Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and its failure

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Two years ago, a movement started in Hong Kong, initiated by  a group of young students whose energy and determination brought a megalopolis to a standstill from September 2014 to December 2014. Since then, the movement got bogged down in its own indecision and some obvious frustration and hesitation on the proper strategy to follow before Beijing’s heavy-handed response to the movement.

The start of the movement

Originally, the organisers of the “Occupy” movement had planned a rather conventional tactic of civil disobedience, which included peaceful surrender to the Police (in the straight line of Gandhi’s ideals). These more mature organizers (slightly hippy in their ideology) were immediately overtaken by more extreme movements, mainly composed of students who pushed to occupy public space and to confront police forces.

The “heavy-handed” tactics (although many would call them pretty light) of the HK police, drew out a larger crowd in support of the movement across the HK society. This was the origin of the “umbrella movement” name, after students used umbrellas to protect against pepper spray., which ended up occupying central areas of Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok.

The main success was mediatic, where Western mainstream medias published adoring columns on the movement, without any critical reflection on the failings of the movement, its opacity and its fragmentation.

The failure of the movement

The lack of a central leadership and contradictory expectations within the very fragmented leadership of the students brought them to a tactical and strategic standstill, where the occupation became a goal in and by itself, and where other more irrelevant goals, such as homosexual marriage grafted themselves on what was originally a demand for “real universal suffrage”.

This indecision, the refusal of the leaders of the protests to dissociate from more radical members and an extension without end of the protests brought gradually to a fall in public support and even anger at this movement. For the poorest part of the population, the occupy movement was extremely disruptive and even harmful.

In the end, by December 2014, the HK police cleared without too much opposition the last barricades. The student “leaders”, although still cherished by Western medias, face a return to normality that very few appreciated.

The Childish “Oathgate”

In November 2016, for a short while, the “Occupy” embers flared up again, on the occasion of the destitution of two members of the Legislative Council for making some rather Childish jokes around the Oath to uphold the basic law of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong (one of them using some foul language while taking the oath). While on the merits, I could not understand why some people would stand to be members of a parliament if they don’t accept its rules, on the form, this betrayed a lack of strategic intelligence.

Students again took it as an occasion to protest. Violence, this time, was clearly more on the forefront, some students carrying bricks to throw on the police. At the same time, while there was a minority of older hongkongese on the protest, the majority of the population stood quite far away and didn’t come to support the students.

After some short clashes with the police the uproar around the “Oathgate” also dissolved into thin air, and today, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the handover to China, all that is left are the lonely “leaders” trying to do some mediatic stunts by themselves. The most laughable part probably being the dissenting “lawmakers” being obliged to reimburse the salaries they had paid themselves and their staff on LegCo funds. You don’t express civil disobedience and at the same time take the money from what is ultimately in their view, the organ of Beijing.

Hong Kong has instead become much more the focus of the less benevolent attention of Beijing, with an increasing curtailing of public freedom and an ever-present reminder that Hong Kong is part of China.

A changed Hong Kong

Where the students probably failed greatly, was in failing to acknowlede that there is an ethnic Chinese component to being a citizen of HK. A passport of HK is only granted to people who are “Chinese by descent”. That alone should have reminded the students they were Chinese after all.

Similarly, mastery of English in the younger generations has slipped dramatically, and the dominant language at home, at work and in daily life is Cantonese. With these factors, refusing to acknowledge the fact that Hong Kong is not any more the city it was under the British rule is refusing to acknowledge reality.

With more mainland immigration and deeper presence of China here, you can expect the identity of Hong Kong to become gradually more identified to China, all the more as HK medias are being one by one bought by mainland firms. The most striking such acquisition (and the total change of editorial line to becoming a Beijing mouthpiece) happened with the purchase of the South China Morning Post by Jack Ma (Alibaba’s owner) in late 2015 (see his interview here). In these ways, Hong Kong is already part of China, but refuses to acknowledge it.

