Without Boundaries: the Protests in Hong Kong

I remember my first protest. It was on July 1st, 2003, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover. The issue then was our government’s attempt at passing a ‘national security’ act that could be used to classify normal opposition movements as a ‘threat towards national security’[1]. My parents, who are from Mainland China, took me out that day and told me, ‘we are protesting because if we don’t do it today, we might not able to do it tomorrow’. Despite there being almost 500,000 people, everything was orderly and I remember the police being extremely helpful.

Fast forward to last week, when I watched with horror as our police— an organization I was always proud of— fired 87 tear gas canisters into crowds ‘armed’ with umbrellas and goggles. How did it come to this?

Image courtesy of the author, © 2014
Image courtesy of Vincent Wong, © 2014

One thing is for certain— the protests were about a lot more than just universal suffrage. Ostensibly, the protests evolved from a student movement that merged with the Occupy Central movement, in the wake of the National Peoples’ Congress decision of granting Hong Kong a very ‘specific’ kind of universal suffrage in 2017. The issue of universal suffrage has been on the political agenda of the HK for years, and there were widespread expectations that it would be achieved in 2017[2]. However, the version of universal suffrage proposed by the NPC would only allow candidates that are approved by a ‘broadly representative nominating committee’[3] to stand for election. The HK public feels that such a committee would be populated by a pro-Beijing majority, just like the current election committee, which renders universal suffrage meaningless. These fears are not entirely unfounded, as in the document, the NPC claims that any Chief Executive ‘has to be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong’[4]. While it is understandable that the person should love the country he’s serving, based on prior experience such as the ‘Patriotic Lessons’, the NPC’s understanding of ‘loving one’s country’ probably doesn’t leave much room for policy disagreements. Ultimately, universal suffrage should not only be about the right to vote, but also include the right to be voted for.

While attaining universal suffrage is the main aim of the current protests[5], the level of resentment and broad cross-sectional appeal[6] suggests that there are a lot of issues behind the movement. Indeed, issues such as immigration policy, rising housing prices and government land policies were all raised in social media. The reason why the protest movement is still predominantly about universal suffrage is due to a conscious effort at limiting the demands of the movement, in case it be accused of losing focus.

If universal suffrage precipitated the protests, then the protests precipitated a new form of Hong Kong nationalism. In the past, the majority of Hong Kong people held a negative self-identification—their identity was based on what they were not. Usually the ‘other’ was an image of Mainland Chinese people which was arguably a straw-man. This lack of ‘what we are’ is reflected in the prolific use of the colonial flag in previous protests— being unable to come up with a positive and new identity of who they are, they fell back into the previous self-identification as a British colony.

This protest movement has crystallized a new form of nationalism. Right before the National Day Flag Raising ceremony— arguably the most sensitive period in the protest so far, messages telling people not to raise the colonial flag and not to associate the movement with any pro-independence sentiment were making rounds on social media. Indeed, such symbols are nowhere to be found in the protests, which is a significant development. Instead, banners and social media are focused on the good behavior of protestors, instances of dialogue between people with divergent opinions and the yearning for genuine democracy. These are positive concepts that have crystallized as a result of the protests to form a new form of nationalism. While there is anti-Beijing sentiment, it is no longer the dominant force behind the movement.

Image courtesy of the author, © 2014
Image courtesy of Vincent Wong, © 2014

Looking forward, it is hard to predict what will happen to the movement. The HK government seemed to have adopted the strategy of ‘wait and see’— the Chief Executive has yet to respond directly to the demands of the protestors. However, it seems unlikely that the movement will peter out anytime soon at the time of writing (1/10/14). If anything, the two consecutive days of public holidays will lead to an increase in numbers. The HK government and by association, Beijing, will have to respond sooner or later. Given the linkage between the autonomy of Hong Kong and the autonomy of more sensitive regions of China such as Taiwan/Tibet/Xinjiang, it is highly unlikely that the demands of the protestors would be met in full. On the other hand, it is unlikely that China would opt for a military solution, given the international attention the movement has garnered and the political costs involved. Taking these factors into consideration, leaders of the protest movement should be open to re-negotiations of the NPC decision, provided that the NPC retracts from their previous position. For now, an escalation in the movement has just been declared[7], and protestors are surrounding the Office of the Chief Executive.

Hong Kong people used to have a reputation for only caring about money and being apolitical. The actions of protestors and citizens have proved this assumption wrong[8]. As I see how the identity of HK people have matured through these protests, I have never been more proud to call this place my home.

I’d like to end this article on a more emotive note. The song海闊天空 (Without Boundaries) is sung at almost every single protest in Hong Kong, including my first ever protest in 2003. Even though it was written back in 1993, it still has great emotional value for the people of this city.





Forgive me for indulging myself in freedom
and I’m scared that one day I might fall.
It’s easy to abandon your dreams
but I’m not scared, even if one day we’re the only ones left.

[1] Article 23

[2] Hong Kong’s Chief Executive promised universal suffrage by 2017 in 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23129697

[3] Full Text of NPC Decision http://english.cntv.cn/2014/08/31/ARTI1409473853655477_2.shtml

[4] http://english.cntv.cn/2014/08/31/ARTI1409473853655477_2.shtml

[5] The other being the resignation of Leung Chan Ying, the CE.

[6] Minority groups, Teacher’s Union, The Bar Association and student groups, amongst others, have expressed support for the movement

[7] http://hk.apple.nextmedia.com/realtime/news/20141002/52968712

[8] Clearing and sorting out rubbish for recycling; clearing a path for emergency service vehicles to go through; creating a ‘human barrier’ around anyone suspected of inciting violence; mini-bus drivers volunteering to carry people for free; apologizing for causing traffic inconvenience; organizing lectures in protest areas etc.

[9] http://mojim.com/twy100002x1x1.htm

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