed success in challenging government. Ever since the handover in 1997, most Hong Kong residents were bonded with a passion to maintain their democratic rights. In the most recent protest for universal suffrage, it is clear that the residents are united and determined to fight for their democratic rights through supporting one another: Taxi drivers would offer student protesters free rides, store owners are willing to provide necessities and food to the occupiers and students built a fully-equipped study station with electricity and furniture for student protesters to study. Even as an immigrant from Hong Kong, these are the scenes that I could never picture before the protests. The whole city unified together to support each other through the protests.
During the calm hours of the protest, residents and occupiers created artistic pieces on the sidelines to express their support for universal suffrage. In a city where residents can post anything on the Internet, occupiers still felt the need to express themselves publicly in paper and ink.
The so-called Umbrella Movement has led to an explosion of public art that turned the protest sites into outdoor art exhibitions. Tiny origami umbrellas, created and folded by financial workers on their lunch breaks, dotted the city’s main protest site at the Admiralty District during the time of the protests.
As the protests have overturned the global notion that Hong Kong residents do not care about politics, the art pieces at the protest sites are changing the image of Hong Kong to many of the occupiers and residents as well. Hong Kong residents’ sense of identity became stronger because of the protests.
As a participant of the protests and a former Hong Kong resident, I am proud to see that the Umbrella Movement was an effort that Hong Kong students, residents and its allies were taking together.
Although the protest has ended for a nearly month, I believe that the lasting effects of the protests will echo for years in the city. The world has witnessed the power of student activism and unity through the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. Students, just like Joshua Wong and us, can have significant impacts on political movements for change if we choose to collaborate and support each other.
Alexander Fung is a third-year business administration major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org