Behind the leaderless revolution
In 2014, the streets of Hong Kong erupted with the nascent Umbrella Revolution. Led by activist Joshua Wong and his student organization Scholarism, the protests consisted of the 79-day peaceful occupation of Central, an important financial and tourist district. [COPY: confirmed] The name of the movement is derived from the use of umbrellas as an adaptive measure for protestors to protect themselves from tear gas deployed by the police. The Umbrella Revolution demonstrated the lengths that the government would go to in order to suppress its people. The Umbrella Revolution protested Hong Kong’s lack of true universal suffrage: a new bill stated that the chief executive was to be elected from a collection of candidates approved by the Chinese Communist Party.
In June 2015, the electoral reform bill was rejected by the legislative council.
Four years later, the Hong Kong government presented another controversial bill: a new law that would allow Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China. The frightening implications that the extradition bill could quash future pro-democracy movements were all too real with the arrest of key pro-democracy activists earlier in the year. The people of Hong Kong joined together in protest, including a record-breaking turnout of 2 million protestors (the region’s total population is 7 million).
The 2019 protests hinge on a common set of five demands:
Full withdrawal of the extradition bill.
A commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality.
Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters.”
Amnesty for arrested protesters.
Dual universal suffrage, meaning for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive.
There is a key difference from the 2014 protests: these new protests are leaderless and, rather than a united movement, seem to be the result of several movements linked together by the same ideology. The protests vary in nature from peaceful and authorized to civil disobedience to vandalism and violence against the police.
In a piece for Quartz, Wong writes, “Instead of rallying behind one leader or leading body, Hong Kong citizens are all working together. In real time, we’re coordinating using online forums, word of mouth and organic, collective action, without the impetus of traditional movement leaders.” [COPY: confirmed]
Much of the collaboration is through Chinese-language websites, but non-Chinese speakers can still view and participate in the movement through bilingual websites like the subreddit r/HongKong on the American social network Reddit. [COPY: confirmed] Boasting a membership of over 230,000 users, the subreddit is frequently updated with photo and video evidence of incidents of police brutality. [COPY: this number has changed to 343,000 since the article was written]
As in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, this year’s protests have been marked with numerous cases of police reacting with increasing force. As a criticism of the police’s response to the protests, numerous groups have called for a “sixth demand”: the disbandment of Hong Kong’s police force. However, there are concerns that the protestors may have more to fear from the mainland government.
Carol Anne Goodwin Jones of the Hong Kong Free Press reports, “The violence in Hong Kong in recent weeks has led to fears that Beijing is gearing up for a crackdown against the protesters. Direct intervention by Chinese forces is permitted under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s ‘mini-constitution’, if Hong Kong declares a state of emergency – which it hasn’t yet done. The garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army stationed in central Hong Kong was recently reinforced and the People’s Armed Police has been seen massing and drilling just over the border in Shenzhen. This lends credence to what the protestors see as a ‘last stand’ to save the city they call home.” [COPY: confirmed]
Already in their 18th consecutive week, the 2019 protests show no sign of stopping. On Oct. 6, 2019, Chief Executive Carrie Lam employed emergency legislation to enact a ban on face masks. The masks have thus far allowed many protestors to remain anonymous. Opposing this law as one that may cause the police to also target the ill and those with respiratory problems, the protestors continue to wear masks to their march. Many now sport signs or alternatives to the usual face mask that reference the ban.
The future of the protests remains uncertain, but Wong believes that no matter the circumstances, the protestors won’t stand down until their demands are met. Wong states, “Hong Kongers will never surrender, because we have nowhere else to turn.” [COPY: Confirmed]