Don't Call Hong Kong's Protests an 'Umbrella Revolution'

How the language of revolt hides demonstrators' true goals

Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Rewind to September 22. I’m at a students’ rally marking the beginning of a five-day class strike at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to protest limits Beijing has imposed on the city’s ability to elect its chief executive. The class strike is being led by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and also at the rally are representatives of another group, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, which last year started discussing a sit-in in Hong Kong’s business district. Occupy Central leader Chan Kin-man tells me he has already set his sights on the post-Occupy democratic movement, and discusses a social-media strategy aimed at achieving universal suffrage. It’s clear that the movement’s long-running battle for democracy will continue well after the dust of Occupy has settled.

The original plan is to host a “democracy banquet”—the codename for a civil-disobedience campaign comprising students and other activists—in Central on October 1. Chan and his fellow organizers expect that more than 10,000 people will stage sit-ins on the roads, their arms linked in solidarity. They also expect that by October 3, police will start breaking up the human chain and send the demonstrators to detention centers. The activists have vowed to face jail rather than resist arrest. The point, says Chan, a sociology professor at Chinese University, is simply to pressure Beijing to fulfill the promise it made after the British handed sovereignty over the city back to the Chinese in 1997—to allow true democracy in Hong Kong.

Fast-forward to today, when the protests appear to be settling into the long-term struggle Chan envisioned. The events that unfolded after those class boycotts have caught everyone by surprise, shocking the city, Communist Party leaders, and the world—as well as the student movement and Occupy organizers themselves.

The initial plan started to fall apart on September 26, when a clash between students and police at the end of their strike triggered a mass protest outside the government’s headquarters, a 10-minute walk from Central. On the morning of September 28, Benny Tai, another Occupy leader, declared that the sit-in at Central would start early.

What happened thereafter was an unscripted pro-democracy movement. But it was anything but an “umbrella revolution,” as the Western media have now dubbed the protests. Most local media outlets, such as the South China Morning Post, have avoided the term, continuing to refer to the protests as “Occupy Central,” the “Occupy Central conflict,” or even the “political reform storm.” When local media have referred to the umbrella—which became the default icon of the Occupy movement internationally after demonstrators used umbrellas as defense against police’s pepper spray—they have referred not to an “umbrella revolution,” but to an “umbrella movement” or “umbrella democracy movement.”

The key leaders and supporters of Occupy have similarly refrained from likening the protests to a revolution. Joshua Wong, leader of Scholarism, a high-school students’ group that has played a key role in the democracy movement, said at an October 4 rally: “We are not seeking revolution. We just want democracy.” Lester Shum, the deputy head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said: “This is not a color revolution”—the term widely applied to movements that led to the overthrow of three governments in the former Soviet Union in the early 2000s. A group of academics has issued a separate statement insisting that the protests are not a revolution.

This attempt to remove the label “revolution” from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests is deliberate, and came after China’s official media gave its early verdict on the demonstrations. In one of a series of editorials carried soon after the Occupy protests began, China’s official People’s Daily warned that “any intention among a small number of people to hold a color revolution on the mainland through Hong Kong would be a daydream,” even while Chen Zuoer, formerly a top official in the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, explicitly called the Occupy Central protests a “Hong Kong version of color revolution.”

Indeed, where the notion of the protests as a revolution has taken hold in Hong Kong itself, it has mostly been in pro-Beijing, pro-establishment circles. For example Cheung Chi-kong, a close advisor to Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive CY Leung, has cited the spread of the protests beyond Central to the busy tourist shopping districts of Mongkok and Causeway as evidence that the movement is verging on revolution. The Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily News said in an editorial: “They demand the downfall of Leung Chun-ying. It is close to an attempt to overthrow the regime. There are already signs of color revolution.”

Beijing has adopted the term “revolution” to paint the protesters as extreme, and Western media in their haste to brand the movement have embraced the same term. But the idea of revolution had never even occurred to many ordinary citizens of Hong Kong. Nor did the protesters have any intention of toppling the government as a whole, or remaking Hong Kong’s relationship with China, when they chanted the slogan “Leung Chun-ying step down.” These calls for his downfall were instead a response to a specific incident, and emerged only after police ordered the use of tear gas to break up a crowd of protesters on September 28. Despite his unpopularity, Leung was not a target of the Occupy movement when it began. Even after the tear-gassing incident, Leung’s office and the government headquarters were not on the list of sites to be blockaded until Leung rejected a list of the students’ demands, including an apology from the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), China’s highest governing power, for limits it placed on direct elections in Hong Kong, and Leung’s resignation.

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Some student leaders have since revised their demands to focus less on Leung’s resignation than on negotiations about political reform. They are aware of the danger of rubbing Beijing’s most sensitive nerve through talk of revolution.

The protest leaders, and Hong Kong’s people more generally, seem resigned to the reality that independence is not a real option for the city. Like it or not, the “one country, two systems” setup—under which Hong Kong’s government is highly autonomous except in defense and foreign relations—is still the best possible option. Importantly, the Basic Law, the post-1997 constitution under which Hong Kong is governed, says that the territory’s chief executive and all members of the legislature should ultimately be elected through universal suffrage. It does not specify a timetable. Citing a host of concerns, uppermost among them national security, Beijing has insisted that candidates clear a high bar to ensure that Hong Kong’s chief executive “loves China, loves Hong Kong,” and will not harm the interests of the nation. Many Hong Kongers are adamant that Beijing’s fears are unfounded, arguing that they are smart enough not to elect a chief executive who would confront the central government. They want a fair electoral system that gives them real choices on the ballot. Freedom of choice, they insist, is an integral part of the values of freewheeling, capitalist Hong Kong—not to mention the law that governs it. Protesters’ demands that the NPCSC withdraw its August 31 ruling on universal suffrage may well look revolutionary from Beijing’s perspective, but the protesters are hardly demanding an overthrow of the city’s political system.

Below the pedestrian bridge connecting Hong Kong’s government headquarters to a transit station, I saw a banner emblazoned with the words “Do you hear the people sing?”—a reference to the theme song of Les Misérables, the musical based on Victor Hugo’s epic about post-revolutionary France. Occupy Central’s organizers have embraced the song and have said they are trying to get Beijing to listen. But Hong Kongers are not the same as the Parisians who fought to seize power from their rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are clamoring for the right to elect their leaders. No more. No less.

The Chinese Communist Party’s leaders seem to view the pro-democracy protests as an act of defiance, if not rebellion. By branding them as a revolt, they are anxious to send a clear warning to Hong Kong’s people: Don’t play with fire. But calling Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement a revolution risks misreading the nature of the protests. Worse, the language of revolution obscures the real democratic aspirations of Hong Kong’s people, prolonging political restlessness in the city and exacerbating the perennial strains in mainland-Hong Kong relations.