The inexorable descent to hell of the “Umbrella Movement”

Yesterday, the leaders of the 2014 movement called “Occupy HK” or also the “Umbrella Movement” went down yet another rung into what seems to be an inexorable descent to hell.

Old man protesting at oathgate
The “Oathgate” protests of November 2016.

After wonderfully squandering a unique leverage and negotiation position afforded by 3 months of continuous occupation of the streets of Hong Kong, the “Umbrella movement” faced, in the subsequent years, a determined push by Beijing to terrorize any independence wannabes.

The Legal Case

Originally, you have the “historic leaders” of the Occupy movement spearheaded by such figures as the law professor Benny Tai and then you have the “kids” who took over, such as Joshua Wong and the rag-tag group of students who ensured the occupation. The criminal case decided upon yesterday focused on those historic leaders, whom the judge convicted of “public nuisance”.

On a strictly legal standpoint, the case is probably justified as the initial movement launched by those activists has brought the city to a standstill for three months with little to show for this movement in terms of result. What Hongkongers do not exactly realize is that generally, the right to protest is always strictly kept under control, especially in democracies. Blocking a whole city was something exceptional, to the measure of the stakes at hand.

There is no doubt that the leaders convicted did encourage the public to occupy the streets in an attempt to pressure the HK government. As such, from a strictly legal standpoint, the judge stood little leeway when deciding on their outcome. Nevertheless, looking at the legal case is only looking at half of the issue.

The political undertones

It is widely known that after the huge alarm set out by the “Occupy” movement in 2014, and its ignominous ending in failure, Beijing set out to mete out a special brand of punishment on everyone involved from close or far with the movement. Lawmakers were disqualified (to be honest after making a disgrace of themselves), the “kids” were sent to prison or shut out of any professional career in Hong Kong, and the HK government has set out to enforce more diligently the heavy hand of China on the city.

But all of this could be expected. The unrealistic goals, the childish and immature manner in which the “Occupy” leaders behaved when trying to fix their goals, or even when they got elected to the LegCo, the legislative assembly of Hong Kong, ended up harming their public image.

Oathgate protests
The oathgate protests in November 2017

Over the three months of the protests, and later over the past five years, public support dwindled particularly among youth. Those who were at the forefront of the movement in 2014, learned that they should live the Chinese way, meaning just try to make money, and hold no ideals or hopes.

In a way, the Umbrella Movement was given an extraordinary chance to change the political destiny of a city. But because the “kids” of the Umbrella Movement were naive and because they seriously underestimated Xi Jinping’s China, they just ended taking the movement down all the rungs of Chinese hell. Although it has become mainly a mouthpiece of Beijing, the SCMP published one editorial which truly reflects the feelings of most of the population.

A discredited movement

To add to the discredit of the Occupy leaders, the antics of some people such as Howard Lam who invented some “torture” by Chinese agents (he later admitted self-inflicting injuries), ended up precipitating the movement into irrelevance.

Nowadays, the only persons who believe democrats still hold any relevance in Hong Kong are the Western journalists who played a great role in the international echo of the photogenic movement. The majority of the population moved on and probably even hates the democrats for failing to make good on their promises.

A perfect sign of this was in the public present at the court to support the leaders of the Occupy movement: only middle aged people were present. The youth that was at the heart of the Occupy movement in 2014 did not even bother showing up.

This was already true in 2014, but time has proved this even more: China won the political battle and is about to win the battle of minds. All Hong Kong’s youth has left is either the pursuit of money or the pursuit of leaving Hong Kong.

Hong Kong: the “kids” get their comeuppance at local by-elections

It was a conclusion written in advance, but Joshua Wong and his friends refused to believe it until the end. The “kids” got their comeuppance at the Hong Kong local by-elections. As a reminder, these by-elections were called after the disqualification of several Wong sympathizers for improperly taking their oath at the Legislative Council (the “LegCo”).

History of a failure

In September 2016, two years after the umbrella movement, the pro-democrat kids who had been the “leaders” of a headless movement decided to launch themselves into politics. Surfing on the wave of discontent that arose from the Umbrella movement, the protest leaders turned apprentice politicians field very young candidates, hence grabbing six seats at the LegCo.

Hailed as a challenge to Beijing, the election thrust the inexperienced kids into a dangerous limelight, where they confused politics in an elected assembly with the gimmicks that won them support for their “Occupy” movement. It is thus, that each one of them launched into an incomprehensible mix of protest and of theatrics at their oath-taking ceremony. Yau Wai-Ching, the baby-faced girl inserted an obscene interjection in her oath, while she and her fellow protester cum politican, Sixtus Leung wrapped themselves in flags saying “Hong Kong is not China”.

Not unsurprisingly, both were disqualified from their functions and barred from either retaking the oath (as they pathethically suggested) or from even running for the election again. Probably the most funny part was that they complained having to refund the LegCo for their salaries (which they had already all spent).

The “Oathgate” protests

Oathgate protests
The oathgate protests in November 2017

This triggered a short-lived protest, but once the emotions fell down, people started realizing that their apprentice politicans had actually let them down.

The incoherence of the group of kids further discredited them, when they first offered to retake the oath, then complained about having to refund their salaries.

