HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

Why I wrote ‘Umbrella’, a 600-page account of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement

When I set out on the project that eventually became Umbrella, my intention was simply to record my own experience of the movement, no more and no less. I’d worked for one of the leading organisations and spent a lot of time at the occupied sites.

But as I wrote, I saw that the Communist Party and Hong Kong government were already propagating a distorted history, and I started to think there was value in putting down in writing what happened, from a pro-democracy perspective, and in analysing why things happened as they did. From there, the book grew and grew — there was so much to tell.

Umbrella book

We live in a country where a vast amount of official discourse is untruthful in one way or another: It dissembles, deceives, obfuscates, omits, and tells outright lies.

Of course the Communist Party is hardly the only regime that lies about history, but the fact that no other versions of history are allowed makes its lies especially insidious.

The double mechanism of censorship and propaganda has always been central to the Party’s objective of retaining absolute power. The mechanism is used to enforce the official version of history under its rule.

That official history is largely false. It whitewashes the Party’s enormous catastrophes going back to 1949- the landlord and Tibetan genocides, the anti-rightist movement, Mao’s Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Massacre, just to mention the most well-known crimes that rival those of other dictatorships of the 20th century, indeed surpass them in terms of the number of deaths caused.

If it were common knowledge among Chinese people that the Communist Party has killed more Chinese than all of the villains of modern Chinese history put together, including the Japanese, it would be harder for the Party to continue to rule.

The lies seep into and become the very fabric of Chinese society, which is psychologically traumatised. And since there is no way to tell the truth freely about the causes of its traumas, which are political, people carry the traumas inside of themselves and are either ignorant of or only vaguely familiar with their roots.

1989 Tiananmen Massacre vigil

The 2017 Tiananmen Massacre vigil in Victoria Park. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

The Chinese are a people who don’t know their history and therefore don’t know themselves.

Because Hong Kong is, at least for now, a part of the People’s Republic of China under Communist dictatorship, we live in a place where telling the political truth is an act of resistance as well as a way of asserting our identity as Hong Kong people.

Umbrella seeks to tell the truth and resist historical lies. Since the Umbrella Movement, the Communist Party has redoubled its efforts to control and mainlandise Hong Kong, and this has had a negative effect not least of all on freedom of expression.

Truth-telling serves the purpose of holding the powerful accountable. There has been no accountability in Hong Kong for the denial of genuine universal suffrage. In its absence, accurate history can help to keep alive the prospect that one day justice will come.

Virtually every factual assertion in Umbrella is substantiated by other sources — journalists, NGOs, official government statements. With over 700 footnotes, the book became a project in documentation. There’s still much to be told.

occupy mong kok

The Occupy protest site in Mong Kok. Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

In the coming years, probably much new information will emerge and revise, enhance and supplement the story. Many other people will tell their stories. What went on behind the scenes within the Party, the Hong Kong government and the police is largely a black hole. Still, while my interpretations and analyses are disputable, the facts of the tale aren’t. They can’t be whitewashed by the regime.

Hong Kong people were disappointed if not surprised that the world’s great states failed to support their demand for genuine suffrage. We were, after all, only insisting that the Communist Party comply with international law and HK’s own Basic Law.

But even though Western governments were tepid in their response, we still thought that ordinary people elsewhere in the world would understand what was happening and support us.

Many did, but not long after the movement ended, I had an eye-opening exchange with an excellent foreign correspondent. His beat was Hong Kong, and he worked for one of the most prominent news outlets in the world. In commenting on the suffrage struggle, he said in effect, “Well, it’s hard to say. Both sides have good arguments.”

I thought, No, they don’t, only one does, and if a person like this journalist thinks that, then we’re not doing a good enough job getting our message out. The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has a very compelling argument. Morality, justice, and international and Hong Kong law are on our side.

We have to do a better job of telling our story. Up to the Umbrella Movement, the pro-democracy movement was too isolated. The kind of globe-trotting promotion of the cause that Joshua Wong has been doing ever since is very necessary, and I hope Umbrella can buttress such efforts.

Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow

Occupy activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. File photo: In-Media.

People in the pro-democracy movement can give it to interested people elsewhere and say: If you want to know what’s going on in Hong Kong, read this. The struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is one of the most crucial global issues of this century. It will determine the direction of the world in the decades to come. Hong Kong is on the front line of that struggle. It’s a place people elsewhere should know about.

The book situates the Umbrella Movement within the history of Hong Kong’s decades-long struggle for genuine suffrage. That means not only telling about the past but focusing on the legacy of the movement, including the many political developments resulting from it, and the outlook for the future.

When a spectacle like the Umbrella Movement erupts — and this goes for most nonviolent people power revolutions —  it is so compelling that it tends to be regarded out of context rather than seen as part of a long-term process.

I roll my eyes when I see media conventional wisdom and even movement participants say: “It failed to achieve its objective.” Not only is that analysis simplistic to the point of inaccuracy but it adopts a very narrow frame.

Why not say instead the Communist Party failed to achieve its objective (the enactment of fake suffrage), and that therefore the Umbrella Movement is arguably the only force since the Party came to power that has fought it to a draw?

Why not put the focus on the fact that the Party has failed now for 20 years to live up to one of its most basic promises at the time of the handover? Why not say the movement was a significant advance in Hong Kong’s decades-long struggle for democracy and self-determination, awakening the conscience of the Hong Kong people and the attention of the world and bringing the struggle to a new phase, the point where the Party has indisputably and perhaps irrevocably lost the hearts and minds of the people of Hong Kong and actually risks losing control of it altogether one day?

lennon wall occupy

Photo: HKFP.

Umbrella also seeks to contribute to a better understanding of nonviolent political movements. It assesses the Umbrella Movement, analysing what worked, what didn’t, and why, and it sets this analysis in a global context.

In recent years, the literature on nonviolent resistance and revolution has been quite upbeat, focusing on success stories and how nonviolent uprisings are much more effective than violent ones. It is largely influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire and events occurring in its aftermath.

But in the past decade and a half, there have been many significant movements which did not achieve their primary objectives, from the 2003 global protests against the invasion of Iraq to the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, just to name a few.

Insofar as Hong Kong was not granted genuine suffrage, the Umbrella Movement fits that pattern, and while each of these movements has its own contexts and characteristics, the study of the Umbrella Movement can contribute to a re-evaluation of various aspects of nonviolent struggle and perhaps help to find more effective approaches in the future.

Lastly, Umbrella pays homage to the amazing people of Hong Kong who have fought so long and so hard for their basic political rights, including the right to universal suffrage and the right of self-determination.

When you live in a society day in and day out, perhaps especially an oppressed society, it can be very easy to become pessimistic. That’s the case in Hong Kong today — pessimism prevails.

admiralty police occupy clearance 2014 protest

Police clearance of the Admiralty Occupy camp, on December 11, 2014. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

To some extent, it’s justified, but we should also recall that over these last years, many ordinary Hong Kong people have resisted the worst tendencies in themselves and their society — political apathy and passivity, a certain kind of cynical “pragmatism”, resignation, defeatism and selfishness — as well as attempts by the regime to deny, restrict and infringe their rights. Time and again, they’ve stood up.

That’s heroic and should be recognized and celebrated as such, perhaps more than it is, by Hong Kong people themselves as much as by anyone else. Going back to 2003, literally millions of Hong Kong people (out of a population of 7.2 million) have stood up for their rights.

How many other societies in the world have fought so hard for their political rights as Hong Kong has over the same period? Quite a few, but then again, not so many. The Umbrella Movement had a democratic, egalitarian, communitarian, creative, generous spirit and a vision for Hong Kong that is almost diametrically opposed to the authoritarian, elitist, rigged, unjust, unequal and ultimately brutally violent vision of the Communist Party and Hong Kong government.

That Umbrella Movement vision is both a gift and tool: It should be cherished, developed and advanced, so that one day it will be realised.

Thanks to the generosity of the author, Hong Kong residents can receive a hard copy in the post if you make a HK$200 minimum donation to Hong Kong Free Press.

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Why I wrote 'Umbrella', a 600-page account of Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement