Six years ago this Monday, tens of thousands of protesters poured onto a major road in Admiralty – the heart of Hong Kong – as police fired volleys of tear gas.

It was the start of a 79-day blockade of major roads, with tents replacing traffic, which sparked international awareness and interest in Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. Images of the peaceful protest were beamed worldwide.

“Occupy Central with Peace and Love” was organised by Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and academics Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai Yiu-ting. All three would go on to serve 16-month prison sentences for public nuisance charges.

umbrella movement occupy trial
Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man. File Photo: via C.C. 2.0.

Reflecting on the six years since the start of Occupy Central on September 28, 2014, Benny Tai said the Occupy movement was a pivotal period in Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy protests.

“You may say that the movement was the third wave,” he told HKFP. “The first wave was 1989, the second wave was 2003, the third wave was Occupy Central, and the fourth wave is the anti-extradition bill movement.”

Tai said the 79-day demonstrations in a way galvanised the pro-democracy movement. “I see that the democratic movement accumulated and accelerated through the whole process…you can see each wave comes in a shorter span of time,” he said, referring to the five-year lull between Occupy and the anti-extradition bill protests of 2019.

yellow umbrellas protest causeway bay 1 July 2020
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Occupy gave birth to the quintessential protest symbol, the yellow umbrella. The demonstrations became known as the “Umbrella Movement” after footage emerged of protesters using umbrellas to shield themselves from police tear gas and pepper spray.

Another enduring symbol was the “Lennon Wall”, inspired by the wall in Prague which sprang up after Lennon’s assassination in 1980 and which was used to express grievances against the communist regime there. Hong Kong protesters in 2014 installed a makeshift “Lennon Wall” in a stairwell leading up to the Central Government Offices. The slew of colourful memo notes boasting messages of support quickly became a recognisable sign of resistance and similar walls proliferated across the city.

However, much has changed in the political atmosphere since 2014. During the course of city-wide protests last year, the pro-democracy movement evolved from largely peaceful demonstrations to frequently violent clashes with police.

occupy democracy postits lennon wall
“Lennon Wall” at the Occupy sites in Admiralty. File Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

Tai said he has seen a trend towards more radical means and aims as the movement has progressed. “When compared with movements before Occupy Central, the methods of protests changed from those allowable by law to civil disobedience. And then compared with the extradition bill movement…some people began to consider even violent action legitimate.

“The ultimate goal of the movement might still be democracy and democratic elections, but you see some people now may be demanding [something] beyond democratic change, like…demands for independence for Hong Kong.”

Tai said Occupy Central paved the way for the current state of the pro-democracy movement. “The movement before Occupy Central was very centralised. With Occupy Central, you can see the signs of decentralisation, and with the anti-extradition bill you can see it’s very much decentralised.”

Coming change

Occupy Central fizzled out in December 2014. Since then, the 56-year-old former law professor has organised other initiatives to bring about democratic change to his home city.

democrats pro democracy 35+ legco legislative council primary election 2020 september au nok hin andrew chiu benny tai
Benny Tai. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

In mid-July, he advocated a “35+” strategy for the legislative council elections scheduled for September, aimed at ensuring a democratic majority in the 70-member legislature. To achieve this goal, pan-democrats organised unofficial primary elections in the run-up to the now-postponed legislative council elections. Over 610,000 Hongkongers voted in the straw polls.

The primaries were slammed by Beijing agencies as illegal and Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned that they may have constituted an offence under the new national security law. The legislative council elections have been postponed for a year, with the government citing coronavirus concerns. The decision has been criticised by pro-democracy activists and legal professionals.

YouTube video

Despite the gloomy outlook for democracy, Tai told HKFP he believes protesters have fulfilled the aims of Occupy Central. “It’s not possible for Hongkongers by ourselves to move the Chinese Community Party… so the strategy was to involve the international community through our own actions…so as to attract their attention and sympathy.

“If the international community shows concern, then they may take action to put pressure on the Chinese government… so up to this point, we can see that we have successfully achieved this,” Tai said, referring to mounting international pressure on Beijing from Western governments over its imposition of the national security law.

Tai added it remained to be seen whether Beijing would succumb to international pressure, but he had not given up hope. “We have done what we need to do. We have already triggered…directly or indirectly, the international pressure which is now imposed on the Chinese Community Party. Things will happen, we just don’t know when.

“If you have the hope that change is coming, the more important thing to do now is to prepare ourselves for the coming change.”

Civic participation

Within a month of the passage on June 30 of the vaguely-worded but sweeping security law, Tai was sacked from his tenured position as an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty.

Tai has decried his dismissal as the “death of academic freedom” in Hong Kong. However, he said he has not given up hope that current law students and Hongkongers in general can take it upon themselves to learn about the rule of law.

Under a new initiative called “Project Lazarus” which aims to work for “the rebirth of Hong Kong’s rule of law,” Tai said he hopes to continue his teaching through an online course. He has sought public funding for his project through the Patreon online platform.

benny tai
Photo: Benny Tai via Twitter.

Asked about his plans under the national security law, Tai said he would withdraw from the limelight and focus on building a culture of civic engagement away from the frontlines. “For me, I think I’m too old now for more street actions or more organised political actions. I think I’ll put more time into building up the culture of the community for the long-term.”

One element of his long-term plan, Tai said, is to organise community discussions similar to those conducted during the Occupy Central movement, to instil what he called a “healthy democratic culture” in Hong Kong society. “Even if we had democratic elections tomorrow, would a democratically-elected chief executive be ready to implement a plan for Hong Kong?”

“If we believe that Hong Kong will [eventually] have a democratic election or a democratic system, we need to do something to prepare ourselves for that coming democratic era… what we need is to do more things that cultivate that democratic culture in Hong Kong.”

occupy central deliberation day
Participants at Occupy Central’s second deliberation day event. File photo: OCLP, via Facebook.

Because of the national security law, the discussions will not have a political agenda and will focus instead on issues like health care reform and the environment.

“This is something we should do now. Even if we have to wait a very long time [for democracy] – maybe 10 years, 20 years – if we start to do something now, at least we will have cultivated a generation of Hongkongers who have this capacity to handle differences and are able to reach a consensus.”

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.