“A Visual History of the #UmbrellaMovement”
This essay was initially slated to appear in the Fall 2014 issue. However, our print vendor is based in the People’s Republic of China, and as we found out at the very last minute of production, PrintNinja is subject to Chinese censorship laws. Thus, they could not print the magazine if it included this documentation of the Hong Kong protests.
In order to receive the magazine in time for our biannual release event, we were unfortunately forced to pull Larry’s essay from the print issue. We printed it domestically as an insert that will appear in 300 select copies.
We were angered and disappointed by yet another case of censorship. In retrospect, perhaps we should have foreseen the implications of outsourcing our printing to China. But more importantly, this incident served to remind us of the privileges that we often take for granted, of the absolute necessity and right to freedom of speech and press we all deserve. It reminded us of our position as university students in America and of our privilege to publish in a forum such as VISIONS. We must remember that injustice anywhere impacts us all, and continue to draw attention to the ongoing struggle for universal suffrage and democracy outside the United States.
A Visual History of the #UmbrellaMovement
photo essay by Larry Au
Perhaps more out of luck and habit than anything else, I happened to be able to watch events develop in Hong Kong this summer until the eruption of the so-called “Umbrella Movement” at the end of September. After graduation, I returned to Hong Kong, where I witnessed the annual July 1st March, a tradition since 2003, when half a million took to the streets to protest the implementation of national security legislation perceived to curtail civil liberties. This year’s march was the biggest since it began. What would otherwise be a thirty-minute walk from Causeway Bay to Central took over six hours to complete. In the tropical summer heat and sudden downpours, the call from those gathered was clear and simple: “Let us have a genuine choice for our 2017 elections”.
When the National People’s Congress handed down their decision on August 31, very few had expected it to be as restrictive as it was. Even pro-establishment and pro-Beijing politicians were caught by surprise.
Occupy Central quickly announced a rally that night where thousands participated, vowing to begin the “era of resistance”. Yet even then, it was unclear how many would actually heed Occupy Central’s call for civil disobedience. I watched as Occupy Central fought to capture the city’s support during its Black Cloth March on September 14. Smaller in scale than previous marches, I doubted whether such a relatively small number of activists could outmaneuver the police, who had trained for months now to deal with their disruption.
It was then that students in Hong Kong began to organize the Class Boycotts. I was inspired by the creativity and ingenuity shown as students ditched classrooms to go outdoors and listen to the hundred or so lectures organized by academics who had volunteered their services so that the students could continue learning. Lectures ranged from topics as diverse as “A Feminist Critique of Democracy” and “The Mathematics of Social Justice”. The Class Boycott began at the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus on September 22 and continued in Tamar Park until September 26.
On September 26 around 10 pm, the students decided to reclaim Civic Square, the small public space by the Central Government Complex that had recently been fenced off. A gut feeling told me that things could go south. As supporters on the scene rallied around the cry “Protect Our Students,” they placed themselves between the students and the police by blocking the road that led to Civic Square. The police attempted to penetrate the human barrier by pushing through with riot gear and using pepper spray. While the police were overly aggressive and clearly disorganized, the students and their supporters remained calm and peaceful, knowing that even a slight shove back towards the police could serve as excuse for arrest and retaliatory force. They would hold out until around 4 am when the police finally retreated.
The mood was elated as people recognized that they themselves and those immediately around them were willing to risk arrest in order to be heard—the essence of civil disobedience.
Yet, in spite of this willingness to be arrested, at around 6 pm, the police decided to release tear gas into the midst of those gathered—including young children, members of the press, the students themselves, and elderly citizens. I had left the streets just half an hour earlier and did not return. Over 80 canisters were fired that night at members of the public, who pleaded with police on their knees with their hands up in the air. All they had were umbrellas, saran wrap, surgical masks, and rain ponchos to protect themselves from the onslaught of chemical weaponry. The international media captured the chaos that ensued.
I managed to sneak one more look at the occupation sites the next day on September 29 before flying out that night to London.What I will say is this: Regardless of the outcomes, the Umbrella Movement has taught the world so much. First, it has brought to the fore of our local and global consciousness many of the problems that exist in Hong Kong: that of an unaccountable system of government and a debilitating economic inequality that has deprived an entire generation of opportunity. Second, it has shown us that protest can be virtuous and must be conducted according to principles of nonviolence. And third, we have seen how seemingly apathetic or uncaring publics can be brought together as a community—united in their response to police brutality and injustice.
While over a month has passed (on the day of writing), I and many other overseas remain sleepless over events back home. Even though we are detached and removed from the immediate context of Hong Kong, we remain deeply connected to the networks of affect that those in the diaspora found themselves suddenly implicated with.
Larry Au‘ 14 is a former Editor-in-Chief of VISIONS. He is currently studying Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford.