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Hong Kong’s Umbrella Protests Were More Than Just a Student Movement

For almost three months in late 2014, what came to be known as the Umbrella Movement amplified Hong Kong’s bitter struggle for the democracy its people were promised when China assumed control of the territory from Britain in 1997. Originally a civil disobedience movement led by Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the pro-democracy movement began on September 28 when protesters blocked roads in the city’s political and business center, after police fired tear gas at participants trying to lay siege to the government complex. As smoke filled the streets, protesters, widely portrayed in the media and described by the government as “youth,” donned goggles and facemasks and opened umbrellas as shields.

Over the next 79 days, several major roads in three different neighborhoods filled with colorful tents and were fortified by makeshift barricades. Sporadic skirmishes broke out, when police and thugs allegedly from organized crime triads moved on protestors who stood their ground, committed to securing the vote they had come to demand. “I want genuine universal suffrage!” protesters shouted.

Fast forward to early June, 2015: The protestors’ efforts have not brought about the one-man, one-vote guarantee they sought, but neither have China’s leaders in Beijing emerged victorious-on June 18, Hong Kong legislators rejected a voting reform package allowing universal suffrage, but only for a slate of candidates pre-selected by Beijing.

To grasp the impasse reached in Hong Kong today, on the 18th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, it is important to understand who the initial protestors really were. People from all walks of life formed the chorus of voices demanding “genuine universal suffrage.” They weren’t just kids from local campuses. A survey we conducted in October proves that the umbrella movement was more than a student movement—it was inclusive and, we believe, has the potential to unite multiple generations and expand again.

Beijing and Hong Kong government attempts to frame the protests as a disruptive and unlawful student movement diverted focus from two key questions: Who were the protesters, actually? And why did they protest when Hong Kong has one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates, among the highest per capita GDPs, and its people benefit from China’s rise?

To answer these questions we surveyed 1,681 people one month into the action, from October 20-26, approaching them in the three Hong Kong neighborhoods they occupied. With the answers we gathered and observations we made, we were able to clarify some basic facts about the protests and explain how the Umbrella Movement, despite its failure to win government concessions, transformed Hong Kong politics forever right under Beijing’s authoritarian nose.

Our data showed us that the Umbrella Movement was indeed youthful—61 percent of participants were under 30 years of age and 85 percent were under 40. Protest participants’ median age was lower than the median age of the city as a whole, proving the youth demographic was key to the movement.

Here it is worth noting a separate University of Hong Kong poll that showed that 18 percent of respondents reported joining in. Had 18 percent of the city’s total population joined in, there would have been a turnout of 1.3 million people. By comparison, consider that the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, joined by 18 percent of that country’s population, nullified the presidential run-off and barred a pro-Kremlin candidate from winning the election. Similarly, the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt both catalyzed regime change with participation rates of 16 and 8 percent of the general population, respectively.

But in Hong Kong, rather than producing compromises or triggering tangible reforms, the authorities’ shunning the protests as an unlawful assembly disrupting people’s lives and eroding the rule of law simply spawned a greater awareness of the depth of the city's governance problems. The government even declared suspicion of “foreign forces” meddling behind the scenes. To further decry the protestors’ calls for democracy, pro-Beijing politicians attributed the movement to widespread discontent among young people over a lack of upward mobility. What went wrong, the politicians said, was not the political system, but the economy.

Among the 15 percent of participants who said they had never before participated in any rallies or demonstrations, the average age was even younger, with 56 percent of respondents stating their age as 24 years or younger. The Hong Kong protesters were a highly-educated lot, with 55 percent reporting having at least a bachelor’s degree—considerably higher than the 21.9 .percent of the overall Hong Kong population aged 15 and above. Although the movement was largely student-led, with youth leaders playing major roles at the start, it did not remain so as it unfolded. In fact, only 26 percent of our respondents were students; the bulk of the protesters, or 58 percent of respondents, were white-collar workers. Moreover, more than three-quarters, or 81 percent, identified themselves as “Hong Kongers,” a far larger share than the 40 percent of the general population identified themselves this way in a University of Hong Kong quarterly poll. Our data showed us that the Umbrella Movement was a highly educated and distinctly local movement. It was led by students, yes, but given broad support by young professionals, all tied together by a strong sense of Hong Kong identity.

Who Occupied Hong Kong?

