Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters returned to government headquarters in Admiralty on Thursday to commemorate the anniversary of the Umbrella Movement protests. Three years on, they urged unity against a backdrop of what one organiser described as an “authoritarian” political atmosphere.

On September 28, 2014, the police shot 87 tear gas canisters to disperse protesters gathering in support of arrested students. Many regard it as the moment which sparked a 79-day protest calling for universal suffrage.

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Activists were ultimately cleared from the streets, though the government did not make any concessions. The movement’s leaders – Joshua Wong and Nathan Law – completed community service orders as a result of charges relating to the demonstrations, whilst Alex Chow was given a suspended sentence. However, the trio were jailed in August after the government successfully appealed their sentences.

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Activists during the Occupy tear gas “reenactment.” Photo: League of Social Democrats.

Agnes Chow, a core member of Wong and Law’s party Demosisto, said she was grateful that demonstrators had returned to Admiralty after three years, even though many had been disappointed by the political events during the period.

“As we look back, maybe we are already used to the government using the law to handle political issues, maybe we are used to the police using violence to suppress protesters,” she said. “I am also afraid that in three years, in 2020, we may be used to the disqualification of lawmakers and young protesters being sent to jail.”

Agnes Chow
Agnes Chow. Photo: Demosisto.

“We all love this city, but we are afraid that it may not look like the city that we know anymore,” she added. “But we should not lie to ourselves and say we are not afraid, because there will be a day when you cannot stand it anymore. We have to face our fears – even if we are afraid, for the city we love, we must hang on.”

The organiser of the event “reenacted” the scene three years ago by playing audio recordings from the protests in 2014 and mimicking the dispersal of tear gas by with water vapour.

Avery Ng, chair of the League of Social Democrats, said he almost shed tears when the protests started, since he was in London and could not join.

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Avery Ng. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

“We have always been described as the radical party… but when I saw Hong Kong people united in civil disobedience, there was no fear of the police or tear gas, I felt Hong Kong people finally experienced how to fight against this suppressive regime,” he said.

He said, over the past three years, the social movement had fragmented.

“But I want to remind all of us, it’s time to unite… regardless if you are conservative, radical, if you support localism, or independence – we have to stand united. We only have one enemy together – the Communist Party and Carrie Lam.”

Occupy Demosisto
A new book reflecting on the Occupy protests by Demosisto. Photo: Demosisto.

In Admiralty, about a dozen civic groups hosted booths, including one by the Demosisto party, which published a small book of interviews with other activists, reflecting on the experience of the Occupy protests.

Earlier the year, the book publishing process was interrupted when Ivan Lam, a party member and one of the three editors, was jailed for 13 months in August over another protest.

Occupy Demosisto
A new book reflecting on the Occupy protests by Demosisto. Photo: Demosisto.

The other editors had to search for the materials on Lam’s computer to complete the book: “We thought of just terminating it. But eventually, we agreed that it was a time in which we need to have a book to reflect on the three years after the Umbrella Movement.”

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Activists write messages for the jailed protesters. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Several other booths were set up to allow members of the public to write letters to recently jailed activists.

Ming Hui of the Community Citizen Chapter said people can write encouraging words to them.

Ming Hui Occupy
Ming Hui. Photo: HKFP.

“They can also write about things that are not reported in newspapers or the TVB news channel, to tell them we will not give up,” said Hui. Prisoners in Hong Kong have limited access to media.

“But more importantly, they can write about what they can do themselves, to tell the activists that even though they have been jailed, we are still carrying on to fight for democracy.”

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A booth was also set up for people to write postcards to mainland Chinese activists who were jailed for supporting the Occupy protests. Some of them were sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

Chow Hang-tung, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said she understood some of the postcards may indeed reach the hands of activists: “But regardless as to whether they can receive the postcards, the effect is the same – the prison authorities will know there are still people who are concerned about the activists, and the authorities would not dare to treat them badly.”

Jailed Chinese activists
Jailed Chinese activists. Photo: HKFP.

“We don’t encourage people to write about sensitive topics if they want the activists to actually receive the postcards,” she added. “But, in a way, we may be indirectly educating the authorities if they see the sensitive words.”

Other Occupy leaders such as Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming will face trial on charges of conspiracy to cause and incite public nuisance. The trio had said they were preparing for jail by showering with cold water and switching off their air conditioning.

“If I have to go to prison, let’s go to prison,” Tai told supporters. “When we face such threats with a calm attitude, this authoritarian regime has no authority… Tell the government: sue me! Then the threat from the authoritarian regime will be at least weakened by half.”

Chan also told the crowd: “If I have to go to prison, then I shall calmly accept prison.”

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Occupy convener Chan Kin-man. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

He said that the government told them that many more participants, including volunteers and supporters, could be charged as co-conspirators.

“Tens of thousands could go to jail,” he said. “But we should not fear. If I am not afraid of imprisonment, then the chilling effect will disappear… They wanted to scare us. But if we face it calmly, that threatening power will be gone.”

“We may feel pain but we will not back down,” he said. “We may be angry but we will not lose our rational mind. This is the spirit of the Umbrella Movement.”

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Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.