Shedding light on Umbrella Revolution

Kamna Shastri

Throngs of people fill Hong Kong’s Central district, packed shoulder to shoulder. The square echoes with a cacophony of voices and slogans. The atmosphere is tense; policemen in neon yellow vests try to contain the crowd as occasional violence erupts. Plumes of pepper spray sometimes fill the air as people hold out umbrellas in defense.

Occupy Central, known as the Umbrella Revolution, is currently taking Hong Kong by storm. Initiated by university students, the protests express anger at the Chinese Central government’s screening requirement of all candidates standing in the 2017 election, which has been promised by law.

Hong Kong has followed a political and economic system distinct from mainland China since July 1997 when it gained independence from Britain and integrated into China. The movement is currently seen by media and supporters as a struggle for independence and for democracy.

A Complicated Context

China is a complicated place. This is the first thing juniors Kangqiao Liao, Suzy Xu and first-year Yujian Wang say when talking about Chinese politics. Though they all hail from different parts of China and they agree there is no black and white way to think about China and its politics, common conceptions of China in the United States consist of people oppressed by government censoring and an authoritarian regime.

Xu says this is not wholly true.

Suzy Xi '15. Photos by Halley McCormick.
Suzy Xi ’15. Photos by Halley McCormick.

“We have censoring, but people find a way [out] because people are curious,” said Xu. “They even have software packages that provide ways to ‘jump the wall.”

Language is yet another tool, according to Wang. He provided this example: If you were to type in the name of the chairman, China’s version of Google, Baidu, might have certain articles blocked. But when the chairman is given a code name in social media –– such as “frog” (Wang says this is because he resembles a frog), previously forbidden information can become accessible.

Just as China’s realities are more nuanced than people assume, the nation’s relations with Hong Kong aren’t as clear-cut as people think.

History Marks the Present

Liao is from Guangzhou, a city in Guangdong province, one hour away from Hong Kong. He said his friends back home have mixed feelings about the movement. Some of them see sense in fighting for freedom even though efforts may not pay off. Others see it a disruption of daily life and economic activity, since protests are in the economic hotspot of the Central district.

Kangqiao Liao '15.
Kangqiao Liao ’15.

For many people, the movement is divisive because of the diverging histories of Hong Kong and China. Protests are becoming increasingly violent as anti-demonstration protesters clash with Occupy protesters.

The Chinese government hasn’t always been transparent about this tension around their relationship. Xu offered the image of Hong Kong presented in her censored school textbooks.

“Our textbook only talked about how happy China is and how happy Hong Kong is, and it seems like it just wanted to portray this unity of the two parts [without] going into details,” she said.

The Internet paints a different picture.

“From [social networks] there is a general feeling [of] the Mainland peoples perceiving that Hong Kong people think they are superior,” said Wang.

Some people harbor this sentiment because Mainland China had to endure the hardships of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Hong Kong, however, doesn’t come from the same history.

“[My parents’] generation [has] appreciation of the Chinese government because my mother witnessed China becoming, from poverty, [a] more economically strengthened country,” said Wang.

Yu Jian Wang '18.
Yu Jian Wang ’18.

“They think that if the central government treats Hong Kong well, then Hong Kong should be nice to the central government. In my opinion, giving economic benefits to Hong Kong does not [imply] that they do not deserve to fight for this freedom. It’s not the same thing,” he said.

Xu’s parents have similar sentiments. Xu’s mother recalls going hungry and having to use food stamps during the Cultural Revolution. Meat was available only in small quantities with little frequency.

“When we asked [my parents] how much [they] care about freedom now, the first thing they think about is that we are already glad that our living standards now are so much better than previous [times],” said Xu.

In light of this increase in quality of life, Liao suggested that many Chinese think the central government functions sufficiently.

“You have to eat first, live well first, then talk about ideologically what you want to have,” said Liao.

When asked whether he supports the protesters in Hong Kong, Liao is quick to say it’s not so much about the end result as it is about the means used to get there. He thinks negotiations should be the first step whereas protests and demonstrations are more of a last resort.

Both Liao and Wang think China will not grant Hong Kong sovereign independence –– at least not for the time being. However, all three students agree that Hong Kong is a space for trends to begin.

“Hong Kong is an experimental field … a lot of things that cannot happen in mainland China can happen in Hong Kong,” said Liao.

He added that such protests would be immediately squashed were they to happen in mainland China.

Broadening a Narrow View

Before Xu shares an opinion on the situation, she wants to be fully aware of the larger picture.

“I’m not against people having freedom; at the same time, I want to understand what the government is thinking. I don’t believe that all the people in government are evil … that would be ridiculous,” she said. “I want to make an effort to know what is really happening. I want to educate myself first and form my ideas and at least be informed by different sources so I can get that objective view.”

China’s complicated system makes it challenging to get a broad view.

“Without democracy, one major problem is the transparency of the system [the Chinese Government],” said Wang.

He recognizes that China’s strict form of government has its drawbacks, but Wang questions the notion of democracy as the ideal political system.

“American people, they like to use their democracy view to judge other political systems, but the point is that democracy is taken for granted,” said Wang. “Just because it’s a successful system doesn’t mean it’s the only way for political success.”

Liao strongly echoed this sentiment, expressing his displeasure at the way in which American media and foreign policy tout democracy as the only correct political identity. Anything that is not democratic is seen as bad –– in the case of China and Hong Kong, mainland China’s hand in Hong Kong is “bad,” and Hong Kong’s protests are “good”. Liao and Wang both emphasize how views of Hong Kong’s current state are so influenced by these narrow –– and perhaps imperialistic –– ideas.

Liao said this isn’t just a battle of ideologies, but a clash between Western and Chinese interests.

“Chinese central media is very much condemning the UK and the U.S. as trying to advocate their own interest,” Liao said.

But he thinks a nation’s political truth is not absolute –– it should not be based on other nation’s interests but tailored to their own circumstances.

“There is no linear progress, there is no singular linear development of a society,” said Liao. “Everyone has to look into their own [society] holistically –– history, culture, society and people –– and come up with a way to arrange society.”

In light of this, he noted that people at Whitman go beyond this narrow view of political systems. He said that in discussions in his politics courses, he feels people are more open to thinking about how different cultures might view different political systems.

No Perfect Solution

These students point out that sometimes a nation’s self-determination might mean making trade-offs, which outsiders to that specific system and place may not understand or accept.

Many the world over think of China’s government as an authoritarian regime without considering its unique circumstances. It is a vast country with a population of 1.3 billion people. Liao argues that the government is effective when it comes to getting things done for such a large group of people. Though others may not understand or agree with it, China’s political choices have allowed it to grow into the world’s second largest superpower in just 30 years, said all three students.

“There’s too much going on in China. It’s such a huge country and it’s hard to meet everyone’s interests,” said Xu.

Amidst all the hazy complications –– between Chinese and Western interest, between an authoritarian system and a democratic one –– one thing seems to be clear to Xu.

“There is no perfect way to do things,” she said.

Suzy Xi '15Kangqiao Liao '15Yu Jian Wang '18


For more information on Occupy Central:

Why is Hong Kong Protesting – BBC

Genesis of The Umbrella Movement – The World Post

A tale of two political systems – TED