27 March 2019
The recent protests marked a big evolutionary step in Hong Kong's democracy fight, says Benny Tai, one of the founders of the Occupy Central movement. Photo: Bloomberg
The recent protests marked a big evolutionary step in Hong Kong's democracy fight, says Benny Tai, one of the founders of the Occupy Central movement. Photo: Bloomberg

Organizing a democratic movement in the ‘Umbrella Era’

The Umbrella Movement signaled the beginning of a new era in Hong Kong and also opened a new chapter in the history of the territory’s pursuit for democracy.

In the past 30 years, the city’s democracy battle often took place inside the Legislative Council or in the form of legal street actions such as mass assemblies, demonstrations, negotiations or referendum, but the Umbrella Movement made a big evolutionary step forward during which the people of Hong Kong, for the very first time, fought for a genuine election through massive civil disobedience actions such as occupying downtown main roads.

Even though our goal has not been achieved yet, the Umbrella Movement has changed our society and will continue to shape the direction of our democratic movement in the future.

Under the “Umbrella Era”, some special characteristics have emerged in Hong Kong society.

There is no longer a single power center nor a single set of values. Political leaders can no longer suppress the diversified nature of our society, where various schools of thought, different sets of values or even actions will continue to flourish.

Relationships between people will become more equal and horizontal. The general public will no longer accept a top-down power structure or social relations, nor will they necessarily accept the bottom-up approach either.

The movement also gave rise to an age of self-determination. Everybody has his own set of beliefs, and everyone is capable of putting their own beliefs into practice.

Another feature is that in the internet world, political movement is no longer led by leaders in a top-down structure. Instead of being separated, individuals are now being linked together by the internet, and all these online personal networks often overlap with one another. Every individual forms a dot of his own and the role the active participants play is that of a coordinator who connects all these dots in order to rally mass support.

The Umbrella Era will not necessarily bring about confrontations. However, given its diversified, horizontal and self-determined nature, there is increasing danger that people of different views might come into conflict with each other. To prevent that from happening, organizers of democratic movements must carefully respond to these newly developed characteristics of our society. I believe democratic movements in the Umbrella Era should include the following elements:

1. Charters: There should be two separate charters — the first one should simply lay down some of the general principles of democracy widely shared by the majority of our society, while the second charter should include detailed action programs and formal statements of the core missions from various participating groups which focus on different social issues, thus providing a basis on which a draft social charter can then be put together.

2. Democratic discussion: As far as the draft social charter is concerned, opinions and suggestions can be gathered through discussion sessions that are open to people from all walks of life, with a view to finding common ground among our fellow citizens over the actual content of the charter. After collecting, analyzing and integrating different opinions, movement organizers can then come up with the final version of the charter.

3. Public mandate: Through public referendum, it will be up to our fellow citizens to decide whether to accept the charter as the foundation document of implementing democratic governance in Hong Kong.

4. Dispersive fulfillment: In order to fulfill the charter, different stakeholders can fully exercise the diversified and self-determined nature of the Umbrella Era and decide on the details of how, when and where they will execute their action programs.

5. Coordinative organization: Even though every individual in the internet world has his own self-determined nature, democratic movements in the future still need to be well-organized. However, it doesn’t take a tightly organized body to oversee the entire movement. All it needs is a group of volunteers who are responsible for sending information and day-to-day liaison, so that every different group of stakeholders can plan their own actions in coordination with others who share the same conviction.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 2.

Translation by Alan Lee

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

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