On the two-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution, named for the umbrellas protesters wielded to protect themselves from tear gas, the streets of the bustling global city were once again teeming with citizens eager to have their voices heard. Photos showed large crowds at many points in the city filled with politically engaged Hong Kong residents. Simultaneously, back in China, the Communist Party’s censors were working to keep any mention of the activities off of Chinese social media and news outlets, similar to their actions in 2014. However, this year there was no violence, no police cars, no tear gas and no traffic being blocked. In fact, citizens weren’t gathering to protest and demand democracy. They were turning out to vote in the Legislative Council elections, the first since the Umbrella Revolution, to ensure that their voices would still be heard even after the streets were cleared and activists arrested.
Turnout in the Legislative Council (LegCo for short) elections was only about 58 percent, or 2.2 million voters, but this surpassed the previous all-time high turnout of 55.6 percent set 12 years ago. Many Hong Kong citizens are becoming more engaged following the end of the Umbrella Revolution. After ballots were counted, pro-democracy candidates won 30 out of the 40 available seats in the LegCo, ensuring that the bloc would possess the power to veto any unpopular and/or controversial legislation in the chamber. More notably, however, candidates from the pro-independence/localist camp, including a university lecturer and a student protest leader, gained six seats in the LegCo, a first in the history of Hong Kong and a reflection of the belief shared amongst many Hong Kong citizens that they are a nation with the right to self-determination. However, many pro-democracy candidates stress that self-determination does not necessarily mean independence, with one councilor stating, “I do not agree Hong Kong should become independent…but the issue should be open for discussion.”
The results of the election and the rising localist sentiment has no doubt irked Beijing but, as in 2014, there is little likelihood that any concessions will be made by the Chinese government. The Umbrella Revolution had stayed in the streets for months, but other than the increased political awareness of the populace, the only results of the protests were a Chinese crackdown on dissident authors and the arrest of the main student leaders. Although independence movements are gaining ground in areas like Scotland and Catalonia, China is diametrically opposed to relinquishing any territory it controls or claims to control and does not respond peacefully to “separatists.” It has already rejected the possibility of Hong Kong citizens electing their own candidates for the Chief Executive Office, the key reason behind the Umbrella Revolution, and many in Hong Kong believe that China is meddling more than it should in Hong Kong’s affairs. Despite lawmakers from the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps dismissing independence as a pipe dream or flat-out illegal, Alan Leong, leader of the pro-democracy but not pro-independence Civic Party, warns that independence movements will “flourish” if Beijing continues its “high-handed approach towards Hong Kong.”
Considering that despite months of protesting the Umbrella Movement resulted in no major changes to Chinese government policy, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the protests were actually worth it. Ms. Li (first name withheld), now a student at Hong Kong Baptist University who participated in the Umbrella Revolution as a high school student, argues that the protests were “a turning point for Hong Kong.” “I think the movement failed but at least people showed their lack of satisfaction with the government,” she says, adding that the Umbrella Revolution was an “improvement” over past protests since it went from “peaceful to radical.” Ms. Li echoes the sentiments of many who believe that peaceful protests will ultimately fail to convince China to back off and that Hong Kong citizens must actively resist China to maintain their way of life. Some of the more militant independence parties, such as the nativist Civic Passion Party (for whom Ms. Li voted), are gaining backing from larger segments of the public, with one supporter acknowledging that “there’s no hope for political reform if we stick with peaceful means.” Despite only winning a few seats in the LegCo election, there is no doubt their growth will continue unabated should China not stick to its promise of “one country, two systems.”
As previously stated, self-determination was one of the main ideas behind the Umbrella Protests but it has shifted from being about the ability to choose Hong Kong’s leaders to the ability to determine Hong Kong’s future, independent or not. Demosisto, a political party founded by student protest leader Joshua Wong, calls for Hong Kong to have an independence referendum within the next ten years and for the results to be effective by 2047. This date was chosen because it is 50 years after Hong Kong was returned to China and when the 50 years of autonomy promised by China in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration run out. While independence is not an easy thing to achieve, the belief that Hong Kong citizens are a unique population with the right to self-determination will be a key component of any independence movement going forward. For the past decade, citizens of Hong Kong have increasingly identified as Hong Kongers or mixed Chinese-Hong Konger instead of Chinese alone, with over 40 percent identifying as Hong Kongers and less than 20 percent identifying as Chinese. In fact, when the Hong Kong soccer team and Chinese soccer team met for a World Cup qualifiers match in 2015, the Hong Kong citizens in the crowd booed the Chinese national anthem despite warnings from the Chinese government that there would be consequences.
“My family came from Chaozhou (a region in neighboring Guangdong Province),” states Ms. Li, “but we don’t want to return since the laws are better here [in Hong Kong].” Many in Hong Kong are following the lead of pro-independence groups precisely because of the reason Ms. Li suggests: the legal system in Hong Kong is largely free from Chinese influence, and the greatest fear of those living in Hong Kong is that they will one day have to answer to the Chinese Communist Party instead of their local officials. In fact, earlier this year, a movie called “Ten Years” was released to show what Hong Kong would be like under Chinese rule. Naturally the Chinese government banned it and called on Hong Kong to cease screenings of it. But to many in Hong Kong, the movie, with its depictions of children spying for the government and self-immolation protests, was a chilling vision of how Hong Kong would end up if China were to take full legal and political control.
Nevertheless, despite a growing passion for it, independence would not be an easy task for Hong Kong and not all political parties would be willing to comply for a variety of reasons. First, unlike a comparable city-state such as Singapore, Hong Kong is geographically connected to China and imports 80 percent of commodities like water from China, indicating that it is highly likely even if Hong Kong can gain independence from China, there would be far-reaching economic consequences. On one hand, China has little reason to let Hong Kong become independent because it accounts for 3 percent of China’s GDP and is home to two-thirds of foreign direct investment into China, largely due to the fair, transparent legal system which is absent in China. While a split would have more far-reaching economic consequences for Hong Kong than China, many would argue that it is undeniable that Hong Kong’s special status has aided Beijing immensely. On the other hand, Hong Kong used to account for 16 percent of China’s GDP in 1997 compared to 3 percent today and will likely be surpassed economically by other southern Chinese cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou within the coming decades due to their growing populations and attempts to bring in more business. As such, should Hong Kong no longer be economically valuable to China compared to other cities on the mainland, China would have more of an incentive to fully annex the territory rather than grant Hong Kong full independence and make it into a “second-tier city.” However, Hong Kong still remains a highly competitive global city and those arguing for self-determination want to remind Beijing that they risk losing what has for years been a key part of their economy should they deny democracy to Hong Kong citizens.
When the streets of districts like Central and Tsim Sha Tsui were cleared in December 2014 and the Umbrella Revolution moved out of the public eye, many weren’t sure how the activists would move forward since they had extracted no concessions from Beijing and many were arrested. They knew the system was rigged against them, as demonstrated by candidates for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive being vetted by Beijing and the fact that 30 out of 70 of the seats in the LegCo are reserved for pro-Beijing business owners, but instead of backing down they simply left the streets saying “we will be back.” According to Ms. Li, Hong Kong citizens will not get what they want without two things: voting in the LegCo elections and staging more radical protests. As such, the victory of pro-democracy candidates in the LegCo elections seems to be the perfect sequel to the Umbrella Revolution and shows that the ideas which sparked the revolution live on.