Three years ago, on this day, Hong Kong police fired dozens of canisters of tear gas in a bid to clear some streets where thousands of pro-democracy activists had gathered for sit-in protests.
The tear gas, followed by pepper spray and other strong-arm tactics later, however failed to deter the demonstrators, many of whom were still in their teens, from launching the Occupy campaign.
The protest, which saw crowds occupy key areas in Admiralty and Central, was aimed at pressuring China into allowing Hongkongers to choose their leader directly through a free election.
Occupy Central, also known as the Umbrella Movement, hit global headlines, but the campaign failed to sway Beijing, which stuck to a decision for a restrictive framework for Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive election.
With the Communist leaders unyielding and ordering the Hong Kong government to remove the demonstrators by force, the streets were eventually cleared in mid-December 2014.
Now, on the third anniversary of the launch of the campaign, key leaders of the movement have either been jailed or or awaiting trial as Hong Kong authorities, acting under apparent instructions from Beijing, had sought to punish the activists for “breaking the law”.
Student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow have been handed jail terms for offenses such as unlawful assembly and storming of government headquarters, while Occupy co-founders Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming are facing charges of inciting public nuisance.
Apart from these, some other pro-democracy activists and political figures were also taken to task.
Looking back at the Occupy campaign and its aftermath, Hong Kong people are filled with mixed and sometimes conflicting emotions: pride, sadness, anger, weariness, etc.
Meanwhile, there is also anxiety about what the future holds for Hong Kong and what can be done to defend its autonomy and freedoms, which are increasingly coming under threat as Beijing seeks to tighten its grip over the territory.
The political landscape of Hong Kong has changed little after the Umbrella Campaign ground to a halt in December 2014. The opposition camp and pro-Beijing groups continue to point the finger at each other on all issues.
Meanwhile, Beijing appears bent on suppressing the voice of young politicians who talk of Hong Kong self-determination or independence.
Such approach has led to activists like Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching being barred from the Legislative Council even though they had won popular mandates.
Authorities used an oath-taking controversy to get Leung and Yau, as well as some other political figures, disqualified from the Legco.
The punishment lays out a line for local politicians: Raising the independence topic or not accepting Beijing’s full rights over Hong kong will not be tolerated.
Efforts are being stepped up to make sure that all politicians show loyalty to the sovereign state, i.e. the People’s Republic of China. Anyone who refuses to bow to the mainland will be kept in check.
During the Occupy campaign, activists had raised slogans against Hong Kong’s then leader, Leung Chun-ying, calling on him to step down for failing to safeguard the city’s interests and for causing deep divisions in society.
This year, following a leadership change that saw Carrie Lam take the top post, there were hopes that she would adopt a conciliatory tone toward opposition groups and try to bring people together.
However, judging by the government’s continuing vindictive attitude toward the Occupy leaders and some opposition lawmakers, the reality is turning out to be different.
Lam has failed to provide an olive branch to the democracy camp and refused to drop prosecutions against the protesters.
The new chief executive is also standing tough on issues such as independence banners on university campuses. As Lam follows Beijing’s orders, social rifts are unlikely to be healed.
Following the Occupy movement, authorities have become increasingly intolerant toward dissent against Beijing.
Freedom of expression is coming under threat as mere discussion of topics such as Hong Kong independence is frowned upon.
After the Umbrella Movement, aside from the pro-democracy groups, the pro-Beijing camp has also been witnessing an internal churn, with the more “radical patriotists” seeking the center-stage.
Thus, we have seen figures like Junius Ho take the helm of anti-independence movement.
Ho recently triggered a controversy by agreeing during a public event that independence advocates must be “killed” without mercy.
He is also the person behind an online petition that calls on the University of Hong Kong to fire Occupy co-founder Benny Tai from his teaching position at the school.
Such pro-Beijing figures will only create more problems and add to the mistrust between the government and large sections of society.
Under the leadership of Lam, Hong Kong government has not shown any sign that it will review policies in relation to the 2014 Occupy Movement and handling of the campaign leaders.
Taking key participants to court, authorities argue that upholding the “rule of law” is paramount and that no cause, however noble it might seem, justifies breaking the rules.
But by going to extreme lengths on the prosecutions, where punishment rather than justice seems to be the motive, the government can be accused of using “laws” as a tool to suppress opposition voices in society.
Throwing people into jail over protests that involved no violence won’t do anything to help build trust in the administration.
According to government figures, 955 people were arrested during the Occupy Central campaign. After the protests, authorities arrested a further 48 people, mostly key individuals involved in the pro-democracy demonstrations.
Campaign conveners Tai, Chu and Chan were arrested for “unlawful assembly” in 2015. In March 2017, the charges were changed to “public nuisance”. If convicted, the democracy campaigners could face jail terms of up to seven years.
The objective for the 2014 Umbrella Movement was to fight for genuine universal suffrage for the chief executive election in Hong Kong, but the Lam’s administration has set aside such controversial issues, saying it will focus instead on problems such as those related to housing and education.
Through a deliberate strategy and concerted efforts, Hong Kong and Beijing authorities have managed to stall the democracy campaign in the city. As of now, there is little hope that a new political reform proposal would come about in the near future, ahead of the next CE election in 2022.
Realistically speaking, the best that Hong Kong people can aim for right now is this: get more opposition figures elected to bodies such as Legco and District Councils, using opportunities from by-elections where possible, and try to break the dominance of the pro-Beijing groups.
That, however, doesn’t mean that locals should give up on the fight for true universal suffrage and genuine democracy.
The embers from the 2014 Umbrella Movement are still burning and they should not be allowed to get extinguished.
The democracy battle must continue, however long and arduous the journey may be, or insurmountable the odds may seem.
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