Age of Occupy Central Participants SurveyedPercentage of Total Surveyed (1,562 respondents)Age of Hong Kong Population*Percentage of Total Hong Kong Population**
<187.5%<2016.2%
18-2429.5%20-246.1%
25-2923.7%25-297.1%
30-3924.1%30-3915.7%
40-496.8%40-4916%
50-646.8%50-6423.8%
>641.7%>6415.1%

* Source: Census and Statistics Department
** 7.62 million, end-2014 estimate

Democracy as the Basis for Social Reforms

Given the tradition of organized and rather contained protest in the city, an action of such scale and intensity was unprecedented. And by most standards, Hong Kong would be an unlikely breeding ground for mass protests. Hong Kong’s 2013 per capita GDP, adjusted for purchasing power parity, stood at $53,366.7, ranking 10th in the world. Its economy grew 3.2 percent in 2013, an enviable figure for any developed economy. The city also boasts one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates, which stood at 3.3 percent as of February 2015. Moreover, as China rises, Hong Kong is set to reap further benefits from its proximity to the mainland and its competitive advantage in tourism, finance, professional services, and its esteemed rule of law, which promises a relatively safe arena for investment and disputes settlement. A mass protest is perhaps the least logical reaction to such a promising outlook and might, to some extent, tarnish the city’s international image and harm its relations with Beijing. Why are the youth willing to risk their city’s own prospects?

The rosy outlook belies a less spoken truth: Hong Kong is no social haven. It has a Gini coefficient—a common measure of income disparity between rich and poor—lying well above 0.5, the level at which sociologists and statisticians sound the alarm for unrest. Hong Kong also has some of the most expensive housing in the world.  Hence, the explanation for the protests favored by the pro-government politicians was that events were fuelled by young people’s frustration over a lack of upward mobility. Young people felt compelled to take to the streets, the argument goes, not to protest for democracy, but rather to highlight that they are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Our survey partially confirmed this, indicating that economic hardship played a part in the unrest. Almost 70 percent of respondents identified themselves as being lower-middle class or lower still. Even among those, nearly 50 percent of our respondents who either owned or rented private apartments (a proxy for middle class status), more than half called themselves members of the lower-middle class or the grassroots. The result was in stark contrast with previous mass protests where the middle class played a dominant role.

But that is only half of the story. Fear of a downward slide might have driven the youth to the streets, but certainly was not convincing enough to explain why the crowd held out for 79 days. When we asked survey respondents to rank the importance of their different motivations for participation in the Occupy protests, it became clear that fighting for “genuine universal suffrage” was their primary motivation, with 96 percent of them saying it was important or most important. Though some protesters said they joined late to show their disapproval of police use of tear gas, they said their anti-police sentiment was not what caused them to keep at it for nearly three months. More revealingly, they said economic matters were the least relevant to why they committed themselves.

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Our survey showed us that even those young protesters stranded in dead-end jobs said they are more interested in a fair political system than in their economic well-being. As we spoke to the protestors, many tended to conceive of democracy as a prerequisite for a better livelihood. Though they were frustrated at the city’s skyrocketing property prices, at limited career prospects, and at a destiny of closer integration with China, they were not looking for subsidies or “sweeteners” from the government.

Larry Wong, a part-time university student who camped on Harcourt Road for most of the 79 days of the movement, told us how he turned politically active in August 2012 in the Anti-National Education Movement, after which time he became a frequent participant in public consultations and hearings. The experience of helping to rebuff the Hong Kong government’s proposal to introduce national education into the school curriculum—seen as an attempt to promote cultural assimilation with the Mainland—affirmed his belief in democracy.

“If there is no genuine democracy, the government will basically ignore us. Consultation is just a waste of time. There is no way ordinary citizens can influence the government,” Wong told us.

Meiling Chan, a 30-year-old social worker, was more worried about how Hong Kong might turn authoritarian under Beijing’s tightening grip. Over the past few years, she said, the Chinese government has been establishing and furnishing social welfare organizations in Hong Kong with abundant resources, turning them into de facto arms of government. “As the saying goes, you don’t bite the hand that feeds,” Chan said, “but we are here to resist that.”

“It’s Just the Beginning”

When police cleared the last protest camp on December 15, it was hard to say what exactly the Umbrella Movement had achieved. And yet there was a strong feeling that Hong Kong had changed forever, because the movement had redefined the way the city’s people participate in politics. Among the Umbrella Movement protesters we surveyed, many occupying the streets said they would be willing to try new strategies for change, even if that meant disrupting everyday life with contentious politics. Fifty-two percent said that they might participate in community development, while 60 percent said they would consider acting in non-cooperative movements. Fewer, some 27 percent, said they were prepared to occupy different targets (e.g. government buildings or major roads) or organize wildcat occupations. Protests might never be the same again. The most recent candlelight vigil at Victoria Park to commemorate the June 4 end of the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in Beijing saw a lower turnout than in the past few years, but its attendance was still significantly higher than pre-2008. In this year’s July 1 protest in Hong Kong on Wednesday, organizers claimed a turnout of only 48,000, the third-lowest turnout since in 2003, when half a million Hong Kong people marched in the streets. But we think it would be a mistake to see the drop in numbers as a sign of growing political apathy. Protesters now demand a more creative and direct protest strategy; they are no longer satisfied with just a march. A number of new civic and professional organizations have sprung up since the Umbrella Movement, focusing on civic education and community development. A more radical form of protest also is emerging, using small-scale mobilization and direct action to impose a greater threat on the authorities.

