“Hong Kong will never be the same again. We are never the same again. The Umbrella Movement has woken us up,” says Jessie Pang, an 18-year-old university student in Hong Kong. Pang lives in Mongkok in the Yau Tsim Mong District in Hong Kong—one of the protest sites—and was a participant of the movement.
“Political discussions were sparse among ordinary people before. But since the movement, whether you support it or not, you’d hear everyone discussing or debating about what happened everywhere and over the dinner table,” she says.
I wouldn’t disagree with her, nor would I think she was exaggerating about the emotional effect the Umbrella Movement had on Hongkongers. No matter which side you take, many believe that the civil disobedience campaign, which lasted for 79 days from September 28 to December 15, 2014, has already changed the city of seven million people.
Since September, there have been a number of top-down changes and actions taken within Hong Kong stemming from the protest movement, including:
- the arrests of students and other protesters, as well as pro-democracy legislative members who participated in the Umbrella Movement;
- the high-profile comment by Beijing advisor Chen Zuoer that the Hong Kong school curriculum should take into account China’s national interest as a way to shake up the students who have been “brainwashed” and “created such a mess during Occupy Central”;
- the Chief Executive announcing in his new Policy Address on education focused on the need to renew the Chinese History curriculum to deepen Hong Kong students’ understanding of China;
- and, finally, the extra funding announced to provide for at least one compulsory mainland exchange program for every student in each of their primary and secondary schoolings.
In looking at these examples, one can only foresee that even more changes will be implemented in Hong Kong in the coming months.
Meanwhile, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (official site) organizers and student leaders have vowed to stage more protests in their ongoing fight for democracy. A group of pan-democratic legislative council members have announced their determination to veto the government’s reform proposal based on China’s decision when the second round of public consultation ends in March. Additionally, another sit-in is expected to take place right after the pro-democracy march on February 1.
So what is next? No one knows. But there are many who choose to remain hopeful, including protesters Jessie Pang, Ti-Anna, and Birdy Chu.
Jessie Pang: University Student
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Pang was one of the university students who witnessed the movement from the very beginning when the class boycotts at universities kicked off in mid-September. The protests that took place in most universities and academic institutions, as well as some secondary schools in Hong Kong, were initiated by student groups and leaders, namely Alex Wong of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Joshua Wong of Scholarism.
The students were the first to protest against the decision over the Hong Kong electoral system, which was announced on August 31 by the People’s Republic of China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC). The decision says that in 2017, Hong Kong citizens may for the first time elect their own leaders, or the chief executive, via universal suffrage under “One Country, Two Systems.” They will only be allowed, however, to choose from two-to-three candidates who will be pre-selected by the Chinese government. The boycotts of this determination ran from September 22 to 26 and eventually led to the early launch of Occupy Central with Peace and Love, organized by university professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming.
While many people may credit the force behind the Umbrella Movement to young people and students of her generation, she has seen support across all ages.
“At every protest sites, I saw not just students, but all age groups, including the young, middle-aged, and the elderly. There were also some mainlanders,” she says.
The day after the infamous 87 rounds of tear gas fired by Hong Kong police at protesters on September 28, which shocked and angered many Hongkongers, Pang went back to the Admiralty site to an emotional scene that she couldn’t bear to see.
“I saw students and protesters lying there resting, their faces all exhausted. My heart sank to the bottom. It was touching and sad. I was so sad.”
“When I saw the Hong Kong police beating up the protesters, I was so angry. I kept saying to myself: 'How could this be happening? How could our government do this to us?’”
The government and some in the general public have criticized the students for being uncompromising and failing to look at the bigger picture. Pang, however, stands by her ideal.
“Not everything can be compromised. What the Chinese government suggested isn’t genuine universal suffrage or up to international standard.”
But Pang is not naïve enough to think that Hong Kong will soon be given the freedom its people want by China.
“I don’t think what we do can actually change the decision of the Chinese government. But we still need to do something and we have to do it now rather than later.”
“My university friend who’s among those taken away by police once said to me: ‘You are what you believe.’ I think he’s right. My friends and I remain hopeful.”
Ti-Anna Wang: Daughter of an Imprisoned Chinese Dissident
Being hopeful is the sentiment upheld by Ti-Anna Wang, another university student across the globe in Canada.
“Just keeping hope alive is not a trivial thing,” says Wang, 25, born and raised in Montreal, Canada.
For the last ten years, Wang has been fighting for the freedom of her father, Wang Bingzhang, a Chinese political prisoner who has been jailed by the Chinese government for promoting democracy.
“This year is the thirteenth year of my father’s imprisonment,” says the law student, who was born in 1989 and named Ti-Anna by her father in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which happened the same year.
The last time Wang visited her father in the prison in Guangdong, China was in 2008. Since then, she has been denied entry into the country to visit him.
“I believe it has to do with my protests against the Chinese government advocating for my father’s release,” she says.
In 2008, Wang took a gap year before university and moved to Washington, D.C. to lobby support from the U.S. government for the release of her father. Apart from lobbying, she continues to do everything she can by writing and speaking in conferences.
At the 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum, Wang spoke of how she was encouraged by the student protest in Hong Kong.
“It’s very hopeful to see this kind of resistance to the Chinese government. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this.”
As for people questioning whether the students protesting against a powerful, non-compromising China is all but a waste of effort, she says: “The point is never about the outcome but the process. Sometimes, you have to do something just because you believe in it.”
“Like in my father’s case, what I’m doing may not result in anything. But I’ll keep doing it because I don’t want his case to be forgotten or his legacy to be meaningless.”
The ongoing journey has made her think a lot about the idea of sacrifice.
“Freedom or democracy doesn’t come for free but at a cost. There is sacrifice for everybody. For me, I have to skip classes and put my personal life on the side from time to time to do things for my dad. It’s not easy sometimes. But still, my sacrifice is nothing compared to my father’s.”
“My father has spent 13 years in prison and he’s serving a life sentence. As long as his sacrifice means something—if it inspires somebody—I’m sure he’d think it’s worth it.”
“As for me, I’ve come to believe that it’s a privilege to be given this mission to advocate my father’s case, as it gives me the chance to stand on the right side of history.”
To the Hong Kong students fighting for democracy, she has these words of encouragement.
“We’re not alone in this. Everybody is working against tremendous odds for their basic rights. We have many allies around the world.”
Birdy Chu: Veteran Photographer
Back in Hong Kong, there are people who continue to pass on the hope and legacy of the Umbrella Movement.
During the Occupy Central period, veteran photographer Birdy Chu spent time at the different sites documenting the movement by taking pictures and videos. His work has become a multimedia art exhibition, which takes place from January 19 till February 11 at the Goethe Institut in Hong Kong.
“I've been documenting Hong Kong social issues and movements for many years, but this huge scale of student movement has redefined the political future of Hong Kong. It is a highly critical and influential movement,” says Chu, who has been taking photographs of Hong Kong demonstrations since June 4, 1989, featuring more than 7,500 protests in the city in his oeuvre.
Chu thinks the current movement has captured a unique characteristic of Hongkongers.
“It showsThe biggest success is the unity of the people, the power of peace, and the creativity demonstrated in achieving justice and universal suffrage.”
“Hong Kong deserves a fair, just society and a city that will always make us proud. We need every one to hold onto this faith,” Chu says.
So, what now? We only know one thing: It’s just the beginning.
Activism, Journalism, Hong Kong, China, Protest