Three years ago, an unprecedented pro-democracy social movement took our entire city by storm and grabbed headlines around the world.
During that 79-day movement, which is now commonly known as the Umbrella Movement, hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters occupied and obstructed the main streets in Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay in an attempt to force the government to compromise over universal suffrage.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the Umbrella Movement started to lose momentum, not least because of the fact that the student leaders who spearheaded it had become so overly ambitious that they actually played into the government’s hand by refusing to retreat when the time was ripe.
In consequence, as the occupation dragged on, the government gradually managed to gain the upper hand over the protesters by playing on the mounting discontent among society with the nuisance caused by the occupiers, and eventually succeeded in taking the moral high ground and swinging public opinion against the movement.
In a sense, the Umbrella Movement can be considered a complete flop, since it failed to achieve its initial goal of overturning the so-called “831 resolution” by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. Worse still, shortly after the movement had ended, the government began to mount a massive and continuous crackdown on its leaders and key participants.
For example, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang, the three student leaders who led the storming of the government headquarters on the night of September 26, 2014, an act that would subsequently trigger the Umbrella Movement, were given jail terms after the Department of Justice (DOJ) had appealed against their sentences.
On the other hand, other key participants, such as Associate Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Dr. Chan Kin-man and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, who are often known as the three “Occupy Central” founders, as well as incumbent legislators Shiu Ka-chun and Tanya Chan, former Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat and student leader Cheung Sau-yin, made their first court appearance last week for their roles in the movement.
However, since the judge who heard their cases raised doubts about whether the prosecution had laid overlapping charges against them during the hearing, the case was adjourned to January next year and all of them were released on bail.
Their cases are worth mentioning since some of them are facing the highly unusual criminal charge of “inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance”, which, as the defense lawyers argued, could be unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, the defense lawyers also demanded a definitive answer from the DOJ as to whether it is going to press charges against the remaining 700 protesters who were arrested during and after the Umbrella Movement, so that they can decide whether to summon them as defense witnesses.
I do agree that the DOJ does owe the public an immediate answer as to whether it is going to bring charges against the rest of the arrested protesters. It is because even though technically speaking, there is no statute of limitations for criminal offences, the longer the DOJ defers its decision, the more polarized and split our society would get.
In fact, allowing the case to drag on indefinitely is like rubbing salt into the wound of society, and all it would do is further deepen our social divisions.
Besides, while Beijing and the SAR government might have won the battle over the Umbrella Movement, they might in the end lose the war of public opinion.
There is a huge social price tag attached to the government’s continuous crackdown on Umbrella Movement protesters: the fact that the authorities are coming after them so relentlessly and ferociously is likely to further alienate and radicalize our young people, particularly university students who embrace democratic or secessionist ideals, thereby further fuelling the growth of separatism on our university campuses.
During the election campaign earlier this year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor vowed that she would strive to facilitate reconciliation and mend fences in our society once elected, and in particular, would foster dialogue with “young people” who have different political views and incorporate them into the decision-making process of the government.
If Carrie Lam was actually referring to the second generation of the pro-establishment camp when she mentioned “young people”, then she could probably declare mission accomplished right now.
However, if she was referring to young people in the broadest sense of the term, then I would say her efforts have completely failed since at present most of our young people’s trust in the government has probably regressed to the level when former CE Leung Chun-ying was in office.
That said, I believe if the current administration is really sincere in its pledge to get reconciled with our young people, it should stop coming after Umbrella Movement activists immediately and give the movement a fair, impartial and open assessment.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 27
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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