26 May 2019
On the first day of the Umbrella Movement, protesters use plastic wrap to protect themselves from pepper spray. Photo: AFP
On the first day of the Umbrella Movement, protesters use plastic wrap to protect themselves from pepper spray. Photo: AFP

Time to look at the positive side of the Umbrella Movement

It may have been a political failure but the Umbrella Movement is not dead.

It continues in the background after raising social and civil rights awareness among Hong Kong people, particularly the younger generation, a segment of society that is too often neglected.

On Facebook, an interesting group page called The Umbrella Community, has surfaced. It invites answers from participants of the protest movement to the question: In what ways can you keep the spirit of the Umbrella Movement alive in your daily life?

The page has received about 400 replies. These are some of the answers:

1. Stop being the silent majority and be more concerned about public affairs to provide oversight of government policies;

2. Take better care of the people around you, especially the underprivileged and the elderly;

3. Blow the whistle on lies and be more vocal about media malpractice;

4. Be more concerned about various social issues such as anti-competition, support for small businesses, animal rights, social welfare for the elderly and gay rights etc;

5. Teach the younger generation independent thinking and the pursuit of dreams, and get the message out on social justice, human rights, democracy and environmental protection;

6. Reach out to different people including those who are against the protest movement, parents, relatives, neighbors and mainlanders and share with them the rationale behind the movement. Try to narrow the gap with respect and accommodation.

Participants of the movement often stressed their identity as “Hongkongers”. They said all they hope for is a fairer, more democratic, generous, diversified and caring society that puts emphasis on community development.

This shows the movement has successfully cultivated active citizenship, which helps pave the way toward a more mature civil society.

Unfortunately, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the establishment have failed to recognize the good and positive values promoted by the movement.

Instead, they have focused almost entirely on its negative consequences, such public disturbances and violations of court orders, and blamed the unrest on lack of job opportunities for young people and their poor understanding of the Basic Law.

It seems they are deliberately turning a blind eye to the fact that most protesters were motivated not by economic reasons but by indignation at not having a say in public affairs and the right to choose their leaders.

As a result, the political gap between the general public and those in power has widened. The government can’t bridge this gap with tear gas and pepper spray.

If our government is broad-minded enough, it should take the initiative to engage the public politically and listen to creative ideas.

Looking back, one might notice that in the wake of the 1967 riots, the colonial government under Governor Sir David Trench made the same mistake by blaming the upheaval on lack of opportunities for young people to channel their energy.

The government went on to establish youth centers and organized large-scale public events targeted at young people to divert them from politics.

However, when Lord MacLehose took office as governor in 1971, he immediately sensed it wasn’t enough.

With the prospect of Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future looming, MacLehose found that by putting more effort into community affairs and introducing democracy at district levels, he could promote more effective governance and gain some bargaining chips for Britain at the negotiation table.

Forty years on, however, Hong Kong people remain mostly shut out from the decision-making process and in resource allocation.

All they can do is take to the streets to be heard or seek help from their elected representatives. But as experience shows, these politicians can’t make much difference.

As a result, grievances accumulate until they reach a tipping point.

One of the most invaluable legacies of the Umbrella Movement is that it has raised the social awareness of the general public and fostered a generation of young people who are passionate, creative and really concerned about Hong Kong.

In their own districts, they have the perfect stage to flex their political muscle.

However, the fact that district councils are largely consultative bodies — and the seats are mostly dominated by major political parties — discourages young people from public service.

To address that, district councils should be given more power and a more significant role in policy making and resource allocation.

For example, they can engage the public through a participatory budget process, so that citizens from all walks of life, especially young people, can take part in setting the agenda.

Also, the government can consider setting up district budget committees with substantial public participation in which citizens, particularly young people, can actively take part in deciding how and where money will be spent, what facilities will be built and how these will be managed using their creativity and innovation.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 17.

Translation by Alan Lee

– Contact us at [email protected]


Citizens donate food and water to protesters at a makeshift distribution post. Photo: AFP

Leung Chun-ying and his government have focused too much on the negative aspects of the protest movement. Photo: Reuters

The writer is a policy researcher

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