In the fall of 2014, protests erupted in Hong Kong against China’s suffocating control over the city. The protests have since subsided without the protestors achieving their main objective, yet the protests were not a complete failure.
Hong Kong’s enduring hunger for a more democratic form of government was exposed to the world on the night of September 28, 2014, marking the beginning of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. For the next 79 days, more than 100,000 people flooded the streets of the busy financial district, holding yellow umbrellas to protect themselves from the police in protest of China’s control over Hong Kong elections. Hong Kong has been under Beijing’s “one country, two systems” rule since 1997, when the United Kingdom handed the city back to the Chinese government. China has always exercised strict control over the city, leaving many Hong Kong citizens with feelings of resentment toward Beijing. The protests, therefore, were mostly driven by distrust of the Chinese government and a desire for an electoral system that would allow Hong Kong citizen’s to choose their city’s next leader in 2017. Due to the tight control Beijing maintains over Hong Kong, the local protesters demanded universal suffrage, a “one person, one vote” system without any interference from Beijing. A year after the protests ended, a debate has now surfaced about their efficacy: Did the protests accomplish their aims?
A year later, the demonstrations fizzled out; most of the protestors have gone back to their jobs and classrooms. The crowds and tents are gone as the activists were evicted last December. Hong Kong’s chief executive is still in office. While the actual act of protesting may be over and no concrete policy reforms emerged, the protests nevertheless had an impact. Hong Kong’s legislature voted in June 2015 on a new election plan that would have allowed the public to elect Hong Kong’s next chief executive from a list of Beijing-approved candidates. The measure did not pass, only winning eight affirmative votes, but the protests certainly made their mark by forcing the Hong Kong lawmakers to consider such a change. The protests may have failed to achieve their main objectives, but they were not a complete failure.
The protests proved to be the “biggest political challenge to Beijing” since the demonstrations that took place in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Hong Kong’s message to Beijing was loud and clear: they would no longer accept the status quo and would refuse to become complacent in the antiquated and unfair system that the mainland projected onto the city. Hong Kong citizens want democracy, and that desire could transform into a stronger will for more political autonomy. Howard Kong, a photographer for the Apple Daily, described the protests as productive: “Each year on 1 July we have a big [pro-democracy] demonstration but after the rally people go home. This time the people confronted the government—it was an historic moment.” His statement indicates that these protests were different—this time Hong Kong’s citizens challenged Beijing, raising more demands and making a greater impact than at any previous time, calling on Beijing for more democratic autonomy. The protests appear to have raised awareness among government officials in Beijing that they may not always have commanding control over the city. As a result, Beijing made a concerted effort to stifle any media coverage commemorating the protests, seeking to minimize the impact of the protests and give the illusion that Beijing was not affected by any of the demonstrations. Yet if Beijing was unconcerned, it would not have banned reports of the protests from the media. Significantly, these demonstrations proved that the Hong Kong people are not afraid to confront Beijing.
Similarly, the protests served as a political awakening for Hong Kong as it showed its citizens have a voice. Alex Chow, a comparative literature student in Hong Kong, noticed that the demonstrations sparked a change in his hometown: “Before the umbrella movement, Hong Kong was a dead city effectively…but after they threw the tear gas you could see the atmosphere changed. People became highly motivated.” These protests serve as a turning point in Hong Kong’s history because ordinary citizens recognize democracy is a realistic dream and Beijing’s tight control over the city need not be permanent. These protests have opened the eyes of some in Hong Kong, proving that they deserve a form of government that allows its own citizens to have the final say in their electoral process, not the strict hand of an authoritarian giant. While Hong Kong still does not have a democratic governmental system, the protests inspired an entire generation, motivating them to fight for their political fate. These protests served as an empowering moment, signifying to the Hong Kong citizens that democratic change in the future is feasible.
Finally, the protests helped create a plan for the future. The former activists are now concentrating on 2047, the year the “one country, two systems” model expires. The protests allowed for a sense of planning and introspection, causing the Hong Kong people to ask what they envision for their futures. The protests, therefore, were a success because it caused Hong Kong citizens to reflect on their democratic future and relationship with Beijing. Knowing that more democracy and autonomy can be achieved, Hong Kong has the ability and willingness to confront the oppressive Chinese government. By compelling the citizens of Hong Kong to look to 2047, the next round of protests can be more organized and effective. The protests pushed Hong Kong’s democratic future in the right direction by compelling its citizens to look forward. When the protesters meet again, they will have a more concrete plan, building upon the progress that was made in last year’s protests which now serve as a blueprint for future action.
Kathleen Taylor is a young foreign policy professional located in the Washington, DC area and serves as a contributing editor for Charged Affairs. She has a BA in International Relations from Roanoke College and a Master’s Degree in political science/comparative politics from American University.
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