Those in power, whether they sit in Beijing or in Hong Kong, now face a society that will be increasingly difficult to govern in the same old way. Members of Hong Kong’s younger generations are now asking for what they believe they deserve—not a promising course of socio-economic development, but the right to determine one for themselves. For now, the city might have returned to normal. Traffic is flowing again, business as usual. However, if the government thought that all it took to return everything to normal was a clearing of the streets, history will prove them wrong. A few hours before the police cleared the streets of Admiralty of the last protestors, a large yellow banner bearing the image of an umbrella still hung saying, “It’s just the beginning.”

The Hong Kong Protests in Pictures

  • A pro-democracy protestor stands before a photographer in Hong Kong as thousands of others remain on the streets of the city after a weekend of protests. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
    A pro-democracy protestor stands before a photographer in Hong Kong as thousands of others remain on the streets of the city after a weekend of protests. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
  • Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on September 30. Thousands of pro-democracy supporters have remained in the streets of Hong Kong for days of protests. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on September 30. Thousands of pro-democracy supporters have remained in the streets of Hong Kong for days of protests. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Police fire tear gas on pro-democracy demonstrators near the Hong Kong government headquarters. Parts of central Hong Kong came to a standstill September 28 in a dramatic escalation of protests that have gripped the semi-autonomous Chinese city for days. (Photo by Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)
    Police fire tear gas on pro-democracy demonstrators near the Hong Kong government headquarters. Parts of central Hong Kong came to a standstill September 28 in a dramatic escalation of protests that have gripped the semi-autonomous Chinese city for days. (Photo by Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A pro-democracy demonstrator runs as police fire tear gas on September 28 near government headquarters in the Admiralty District. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    A pro-democracy demonstrator runs as police fire tear gas on September 28 near government headquarters in the Admiralty District. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Police use pepper spray in an attempt to disperse pro-democracy protesters. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
    Police use pepper spray in an attempt to disperse pro-democracy protesters. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Protesters clash with riot police. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
    Protesters clash with riot police. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
  • A demonstrator, suffering from tear gas exposure, is assisted by fellow protestors. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    A demonstrator, suffering from tear gas exposure, is assisted by fellow protestors. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A pro-democracy protester wraps his face with plastic to protect himself against tear gas. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
    A pro-democracy protester wraps his face with plastic to protect himself against tear gas. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A man raises his hands toward a police line outside of the government complex. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
    A man raises his hands toward a police line outside of the government complex. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
  • A pro-democracy protester faces a policeman. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    A pro-democracy protester faces a policeman. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A protester instructs people to move to Chater Road in the Central District. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
    A protester instructs people to move to Chater Road in the Central District. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
  • A pro-democracy demonstrator gestures after police fired tear gas towards protesters. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    A pro-democracy demonstrator gestures after police fired tear gas towards protesters. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Protesters sit on a street during a pro-democracy protest. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
    Protesters sit on a street during a pro-democracy protest. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
  • A pro-Beijing demonstrator holds a Chinese flag and shouts to pro-democracy activists in Tamar Park on September 26. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    A pro-Beijing demonstrator holds a Chinese flag and shouts to pro-democracy activists in Tamar Park on September 26. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Pro-democracy protesters shout slogans during a demonstration at Hong Kong government headquarters. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    Pro-democracy protesters shout slogans during a demonstration at Hong Kong government headquarters. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • An injured protester is tended to after clashing with riot police. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)
    An injured protester is tended to after clashing with riot police. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)
  • Former legislator and founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party Martin Lee, wearing goggles and a mask to protect against pepper spray, talks to the media on September 28. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
    Former legislator and founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party Martin Lee, wearing goggles and a mask to protect against pepper spray, talks to the media on September 28. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A man wearing a facemask and plastic wrap on his sunglasses sleeps at a pro-democracy protest on Nathan Road. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
    A man wearing a facemask and plastic wrap on his sunglasses sleeps at a pro-democracy protest on Nathan Road. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Police officers stand in front of pro-democracy protesters. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
    Police officers stand in front of pro-democracy protesters. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Police fire tear gas. (Photo credit by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
    Police fire tear gas. (Photo credit by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Pro-democracy demonstrators jump a barrier to escape a cloud of tear gas. (Photo by Xaume Olleros /AFP/Getty Images)
    Pro-democracy demonstrators jump a barrier to escape a cloud of tear gas. (Photo by Xaume Olleros /AFP/Getty Images)
  • Police officers stand in a cloud of tear gas. (Photo by Xaume Olleros /AFP/Getty Images)
    Police officers stand in a cloud of tear gas. (Photo by Xaume Olleros /AFP/Getty Images)
  • Pro-democracy protesters run away from tear gas fired by the police. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
    Pro-democracy protesters run away from tear gas fired by the police. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Police walk down a stairwell. (Photo by Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images)
    Police walk down a stairwell. (Photo by Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A protester sits on top of barricades used to block the road. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)
    A protester sits on top of barricades used to block the road. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)