18 June 2019
The yellow ribbon, one of the most potent symbols of last year's democracy protests, reminds us of the unfinished business of fighting for real democracy. Photo: CNSA
The yellow ribbon, one of the most potent symbols of last year's democracy protests, reminds us of the unfinished business of fighting for real democracy. Photo: CNSA

What the yellow ribbon and the umbrella truly stand for

People often see the democracy movement last year from two perspectives.

They either see it as a fruitless political movement spearheaded by academics and students with a clear political goal or a spontaneous mass movement without any leadership and clear direction.

The latter failed because the people who took part in it did not have common ground.

However, there is a third way of looking at it through the symbols that have come to be associated with the movement — the yellow ribbon and the umbrella.

The yellow ribbon not only signifies a political stance — pro-democracy, pro-social justice and anti-Beijing — but also represents a more populist approach to political change.

That means the average individual no longer relies on pan-democrats to push for democracy and social change.

Rather, people are taking their future into their own hands by taking to the streets or standing for elections, running against not only pro-Beijing candidates but also pan-democrats.

Anybody who identifies with the yellow ribbon camp can be pro-democracy and anti-pan-democrats at the same time.

They believe that pan-democratic parties have been corrupted by political power and are no longer trustworthy.

Another popular symbol is the umbrella, which stands for non-violent resistance.

In fact, the mass movement is often referred to as the “Umbrella movement”, a term coined by the western media after a Time Magazine cover photo showing a young protester holding up an umbrella amid a shroud of tear gas.

However, the term “umbrella” represents a kind of non-violent resistance that is quite different from civil disobedience advocated by Benny Tai, a law professor from the University of Hong Kong who first proposed the idea of an Occupy Central movement.

Instead of staging sit-ins and waiting to be arrested without putting up any resistance, members of the Umbrella movement stand for a more pro-active kind of non-violent resistance.

Protesters would not refrain from clashes with the police and would use their own bodies to shield against batons and tear gas.

And then there is the so-called “villagers”.

During the protests, many protesters who spent days and nights in occupied sites called themselves “villagers” and referred to their base as “Mong Kok village” or “Harcourt village”.

These villages became a close-knit community, with their own basic amenities — shower rooms, study, even chapels — and supplies.

The idea of a village gave them an added sense of heritage and identity.

These terms and symbols remind us of the unfinished business of fighting for genuine universal suffrage.

Although the Occupy Central movement might be over for now, these symbols will continue to resonate with Hong Kong people, especially the younger generation, whose political awareness was awakened almost overnight by the 79-days protest.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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