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Interview: Unrepentant Umbrella Movement activist Tommy Cheung says people know what was right and wrong

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Although he faced up to seven years in prison when his verdict was handed down on Tuesday, democracy activist Tommy Cheung said his ordeal has been worthwhile for its impact on Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Cheung, 24, was one of the nine people who went on trial last year for kickstarting Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, which blocked major streets for 79 days in a fight for universal suffrage.

In 2017, just a day after career bureaucrat Carrie Lam was selected as Hong Kong’s new leader, the government charged nine of the protest’s leaders for causing and inciting public nuisance.

Tommy Cheung

Tommy Cheung. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Cheung was one of the leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students in 2014 and found himself charged alongside protest’s original founders, Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming.

In an interview with HKFP before the result of the trial came out, Cheung said he was prepared to go to prison, but said the court judgment would not mean anything to the legacy of the movement in people’s minds.

“If you ask me, who should we be responsible to for this movement? We should only be responsible for one person – ourselves. We joined the democratic movement because we believed it was something we should do,” Cheung said.

“The trial was only a process. There was no absolute truth: those who participated in the movement have their own experiences, and they can tell what was right and what was wrong,” he said.

Civil disobedience

Cheung said he and the government had fundamental differences over the definition of civil obedience. Cheung agreed that, in fighting for justice through violating unjust laws, the last step would be admitting guilt – to expose the injustice of the current laws.

umbrella movement occupy trial

Nine leading figures charged for the Umbrella Movement. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

The only reason that he was charged, he said, was that the government did not want to charge Tai, Chan and Chu alone – otherwise, they might appear to be taking political revenge.

Cheung said if he was charged with unlawful assembly, he may have pleaded guilty as a form of civil disobedience – but the charges he received were disproportionate and unreasonable. He could be jailed for seven years for the charges of inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance.

The charges reflected the government’s lack of knowledge over social movements, he said. “[The government thought] protesters must be well-organised, they must have pre-meditation, and that’s the reason why they could make this protest so big. But to anyone who understood the movement, the whole thing was an accident – it was a combination of many coincidences,” he said.

Reconciliation

During the trial, Chan told the court that the three co-founders lost control of the movement, originally envisioned as “Occupy Central With Love and Peace,” after it escalated into a full-blown street occupation. Chan recalled differences between the trio and students over whether to leave the occupied sites, among other issues.

Tommy Cheung

Tommy Cheung (left) at the Occupy movement main stage in 2014. File Photo: Stand News.

But Cheung said it was not up to student leaders to tell protesters to leave especially after the government shot 87 tear gas canisters at protesters on September 28, 2014. It was a far cry from the trio’s original proposal of 10,000 protesters listening to key organisers and sitting down in Central in a purposeful manner.

“We have very different imaginations over what occupy was – those protesters were not someone who would listen to any orders. They were not an army,” he said.

Cheung said many deep ideological differences emerged during the protest movement and paved the path for the split within the pro-democracy camp.

occupyhk occupy umbrella tear gas

Tear gas being fired at protesters during Occupy Central. File photo: P H Yang.

To Cheung, a main issue of the pro-democracy camp was that it was too focused on elections, which the current proportional representation system rewards splintering instead of cooperation. There is also more work to do, for instance, updating the “core values” of Hong Kong that Democrats often used as a slogan.

“The so-called core values were becoming outdated. Democracy, rule of law, freedom, human rights – how many of these values do we actually have? We got nothing,” he said. “We need to find a new Hong Kong value, a common ground,” he said.

“It may be a start for reconciliation – if not reconciliation, then communication, understanding,” he added.

Paving ways for the future

Cheung was preparing for work after he leaves jail. For 30 minutes ahead of the interview with HKFP, Cheung was discussing with a business partner how to import fruit from Taiwan to Hong Kong.

“Doing business can make us understand how people from other backgrounds think. We cannot stay comfortable in our political echo chamber – this is a common problem for politicians,” he said.

Tommy Cheung

Tommy Cheung. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Cheung also planned to study abroad, perhaps in international relations or China studies, to gain first-hand experience of the world.

Cheung said he did not believe democratic movement in Hong Kong will achieve success quickly. It may take years for global support to work.

“If you ask me what was the influence of the 2014 movement – the only important thing in my mind was that the world saw Hong Kong. The world cares about Hong Kong’s democratic development because of this movement,” he said.

“I went to many places in the world… many were impressed. The Occupy movement in Hong Kong was very orderly mannered, no one died in the process – they found it hard to imagine. The occupied area, to them, was a utopia. We can spread the good image of Hong Kong’s democratic movement and seek more global support.”


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Interview: Unrepentant Umbrella Movement activist Tommy Cheung says people know what was right and wrong