By Larry Au.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the pivotal events that catalysed what became known as the Umbrella Movement. Groups in Hong Kong and those overseas have organized forums, exhibitions, protests, and other gatherings to mark the largest and longest period of collective mobilization in the city’s history.
In Hong Kong, the Civil Human Rights Front, an alliance of pro-democracy civil society organizations, led a rally in Admiralty. The Hong Kong University Students’ Union, formerly part of the Federation of Students, put together a discussion panel composed of activists and academics.
Hong Kong Forum, LA, a group of early émigrés and students in Los Angeles, recreated scenes from the occupation site, complete with performances, in a week long exhibition. Similarly, NY4HK, a loose alliance of working professionals in New York, held a photo exhibition and handed out yellow ribbons to passers-by.
But are these events meant to be commemorative or celebratory? The former mode of remembrance tends to see the movement in soberer terms, accepting that it did not accomplish what it set out to do—to bring “true universal suffrage” to Hong Kong.
Meanwhile the latter mode emphasizes the achievements of the movement, in “awakening the next generation” and “reaffirming our core values.” Depending on who you ask, the answer seems to differ on whether we should celebrate or commemorate.
Part of the problem is the fact that historical events look different depending on where we are and when we look back. It is easy to transpose futurist interpretations of what happened and why events transpired onto the past without considering the constraints that those in the past faced.
The students who stormed Civic Square on the night of September 26 certainly could not have foreseen the massive spontaneous but orderly mobilisation that followed. By all accounts of behind the scenes deliberations, the action was concealed from other organizers, namely the organisers of Occupy Central, and from other students and supporters.
All who stepped out onto Harcourt Road two days later on September 28 were acting in ignorance of the future. But it was in this moment of disruption that possibilities of other futures were opened up.
How the movement is seen, thus, depends on the subsequent chains of events that originate from this moment. Right now, that sequence is still under way and we continue to be uncertain of the legacy of the movement.
Another part of the problem stems from the fact that fundamental changes to the social and political structure of any society seldom comes overnight. As Alexis de Tocqueville, writing on the events of 1789 in The Old Régime and the French Revolution, put it, “though [the revolutionaries] had no inkling of this, they took over from the old regime not only most of its customs, conventions, and modes of thought… though nothing was further from their intentions, they used the debris of the old order for building the new.”
The future is often a rearrangement of past elements—not a radical break—with innovation in the margins.
While the students and the leaders of Occupy Central recognised that change would take time, they still hoped at the start of the months-long occupation that they would receive a concession from Beijing and the government.
It is important to remember that at one point, they came close: during the televised talks on October 21, when the students skillfully contested the constitutionality and appropriateness of the August 31 National People’s Council Standing Committee decision, debunking many of the government’s claims. The failure to unite behind a common agenda on the part of protesters negated this gain.
Ultimately, the success of any movement depends on other slow-moving processes that are often beyond the control of any single actor.
The forces acting in concert against the movement were tremendous, including the rigidity of the larger political opportunity structure of greater China, the incoherence of cultural frames of reference to serve as prognostic and motivational tools, and the relative dearth in resources of pro-democracy groups compared to the establishment.
While the commemorative and celebratory nature of these events remains unclear, what is clear is that they provide space for collective reflection. There are aspects of the movement that deserve celebration; yet, there are also other parts that requires us to be more reserved. Recognising these two dimensions of the movement is critical.
Those who choose to dedicate further energy to pro-democracy work, navigating the effects of protest fatigue and protest necessity, should also recognize that what they do everyday are acts of commemoration.
From the post-Umbrella political groups seeking more active grassroots work to the artists seeking to re-interpret the Hong Kong experience, these individuals are informed by their involvement in the movement in laying the groundwork towards a better future for their city.
It will be because of them that someday, our remembrance of this movement will be more clear cut in its celebratory overtones.
Larry Au is a Ph.D. student and Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow at the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.