White smoke engulfed the horizon, the tangy smell of tear gas penetrated my sinuses, tears obfuscated my vision. In my confused state, I felt a hand grabbing onto my wrist. Accompanying it was a frantic voice, guiding me away from the epicenter. As I regained my foothold, I was met by the glaring eyes of a crowd stern with determination. A deep sense of solidarity and belonging resonated within me. That was my awakening.

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement
Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. Photo: Wikimedia.

I think back to the Umbrella Movement not with sentimentality. It is a reflection of the democratic progress of Hong Kong and my life took on a different trajectory after the event. From being politically apathetic to being deeply involved in Hong Kong politics, the past year have been insightful, daunting and rather disappointing. The solidarity that once drove me onto the streets have all but dissipated. Localist vs ‘leftards’, blue ribbons v.s. yellow ribbons, pacifists v.s. pseudo revolutionaries. Friendships that were once so deeply bonded over a single cause, were now destroyed over ideological differences. I began questioning myself, had the Umbrella Movement, the movement which I have been so intensely involved, served only to tear apart the social fabric of Hong Kong?

The prevalence of such disillusionment is rather striking among the ‘umbrella generation’. Having spent over 70 days on the streets, many deem the traditional way of protest to be either ineffective or downright useless. In stark contrast to last year’s turnout, only around 40,000 people participated in the July 1st march organised by the the Civil Human Rights Front this year. Some blame the low turnout on the lack of urgent issues in the post-reform climate. Some see the march as nothing more than a fundraiser for political parties. Some view the objectives of the march to be stale and disconnected from the spirit of the times. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that the current state of affairs have dealt a huge blow to the bargaining power of our democratic movement. This depression must be addressed with utmost urgency if we were to capitalise on the momentum gained in the Umbrella Movement and drive our democratic movement to its next apex.

July 1
July 1 March 2015. Photo: Arthur Lo.

A raging torrent that was the Umbrella Movement stirred and swirled the stagnant waters, and in the midst of uncertainty and disunity a new path could be drawn. Chaos is often the engine for change. Democracy have once again come to the forefront of our vernacular. Citizens have come to the understanding that democracy will not simply be conferred, it is something that we must fight for. To do so we must make democracy a fundamental part of our culture and sow its seeds deep into the soil.

With the district council elections looming over the horizon, a group of scholars and democratic supporters have initiated a project called “the community citizen charter”. Central to their vision is the importance of fostering a bottom-up approach and incorporating democratic elements into the daily lives of the citizenry. They wish to cultivate a culture of participatory democracy, starting at the community level. Through public dialogue, shared economic resources, participatory budgeting and creating a citizen assembly in all 18 districts; their goal is to disseminate democracy into the social fabric of Hong Kong.

This community first approach has an additional effect of creating what sociologists termed “bridging social capital”. When different people of different political affiliation join together in deciding community issues, their interaction will bring about their differences but also similarities on certain issues. This basic understanding creates trust and tolerance, and is the first step in healing the deep schism within the local community.

If democracy is our goal, it is up to each and everyone of us to make our dreams a reality. We should be eagerly participating in community organisations such as the district council, rural committee, owner’s corporation and the parent-teacher’s associations. It’s time to put our words into action.

Edward Lau belongs to a new breed of political activists conceived by the Umbrella Movement. He has spent much of his career working as a project officer for NGOs, specialising in education and community service. Ed holds an LLB degree from the the University of London and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Non-profit Management at the University of Hong Kong.