Was the Umbrella Movement a waste of time? On the movement’s third anniversary this question is being answered in the affirmative by all sorts of people, including those who consider themselves to be democrats.

Wherever they are coming from, the people who see the Umbrella Movement as a failure are profoundly lacking in historical perspective, and are unrealistic in expecting that a movement of this kind would be able to secure its aims overnight.

The Occupy protest now & then
Photo: Joey Kwok.

In this respect the Umbrella Movement’s development is remarkably similar to that of other significant social and political movements in other parts of the world.

An excellent example here is the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, which mobilized literally millions of people across the nation demanding equality for black people.

As the movement grew the backlash against it also grew, bolstered by the governments of the Southern states who were determined to cling onto institutional racism. They mobilized the thuggery of law enforcement officials alongside a widespread policy of using the law to incarcerate protestors.

As the civil rights campaign ploughed on in the face of adversity there was a growing feeling that the movement had exhausted itself and done little more than get its adherents put into jail and beaten up.

Some historians believe that even the movement’s most prominent leader, Martin Luther King, had moments when he questioned whether it had been worthwhile.

These doubts deepened as the price of protest rose and participants were beaten and murdered. The assassination of Dr King himself however strengthened resolve.

He had lived to see many of the movement’s key demands put into law and witnessed the bitter divisions that arose as he was denounced for accepting the compromises required to change the laws.

Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

And that brings us to today in Hong Kong where an increasing number of protesters are being hauled away to jail, legislators supporting the movement have been turfed out of office and not only has Hong Kong’s woefully inadequate system of representative government not changed at all, but the current leader of the HKSAR has declared that discussion on this matter is pretty much off the table.

So was it all a failure? The emphatic answer is no, and that can be said with some confidence. Indeed it is not that much of stretch to say that the day will come when people will shake their heads in disbelief on hearing that even in 2017 Hong Kong’s sophisticated and intelligent people were being fobbed off with a rotten election system guaranteed to block the will of the majority, and that they were not allowed to elect their own government.

A future generation may well also find it hard to understand why Hong Kong’s so-called leaders of the day were willing accomplices in stripping the SAR of its promised autonomy, bringing it more firmly under the control of a dictatorship.

This future generation will share some of the reactions from today’s American school children who think that they are being taught ancient history when told that black people were only allowed to sit at the back of the bus and could not even eat at the same places as white people; yet this was commonplace just half a century ago.

What we learn from all this is that today’s ‘realities’ are tomorrow’s ‘unbelievabilities’ and that change is a long drawn out process lacking in linear progression, punctuated by enormous setbacks.

Hong Kong knows all about this because although the previous colonial government and the current tremble-and-obey government have helped foster the myth of a historically politically apathetic and selfish society it is simply a lie.

Even when the vast majority of the population consisted of immigrants from the Mainland, mass protest movements emerged. The 1960s mobilization against fare rises on the Star Ferry was followed in the 1970s by a growing mass of social movements led primarily by teachers and church-associated bodies rebelling against poor living conditions for working people and inferior education for the poor.

By the 1980s mass protests coalesced around a massive campaign to try and prevent the building of the Daya Bay nuclear plant; the end of this decade was bookmarked by an unprecedented mobilization in solidarity with the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

June 4th vigil (Left) and 1967 riots (Right). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The following decade saw the emergence of a focus on the need for democracy, accompanied by the growth of political parties and a host of social movements. The strength of these movements was seen again at the turn of the century when mass protests forced the government to abandon draconian anti-subversion legislation and pull back on plans for political indoctrination in schools.

Hong Kong has a history of success and failure when it comes to reform but, most importantly, it is a history of people who will not be cowed.

The Occupy Movement should therefore be seen as the offspring of the movements that preceded it. Sure, the issues are different and the methods of protests have changed but the golden thread connecting these movements is a clear assertion of Hong Kong people’s determination to have greater control over their own affairs.

The Umbrella Movement represents a kind of continuity and developed in ways that are more sustainable. It fostered, for example, a flourishing of an independent online media, it reached deep into a younger generation who will be around much longer than the author of this column and, yes, it fostered an enormous backlash but it can be argued that in so doing it merely brought to the surface forces that were lurking beneath.

The Umbrella Movement let the genie out of the bottle. No one, even the hard men in Beijing, can be under any illusion that attacks on Hong Kong’s autonomy and way of life can be delivered without resistance.

For the time being the response of the authorities has been to try and lock away and intimidate protestors. But, ultimately, this will fail even if they escalate the scale of repression, as it will achieve little more than creating martyrs. So who’s really the failed party here?

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship