Hong Kong lawyer and author Jason Y. Ng has published the first English chronicle of the pro-democracy mass uprising that rocked Hong Kong in 2014. In Umbrellas in Bloom, Ng, who was born in the city but educated abroad, recounts the small and big moments which made and broke the Umbrella Movement. Speaking to HKFP, Ng reflects on the legacy of the movement, looks ahead to the future and discusses his experience of the recent New Territories East By-election and last year’s District Council Elections.
HKFP: What do you think is the most important legacy of the Umbrella Movement?
Ng: Social awakening: that an entire generation of youth has been awoken from their existential coma. Politics is now on everyone’s mind and lips, and social justice has replaced social status on their priority list. That explains the impressive number of “Umbrella Soldiers” running for office in the district council election last November. It also explains the intense scrutiny to which government policies are now subject, such as the copyright amendment bill and the additional funding request for the high speed rail link.
HKFP: In the preface of “Umbrellas in Bloom”, you said you were heartbroken by the change in people’s attitude from being inspired by the Umbrella Movement to criticising it harshly. It’s true that many have labelled the movement a failure. In your opinion, how should we see it?
Ng: It’s true that the movement failed to achieve the political gains demanded by protesters. But we knew from day one that changing Beijing’s mind would be a long shot. The proper response after the movement ended should have been “All right, we expected that outcome but we gave it our best shot. Now what do we do next?”
I don’t think it is particularly helpful to reduce a hard-fought battle to a single-word verdict of “success” or “failure.” The situation is similar to Hong Kong Indigenous candidate Edward Leung running a honest, respectable election campaign in the recent Legco by-election. If the dark horse (Leung) ultimately loses to the frontrunner (Alvin Yeung), would you call him a “failure” for trying, or would you pat him on the back and say “better luck next time”?
HKFP: Student leader Joshua Wong said he believes another mass uprising grander than the Umbrella Movement will come to Hong Kong. Do you see that happening? What could trigger such an uprising?
Ng: The short answer is “I don’t know.”And I believe that’s a perfectly acceptable answer. The occupy movement managed to catch Beijing off guard precisely because no one knew it would or could happen. The surprise element gave it strength.
As for what would trigger the next uprising, I always compare post-Handover Hong Kong to a house with a gas leak: all it takes for it to blow up is a single spark. In our case, that spark can be anything from Joshua Wong being convicted for his role in the occupy movement and becoming a prisoner of conscience to C.Y. Leung winning the re-election in 2017. With confidence, we can always count on our government to do something spectacularly stupid to provide that spark — like the recent saga surrounding the appointment of the HKU pro-vice-chancellor.
HKFP: What was the most pivotal moment during the 79-day protests, one which could have changed the outcome significantly?
Ng: There were many. One that comes to mind is the talks between government officials and the HKFS student leaders on October 21st. The talks confirmed that negotiation wasn’t going to work and that prolonging the occupation would only aggravate citizens and erode public support. The talks brought the movement to a critical juncture: should protestors bow out voluntarily and gracefully so they could recuperate, reflect and regroup? Or should they escalate the campaign by picketing government offices and/or taking over government buildings? In the end, they chose neither option. Protesters remained on the streets without a plan of attack, which in hindsight wasn’t the most strategic move.
HKFP: Hong Kong just had its first LegCo by-election since the Occupy protests. What was your experience of this, and last November’s district elections?
Ng: With regard to the district election, I was impressed by the voter turnout of 47 percent (the highest on record). At my voting station in Sai Ying Pun, I saw old people with walkers and in wheelchairs; I saw young people, expats, and housewives who brought their kids. I saw democracy in action. If only we could do that in 2017 to elect our chief executive without any pre-screening!
I was also impressed that eight of the 50 Umbrella Soldiers succeeded in defeating their pro-establishment opponents, including several heavyweight incumbents. How’s that for a response to C.Y. Leung who, after the occupy movement had ended, asked voters to “vote them out” (“them” meaning the pro-occupy pan-dems) and to the pro-Beijing newspapers which called on citizens to use their vote to “send the troublemakers packing”?
As for the Legco by-election, I don’t live in New Territories East and so I didn’t get to vote. But I worked my hardest to encourage my friends and readers to get out and vote because the race was so tight. The election bore out one of the predictions I made in my book Umbrellas in Bloom: the rise of localism and the vote split within the opposition. Sure enough, the two opposition candidates, Edward Leung and Alvin Yeung, ended up siphoning votes from each other and almost handed the election to the pro-Beijing camp.
If there is a moral in the by-election story, it is that to counter the ruling elite’s growing impunity, the opposition needs all the help it can get. Instead of the traditional pan-dems and the localist forces constantly ripping into each other and bickering over whose method or approach is the only way forward, they need to find a way to work together. Rather than pointing the gun at each other, point it at their common enemy.
HKFP: What changes, if any, did you see in society and in the political sphere from the recent elections compared to past ones?
Ng: Young people in this so-called Umbrella Generation now realise the enormous power they have if they act together. This realisation, combined with the use of social media to engage the international community, has brought a new force of highly informed and highly motivated stakeholders into the fold. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are forced to pay much more attention to them: the pan-dems need to take them seriously because they are siphoning off pro-democracy votes; and the pro-Beijing camp needs to do the same because it is increasingly being called out by them. The political map has been redrawn.