When it Rains it Pours: The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.

By Nadya Hayasi.

In 2014, the world saw Hong Kong stop in its pace to make way for the Umbrella Movement. The protest started in response to a decision made by China that would allow elections in Hong Kong in 2017, but only from a list of candidates pre-approved by the Chinese government. The Umbrella Movement was nicknamed so because protestors would use umbrellas to protect themselves from the tear gas used by police. The umbrella became an international symbol of peaceful resistance, in an attempt to fight for Hong Kong’s sovereignty and freedom.[1]

The Hong Kong-China relationship has long been a fraught and tense one, especially when their people are culturally similar but politically different. The Hong Kongers were people “culturally acclimated to Chinese tradition, nationalism, and dynastic rule, yet they experienced firsthand the prosperity of democratic rights and open market institutions.”[2] To Hong Kong, their identity with regards to China continues to be conflicting: “They resist China’s political control, but embrace China as the motherland. The memories of history continue to haunt people today.”[3]

Image of a many people with umbrellas at night, with one figure standing above the rest
Umbrella Movement with a lone man standing.[8]

Protestors were mainly university students and the younger generation, who camped in the streets and demanded the right to fully free democratic elections. One could argue that colonialism significantly influenced Hong Kong’s education system and therefore “shifted Hong Kong youth’s political stances in favor of a democratic, sovereign Hong Kong with limited Chinese government involvement.”[4] A Western curriculum and educational experience highlighted the merits of democracy and inspired the youths to fight against the repressive policies of an authoritarian regime.

The movement gained huge traction, with the number of protestors reaching up to 100,000 at a time.[5] Populated areas like Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok were occupied and remained closed to traffic for 79 days. It caused a lot of economic disruption, as shops had to close and tourists were afraid to come and visit due to the brutality shown by the police.

The movement shows the importance of commitment to nonviolence even in the midst of violence. First, the protestors gained sympathy from all around the world as police would use brutal and violent tactics against the protestors who did not retaliate with the same violence. Second, the use of nonviolence against an extremely violent police force also damaged the reputation of what was once recognized as one of the most efficient, honest, and impartial police forces in the Asia Pacific region.[6] Every time the Hong Kong police tried to reestablish control, there was a surge of public support for the core protest groups, mobilized by social and other forms of media.

Image of crowd at night split in the middle by a yellow banner with the words 'UMBRELLA MOVEMENT' on it
Yellow Umbrella Movement banner.[9]

The movement also highlighted the use of social media in aiding activist efforts in the 21st century. Videos circulating online of the clashes and the brutal actions of the police resulted in worldwide outrage, with many members of the public and human rights groups criticizing “the police response as excessive and the arrests as capricious.”[7] Social media has become such an important tool for activists, especially in countries where traditional media has been taken over by oppressive forces. Social media allows activists to generate new attention and create a digital space for activism that can be accessed by those on the other side of the world.

Ultimately, despite no political concessions given by the government, the fierce determination of the Umbrella Movement protests led to discussions among officials regarding the election reforms. Nonviolence protests do not have to achieve their goals in order to succeed, as China will think twice before implementing hardline policies which may result in public backlash as the world continues to closely watch Hong Kong and its politics.

[1] Yuen, Sanson. “Hong Kong After the Umbrella Movement: An uncertain future for “One Country Two Systems”, China Perspectives 2015 (1): 49-53.

[2] Lietzow, Rachel. “Nearly Five Years After the Umbrella Movement – Where is Hong Kong Now?”, Sigma Iota Rho Journal of International Relations (April 8, 2019).

[3] Tsai, Jung-fang. “Review: History and Identity in Hong Kong: Resisting China’s Political Control; Embracing China as the Motherland. Reviewed Work: Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong by John M. Carroll,” China Review International 2008 Vol. 15 (1): 78-93.

[4] Lietzow. “Nearly Five Years After the Umbrella Movement,” Sigma Iota Rho.

[5] Cheung, Eric and James Griffiths. “Leaders of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement found guilty for role in protests.CNN (April 9, 2019).

[6] Ives, Mike. “Hong Kong Police, Once Called ‘Asia’s Finest,’ Are Now a Focus of Anger.” The New York Times (June 24, 2019).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Umbrella Movement with lone man standing – Kin Cheung – AP, taken from the Time Magazine website.

[9] Yellow Umbrella Movement banner – Quartz.