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Occupy Central Is Not Like Previous Protest Movements

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests borrow from a global language of dissent, but are reflective of the very specific politics and history of the administrative region.

by Natasha Lennard
Sep 30 2014, 10:45pm

Photo by Wong Maye-E/AP

The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have been described in the US media through a prism of comparisons. The headlines demand to know whether this is the next Tiananman Square moment. Talking heads wonder whether we are seeing the same tactics and gestures used by demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri. Paragraphs address whether Occupy Central is or isn't anything like its Occupy namesakes in the US. The moniker format now liberally applied to all protest movements with an air of historic significance has been tacked on - we are apparently looking at the "umbrella revolution."

And comparisons are useful. The Occupy Central organizers knew this when they chose the name; the students at the forefront of the protest movement knew this, too, when they gathered earlier this month under a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue, a symbol of the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square, to plan their current acts of mass civil disobedience. Reaching for symbolic cues from relevant protest histories, even revolutionary fictions (they're singing songs from Les Mis!), Occupy Central's thousands of participants create a resonant protest spectacle. Add to this a truth that we hold self-evident: Nothing builds support for a movement like riot cops lobbing tear gas into crowds.

But the way in which the Occupy Central demonstrations appear unique, even peculiar to Hong Kong, might tell us more about the idiosyncratic challenges facing the Special Administrative Region. To urge comparisons with other protest movements and moments risks underplaying the historic weight of thousands of Hong Kongers taking to the streets and refusing to leave.

Let's start with umbrellas. Protesters using umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas has produced some visually arresting images. It works well as a symbol for an explicitly non-violent movement; an umbrella protects, and umbrella defends from the elements. Hong Kongers did not pick up umbrellas en masse to serve as protest tools. September is typhoon season; Hong Kong swelters and steams at an average of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) right now - it's common for people there to carry umbrellas. If this is the umbrella revolution, that owes as much to the vagaries of climate as it does to the strength of symbolism.

But I'm not sure this is the umbrella revolution, largely because it's not a revolution. Occupy Central is making demands from and on a political system, it is not seeking to upturn it. This is not my judgement - Occupy Central's official website says as much. As the FAQ section of the site notes, the protests have an "ultimate goal." The site asserts, "This campaign is not a 'revolution' because Occupy Central does not aim at overthrowing the existing system. The Occupy Central campaign has one and only one goal, without other associations."

The official goal is democracy, but not in some broad ideological sense, which aligns democracy with goodness and fairness. Occupy Central's expressed goals deal very explicitly with voting and elections. Hong Kong's constitutional document - the Basic Law - determines how the region will move from British to Chinese hands, and what degree of autonomy Hong Kong's government can exercise. Basic Law promised the people of Hong Kong universal suffrage, but the devil lay in the lack of detail. Interpreting the document to their own advantage, China ruled recently that the nominees for Hong Kong's Chief Executive would be vetted by Beijing. The protesters want the promise of universal suffrage fulfilled, as well as the resignation of current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

Of course there are broader issues at play. Hong Kong's record-breaking levels of inequality undergird arguments for suffrage. It is the second-most expensive city in the world but its minimum wage is only $3.86 per hour. Occupy Central does not barter in the language of economic struggle nor class conflict, but the demand for more direct democracy reflects an anger at how Beijing's control serves Hong Kong's billionaires not, as the protest chant goes, "Hong Kong People!"

And while Occupy Central began with a very specific aim and remit, it has already exceeded expected size and longevity. As Steven Hsieh reported for VICE News, "While formal groups such as Occupy Central with Love and Peace and the Hong Kong Federation of Students laid the groundwork for the protests, the movement has blossomed on the energy of the masses." The possibility for the protest to continue to exceed itself shouldn't be ruled out while so many people continue to occupy Central's streets all day and night.

The umbrella revolution might be historic precisely because it is not a revolution, but a reflection of the unavoidable political conflict attending Hong Kong's near future. I'm not talking here about some linear Marxist course of history, but rather the very specific constitutional challenges riddling the Sino-Hong Kong "one country, two systems" model. At the same time Hong Kong has been edging towards a system of greater democracy since the end of British rule 14 years ago, it has also been on a path of integration with China.

The "two systems" framework thus presents a problem of power now typical of contemporary China, aligned with efforts to liberalize parts of its financial system, while enforcing fiercer social controls. Occupy Central has brought the conflicts entailed therein, which have no obvious resolution, to the fore.

I have long been skeptical of the idea that a protest's size alone is a metric for its significance. I saw little political force in the recent vast People's Climate March in New York, which I considered more of a parade than a protest. Occupy Central, too, certainly seems to bear an air of politeness and calm which I would, in a US context, criticize. Not only has there been no damage to property, but protesters have held up signs apologizing for an inconvenience to the functioning of commerce; a string quartet has been providing gentile entertainment. But context is all. This sort of civil disobedience is profoundly atypical for a tightly controlled city, through which capital flows at lightning speed. Central's streets are unaccustomed to popular occupation. So while I might scoff at "peace and love" protests in this country, I continue to watch Occupy Central with great interest as Hong Kong People dissent on their own terms, in their own ways.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard