22 October 2019
Tents sit on main roads near the Central Government Offices (left) in Admiralty before the police operation that eventually cleared the protest camp last week. Photo: Bloomberg
Tents sit on main roads near the Central Government Offices (left) in Admiralty before the police operation that eventually cleared the protest camp last week. Photo: Bloomberg

Umbrella Movement: Who are the winners and losers?

Following the police clearing operations in the remaining protest sites in Admiralty and Causeway Bay, mainland media have started calling Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement a “dismal failure”.

But even if only for the wide international coverage that it generated, the Occupy campaign can hardly be described as such.

It was perhaps the most significant political event in the territory following its handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997; it has thrown a challenge to the suzerainty that some analysts say characterizes the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China.

At the very least, it garnered much support from people from all walks of life, especially the youngsters, who were previously apathetic to politics.

And it would be naive to believe that a protracted struggle intended to shake up the city’s relationship with Beijing could be won in a single battle.

After the 70-odd days of protests, various camps and factions are now assessing the gains and losses of the Umbrella Movement amid the shifting political landscape in the post-Occupy era.

If there are winners, it must be the pro-independence activists, whose experience in the street occupation must have convinced them that Hong Kong’s autonomy cannot co-exist with Beijing’s insistence on dictating how the city chooses its leaders.

The campaign left many youngsters with a deep sense of estrangement from the mainland and galvanized their belief that the best way to protect the city’s core values and way of life is to fight for them. After suffering the onslaught of police batons, tear gas and pepper spray, their anger is not likely to wear off easily.

The movement has turned out to be a mixed blessing to those in the pan-democratic camp. On one hand, they may be heartened to see more people joining the fight for genuine universal suffrage.

But the youth’s loss of faith in Beijing and the SAR government does not necessarily mean they will become advocates of traditional democratic parties.

It’s also likely that some traditional parties are in danger of fading into history after their old ways of pursuing democracy have brought Hong Kong nowhere near the promise of having “a high degree of autonomy”. 

Those groups that adhere to the ideology of “democratic reunification” — a notion that recent events have proven to be an illusion – will find themselves losing ground to more radical and localized pro-democracy organizations.

Some commentators even predict that the annual June 4 candle vigil will see smaller attendance in the future and local campaigns to assert Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands may also wane as younger democrats no longer feel as much empathy for mainland dissidents as they did before.

The pro-establishment camp, particularly Beijing loyalists, will probably become more unpopular among youngsters and may even be routed in the 2016 Legislative Council election. However, it’s still way too early to conclude that they haven’t benefited from the protests.

The common belief is that Beijing, after Occupy, will tighten its grip on the territory. Major pro-Beijing groups like the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (民建聯), especially its youth outreach programs like Young DAB, will be given more resources.

In the next LegCo election, most pro-Beijing lawmakers will still be hand-picked and they will regain their seats through the functional constituencies. The belief that the Occupy campaign will bring fundamental changes to the election results is a bit far-fetched.

The only out-and-out loser in the political fallout is the SAR government. Its legitimacy to govern has been deeply damaged. Officials may be made scapegoats for the mass protests, and the police may have forfeited much of their hard-earned reputation and sound relationship with citizens following charges of brutality and links with triads.

The judiciary has also taken a beating after it issued injunctions against the occupation of roads in Mong Kok and Admiralty. This has left many people with the perception that it has colluded with the government and the checks and balances between the two powers are now gone. The government’s ill-conceived plan to crack down hard on the protesters under the guise of assisting bailiffs sets a dangerous precedent.

In a Hong Kong Economic Journal commentary, Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting warns that the SAR government, given the absence of popular mandate, may increasingly use the judiciary to pursue its Beijing-directed schemes on the people.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


Pedestrians walk past tents and banners on Connaught Road Central outside the Central Government Offices in Admiralty last month. Photo: Bloomberg

EJ Insight writer