Tracing the origins of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement

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tags: Hong Kong, Umbrella Movement



Hong Kong has been in turmoil. The 2003 demonstration in which more than half a million demonstrators successfully forestalled the Article 23 anti-subversion legislation, as well as the 2012 rally of 130,000 and the threat of general student strikes that forced the government to shelve implementation of a Beijing-ordered National Education curriculum in Hong Kong schools, showed that Beijing could not crack down on Hong Kong’s dissenting voices as readily as it repeatedly has in mainland China. Such resistance victories have not brought a willingness to compromise on fundamentals by either Hong Kong’s opposition forces or Beijing. On the contrary, they may have radicalized both sides. Beijing’s decision to induct hardliner CY Leung as the chief executive in 2012, despite strong opposition even from its traditional allies among the city’s tycoons, shows that it is ready to use more draconian means to deal with an increasingly bold opposition intent on upholding Hong Kong’s relative autonomy.

In the meantime, the British flag or Hong Kong flag containing the Union Jack started to appear and spread in annual July 1st and January 1st demonstrations in 2012. Slogans attacking mainland tourists and even “Chinese colonialists” surfaced.

Beijing and many pro-establishment observers sensed the emergence of a strong localist identity and even a pro-independence disposition. Besides explicit political declarations that defy Beijing rule, localist and anti-Chinese youth also initiated militant direct action. One example was the protest that sought to disrupt smuggling activities by mainland tourists to defend local supply of daily necessities, most of all baby formula, echoing the food riots in early modern Europe studied in E. P. Thompson’s seminal article “The moral economy of the English crowd in the Eighteenth century.”3 Localist demonstrations also led the Hong Kong government to restrict birth tourism from the mainland that strained the public hospital system.

Recent opinion polls show that Hong Kong identity has been surging while Chinese identity has been fading among Hong Kong residents, particularly among youth. Such radicalization of Hong Kong local consciousness not only irritated Beijing. It also departs from the historical domination of Chinese nationalist discourse in Hong Kong’s opposition movement, which has tended to see itself as an avatar of Chinese liberalization and democratization, since its inception in the 1980s.

The question of local identity in Hong Kong is examined from the perspectives of Beijing, Chinese nationalist liberals, and Hong Kong local youth in three recent books by Jiang Shigong, Chan Koon-chung and Chin Wan. The increasing assertiveness of Beijing as an imperial center over Hong Kong, part and parcel of the rising statism and nationalism among the Chinese elite, is epitomized by Jiang Shigong’s book. Chan Koon-chung’s and Chin Wan’s books constitute powerful retorts to Beijing’s neo-imperialist stance on Hong Kong, both explicitly challenging Jiang’s thesis. While Chan’s response resonates with the perspective of liberal intellectuals in mainland China, Chin’s response, rooted in a Hong Kong perspective, reflects the rising tide of Hong Kong localist ideology and actions...




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