Mixed legacy for Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

While protesters' demands have not been met, their voices have been heard clearly, not just by Beijing, but by each other.

Last Thursday morning, the Hong Kong government took decisive action to end the "Umbrella Movement" protests and cleared the main protest site at Admiralty. By Thursday night, the kilometre-long stretch of six-lane highway that had been home to the protesters for 75 days had been swept clean and traffic flowed where rows of colourful tents, banners and hand-made wooden furniture had stood only hours earlier. With the expected clearance of the small remaining protest site in the Causeway Bay shopping district on Monday morning, the protests are over.

On the face of things, the protests have been a failure. Beijing and their representative in Hong Kong, CY Leung, have not budged on any of the protesters' demands. In many ways the Umbrella Movement was a victim of its own success. The scale of the initial occupation and the public support it received exceeded the protest leaders' expectations to such an extent that they had no strategy to cope with it, and never developed one. Nor had they planned on being allowed to stay for so long, as days of government inaction turned into weeks, and then months. So in many ways, Thursday's clearance brought relief for protesters and authorities alike.

Looking forward now to a post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong, there are a number of implications the protests will have for the future of the Special Administrative Region.

Most importantly, while protesters' demands have not been met, their voices have been heard clearly, not just by Beijing, but by each other. Many protesters spoke of realising for the first time that they were not alone in their concern about these political issues, and the resulting community that has grown up around the movement will be resilient.

The protests have also served to politicise a generation of youth in Hong Kong and demolished the myth that Hong Kong people -- in particular young people -- do not care about politics. The past two months will be remembered as the formative event for an entire generation of Hong Kongers, many of whom will be future leaders (Hong Kong's protesters will be tomorrow's leaders 30 October 2014) and may set the tone for public debate -- and public protest -- in Hong Kong for decades to come.

It is clear that Hong Kong is set for an extended period of political disruption. Protest leaders have said that they intend to continue their campaign of civil disobedience on a rolling basis. "We will be back!" was the recurring cry of defiance as the site was cleared and the last protesters arrested on Thursday. Pan-democrat legislators -- many of whom also queued up to be arrested at the sit-in on Thursday -- emphasised that while the street protest stage of the movement may be over for now, they plan to continue their struggle in the chambers of the region's Legislative Council, by filibustering legislation on constitutional reform as well as potentially blocking the government's budget proposals.

At the same time, the credibility of the pan-democrat political parties in the community has been seriously undermined in the past several months, constituting a threat to their future electoral prospects. Those opposed to the movement will readily blame the democrats for the disruptions caused by the protests, while those who support the movement will be unhappy at the lack of leadership shown by these politicians who failed to provide any "adult supervision" and left the protests in the hands of student leaders (The unexpected leaders of Hong Kong's protests 2 October 2014). This led to the Hong Kong Federation of Students (which is an association of tertiary student unions, and not a political party) bizarrely being found to be Hong Kong's most-supported political group in a public opinion poll conducted by Hong Kong University in the midst of the protests. You could not blame more cynical observers from interpreting the sudden appearance of a veritable Who's Who of senior democratic figures on Thursday joining the sit-in and willingly being carted off by police in front of the TV cameras as a piece of political theatre intended to reclaim the limelight.

Seen in this light, the months of inaction by CY Leung's administration that first appeared to have all the hallmarks of incompetence (Hong Kong's weak leaders threaten business confidence 13 October 2014) may in fact turn out to have been a very canny long-term end game. One can picture CY saying to Chinese President Xi Jinping: "Don't worry, there will be a few months of disruption, but after this is all over you won't have to worry about the democrats any more." China famously likes to think long-term.

The scale of the protests will certainly have galvanised Beijing's resolve to tighten its grip on Hong Kong. CY Leung's long-term inaction has provided the scope for that, by causing division within the community and tearing shreds through Hong Kong's civic fabric, leaving space for Beijing to expand its role and influence.

In particular, the rule of law and public trust in Hong Kong's police force have suffered serious and possibly permanent damage. The administration and police have repeatedly blamed the protesters for undermining the rule of law through their "prolonged unlawful assembly and blockage of roads". But let's be clear: the rule of law is not undermined by people breaking the law. It happens every day -- that's what a properly functioning justice system is intended to deal with. The rule of law is undermined when the law is used as a tool to achieve a political end, as occurred when the Hong Kong government and police relied upon civil law injunctions as political "cover" to justify clearing the protest sites. In so doing, the government has called the court system into service as a political tool. This politicisation of the court system is known as "rule by law", a phrase frequently applied to the PRC and which could now be used for the first time with some justification in the context of Hong Kong.

Rule of law is also threatened when laws are not enforced, or are enforced selectively. The government's prolonged inaction left significant space for triad gang activity. The allegations of selective policing in favour of triad gang members, and official acquiescence in triad gang involvement in various "patriotic" support groups and activities, remains to be fully addressed by government.

Hong Kong's civil society also appears to be vulnerable going forward. Press freedoms, already under attack in recent months, may continue to be eroded.

That the protests were led by students will have demonstrated to Beijing that Hong Kong's university campuses are a potential source of subversion and an obvious target for a tightening of the screws, just as China's campuses were post-1989. Hong Kong should expect increased scrutiny of academic appointments and potential pressure on academic freedoms, including from university administrators fearful of threats, explicit or implicit, to their budgets.

In these and other respects, we should expect that "one country, two systems" will continue be squeezed, with the "one country" increasingly taking precedence. Perhaps it was always to be so; after all, the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law only guarantee the existing Hong Kong way of life for 50 years.

Finally, the Umbrella Movement has exposed the anxiety of Hong Kong's identity. Hong Kongers seem to be asking themselves, for the first time, what is Hong Kong's place in this post-colonial world? It is a question that was never resolved by the handover of 1997, which substituted one colonial master for another. It would be a sad irony indeed if the events which prompted Hong Kong to find its voice were the same ones that led to it being silenced.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based lawyer and writer. Twitter: @antd


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