The Umbrella Movement

The main goal of the “Umbrella Movement” was to reinforce the political sovereignty of Hong Kong after China demanded electoral candidates be screened with them before running for Hong Kong elections. The primary participants of the protests were college students from Hong Kong. There was also support abroad with students in Macau, another country with a tenuous relationship with China, also demonstrating their support. From Hong Kong to Macau there were similar protesting tactics employed such as peaceful sit ins that blocked traffic as well as banners that all demanded “True Universal Suffrage”. The most likely reason for the “peaceful protest” would be that prior to the protest the Hong Kong Police were well known for their low levels of corruption and efficiency. With that in a mind the students must have believed that a peaceful protests wouldn’t draw any provocations and they would be allowed to transmit their message. What was unexpected however was how the police did respond which was by firing tear gas into the crowd or by attacking the protesters directly with batons.


To understand the background of the conflict one needs to know the history of Hong Kong and why it is and is not part of China. The briefest summary I can give is that Hong Kong was a colony on Britain during until the 1990’s when Britain was forced to surrender Hong Kong back to China. Under normal circumstances Hong Kong would be assimilated into China however because of international concerns over communism the thought of an even more expansive China created a tense situation. To resolve this China agreed to a system now known as “One China, Two Systems.” which basically means that Hong Kong (And Macau) are allowed to exist with their own government, police, currency, and such so long as all other countries recognize them as politically part of China. This agreement was acceptable for the most part as Hong Kong was practically able to run their country the way they wished and being a former colony of Britain they adopted democracy instead of communism. This changed in 2014 however when China’s “Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” decided that Hong Kong political candidates needed to be approved by the Chinese government first.


Ultimately the Umbrella Movement failed to achieve any immediate political concessions and petered out quietly after just over two months of protesting. This was most likely due to the Hong Kong government changing their tactic from police brutality to quiet indifference. The largest surge in protester numbers always followed after a major incident of violence so a “sit and wait” strategy proved effective in decreasing morale. The movement was also heavily censored by the Chinese government which great debilitated their ability to spread their message. The legacy of the protests is still strong however as in a recent 2016 election the Hong Kong Legislative Council saw some surprising turnovers all of which went to well known political activists that participated in the Umbrella Protests. Ultimately I would say the movement was more effective than anyone expected but could have been better if it were better organized. As Headley points out the success or failure protests hinge on their economic impact and poor organization led to a nominal effect which allowed for the government to take the stalling approach. Still the new political faces and ideas in Hong Kong have definitely made an impact and is a strong statement against overreaching Beijing.
Personally I think grassroots social movements and protests are largely necessary due to a lack of regular democratic participation but can also be necessary to raise invisible issue.  Democratic accountability is structured in such a way that, barring outright corruption, allow for citizens to directly influence the direction of their country. Social movements appear to me as outbursts when the system has failed though not always as a consequence of its own actions. For instance, the protests against Trump are an example of how resistance against a corrupt voting system can hopefully inspire better elections however these protests would have been avoidable if voter turnout had been higher. Instead four million democrats stayed home and are now dealing with the consequence of their inaction. An example of a social movement against a system at fault would be Civil Rights in the 1950’s. Racism was largely an invisible issue before then and tactics employed by MLK brought it to the forefront which in turn changed entirely changed the landscape of America.

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