What stays unique to Hong Kong is probably the exceptionally caring attitude of its residents. I must say that time and again, I keep being surprised with the kindness and helpfulness of Hongkongese people. In that, they are unique and not quite Chinese.

Ayutthaya and its marvels

Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya

One of my preferred cities in Thailand was Ayutthaya. About one hour drive from Bangkok, it exuded history at every angle. Although a very touristy place, it is also a place which contains an extraordinary calm and peacefulness, far from the bustling Bangkok, for example. Contributing to that feeling is probably the numerous ruins that fill the city, the peaceful gardens and the feeling that life is somehow stopped.

One of the subsisting seating Buddhas at Wat Mahathat

The ruins of Ayutthaya

After its destruction by Burmese armies in 1767, and the horrors and destruction committed during that sack, Ayutthaya never recovered its original place of capital of the Siamese empire. A marking memory of the destruction can be found in the rows of beheaded dancers.

 

In Ayutthaya, a memory of the destruction wrought by the Burmese invaders can be found in these rows of beheaded dancers.

You wonder if the peace you find in that city is not also some heritage of its bloody history. Where ruins and walls cannot be silent enough to remind you about the past destruction and sorrow which took place in that city. History is mixed with current day life and at every angle you see a scene that takes you back to the past.

What to do in Ayutthaya?

Nowadays, it is lovely to visit to see the remnants of the architecture of the Siamese XVIIIth century, as well as some traces of the past violence, such as the beheaded dancers. With the short distance from Bangkok, it is perfectly suitable for a day trip. Nevertheless, I should warn you never to ride the elephants. These animals are tortured to serve as tourist amusement tools, and you are definitely not helping them by helping to perpetuate this industry.

Pink elephant
A mahout colors an elephant in pink in Ayutthaya

When you have five minutes and want to relax, you may go and have a coffee at Iudia on the river, the lovely coffee shop and guesthouse facing the ruins of Wat Phutthaisawan.

To get there, you can either take a bus or a boat (with the caveat that transportation in Thailand is absolutely haphazard and roads extremely risky). Train is not recommended for the sheer discomfort and time it takes to get to destination. Self-drive might be safer, provided you can handle the adventurous Thai traffic.

An encounter on the highway

A monk walks on the highway to collect alms as it just rained. Buddhist monks must, as one of their obligations, go every morning to collect alms and food from the people who believe they make “merit” feeding them.

This picture of an encounter on the highway was taken by pure chance, one day, as I was driving towards Hua Hin. It was in the surroundings of the province of Phetchaburi (where there are salt pans, but that is another story).

A flaming dawn

It was between 4 AM and 5 AM, it had just showered, the road was glistening with the water, and behind me, there was dawn showing its flaming colors through the clouds. I was doing around 100 kph. I saw a first monk walking on the highway, but the time  the picture made its way to my  head, I had gone too far away.

Luck was with me however. I saw in the distance a second monk walking on the highway. This time, I slowed down, and as luck would have it, there was a gas station right up ahead. I stopped there, got out, grabbed my gear quickly and rushed to be in position to capture the monk.

Taking the shots

The first shots had no dramatic effect, as the monk was too far away and I used a zoom. Perspectives were compressed, it didn’t give the mood that was right. I let the monk come closer and when he almost filled my visor, I snapped two to three shots. He looked at me and cracked a timid smile. I smiled in return, and despite the fact that neither knew the language of the other, we understood each other. Maybe that’s the best gift of photography. Even when you don’t know the language, photography is a language in itself.

 

Welcome to Visions of Asia, the blog with a free eye and a free mind

Welcome to Visions of Asia.

Seller at a flea market in Bangkok (Thailand)

This blog is in the first place the result of a personal creative pursuit aiming at sharing both photography in Asia, personal reflections on culture (and possibly news) and more particularly the way culture may cross-pollinate themselves with other distant cultures through various processes.

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