In fact, if they wanted to just use their election to stage a political stunt and walk away from the LegCo, they should have prepared to do so. Instead, it seemed that the kids totally misjudged their opponents’ readiness to pounce on their mistakes. It seems they genuinely thought they could have remained as LegCo members, despite making their oath a farce. Even in a normal democracy, not one held in a stranglehold like Hong Kong, I highly doubt they could have carried out this stunt and remained in the parliament.

A legal battle lost in advance

In the meantime, Beijing issued a ruling on the interpretation of Hong Kong basic law, stating that individuals who did not take the oath with the required solemnity could not be a LegCo member, nor be allowed to retake an oath. Even without this ruling, their case was already well doomed, and they lost every instance of their legal fight.

At the same time, the Hong Kong government appealed a lenient sentence pronounced against Joshuah Wong and his comrades for their occupation of the “civic square”. Speaking in strictly legal terms, the sentence and the motivation did seem sound. Where the kids, again, lost credibility was in their whining after being sentenced to prison for “civil disobedience”. Real civil disobedience makes of prison terms one of the tools with which to fight an unjust law, but the kids thought they would get away with just some symbolic sentencing. The shock was total when the Court of Appeal reversed the sentence and ordered them to prison. Despite international clamoring by medias, Hong Kong people just saw kids who got caught by the consequences of their own game. The improvement of the future of hongkongese was not in the cards.

The last fight

Fast forward to 2018, and the kids try a last comeback with some protests on the occasion of the visit of Xi Jinping. But it is there where their isolation is cruelly noticed. Besides Wong and his comrades, the public did not join them. Where the fears by the Hong Kong government and the Chinese authorities were that the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China would be marked by protests, these fears were unfounded; nobody was willing to sacrifice their future for the illusions of a few fools.

Nevertheless, the sentencing of Wong and co to prison terms caused a major uproar, with up to 200,000 people descending in the streets of Hong Kong for the last show of support to the kids.

Protesters march
A long queue of protesters march towards Central Hong Kong on Sunday, 20 August.

Despite this last show of support, Wong and his co-accused ended in prison. After this last protest, the indecision and the hesitations on strategy by the headless “leaders” once again doomed the movement. Despite this, they tried again to rally for the next fight, trying to conserve the seats they had won at the byelections.

A calvary

From the start, their attempt to run again for the election appeared to be a calvary. Initially, the candidates of “Demosisto” the fledgeling party of Wong (in particular Agnes Chow), were disqualified because of their avowed position in favour of self-determination. Demosisto then revised its charter in  another ill-timed and stupid decision. Now, not only did they appear to be unwilling to stand by their principles, but on top of it, they failed to read the determination of the Hong Kong authority in stopping the childishness.

In the end, in an election marked by a low turnout, whereas the kids tried to make it a “referendum” about the Oathgate, the candidates supported by the kids lost two circumscriptions, barely maintaining a hold on the two others. The most marking defeat was probably the loss of Kowloon-West, a circumscription historically held by the pan-democrats. While ascribing the failure to a lack of “canvassing”, Edward Yiu Chung-yim the candidate in that circumscription also took full responsibility for the failure.

 

In a way, the end of the calvary was predictable. Those who tied their fate to that of the kids got also badly burned, leaving the city now firmly into Beijing’s hands. Other incidents such as the fake aggression invented by a pan-democrat politician, Howard Lam, also discredited the whole movement. Today, the Hongkongers just want to see their living conditions improve. The appointment of Carrie Lam, a less polarizing figure at the head of the government also helped to appease minds and hearts. Where Wong and co. failed was that they thought the Umbrella Movement was theirs to own. It was actually their parents and elders who descended then, to say that they did not want to see violence against their kids – and in no way to support either independence claims or even other weird propositions which the kids incorporated in their claims such as homosexual marriage. If anything, the mixup of social activism along with political demands definitely doomed the movement.

 

Howard Lam’s fake aggression or the endless descent of democracy activists into oblivion

After a big mediatic scandal fulled by Western mainstream media (prompt to repeat any allegations without any ounce of critical sense), it seems the police finally confounded the Hong Kong Democrat representative Howard Lam.

Self-inflicted injuries

In fact, it would appear that Howard Lam self-inflicted those injuries and invented the whole story for unclear motives. The repercussion was enormous both for the Democrat party which had supported Lam, as well as activists such as Joshua Wong.

As a consequence, the pro-democracy movement took a serious slap to their own arguments on Beijing’s ruthlessness, just two days before the main leaders (among which Joshua Wong) were jailed for invading civic square in 2014.

Discredited once more

Three years after the “occupy movement”, both the democracy movement and its leaders foundered in their typical combination of hastiness and indecision.

Somehow, the Lam fiasco foreshadowed the final curtain call on the “Occupy” activists which took place today.

With today’s jail sentence, Joshua Wong and his pals are assured to be kept away from any election for at least five years. So much for plans to influence the future of the city. But if the Hongkongese even had any distant hope of seeing the young students become leaders, these hopes were dashed after several of the young LegCo members kicked themselves out by making a circus out of their swearing in (the “Oathgate“).

So, today, Wong and his pals can complain all they want of being shut out of politics by Beijing, for starters, they never proved that they were capable of leading anything else than anarchists in an utopic “occupation”. Politics is the art of the possible and there is a reason why old cynics succeed better at it than young idealists.

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.