What To Know: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

For eleven days, Hong Kong has been the scene of student protests and sit-ins. The Chinese city has seen thousands of students pour into the streets to participate in calls for full democracy in Hong Kong, but clashes with police and pro-government gangs have many unsure of how successful the movement will ultimately be. As the protesters begin dialogue with the government, the future of China’s largely independent and immensely prosperous city is unclear.


How It Started

Protests began on September 22, when student organization Occupy Central with Love & Peace started a scheduled sit-in following the pepper-spraying and arrest of a number of students. Joined by groups like Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the numbers quickly swelled as students turned up to support the call for full-democracy in Hong Kong. These are the latest in a string of pro-democracy protests to take place in Hong Kong in recent months.

Protesters have made a point to remain non-violent, even in the wake of tear-gas wielding police and violent thugs. The use of umbrellas to block the sting of pepper-spray has earned protests the name “Umbrella Revolution,” although organizers insist they do not have revolutionary aims. International attention has been drawn to the well-mannered students, with images flooding the media of young people cleaning up the street and holding signs advocating civil disobedience.


What Protesters Want

Current protests are calling for the resignation of current city chief executive Leung Chun-ying and free elections for his successor, but it’s unclear if Beijing will agree to these demands. Hong Kong, once a British colony, has long maintained a level of independence from Beijing. As a result, Communist officials in the central government are wary of the city, seeing it as a possible threat to party control. 

The call for full democracy does not stretch to Beijing, however. The demand is only for change in Hong Kong, a pinpoint focus that differentiates the movement from other democracy protests. But with separatist movements flourishing around the world, Beijing may see the student-led uprising as a very real threat to Communist rule.

With protests dragging into a second week, many are unsure if the movement can maintain momentum long enough to achieve change. Numbers remain in the high hundreds, but protesters have allowed workers to return to work in the government building currently surrounded by students.


Government Response

Although working out a framework for dialogue between the government and protesters, Beijing and the Communist Party did not take kindly to the students in the streets. Tear gas was used to disperse crowds, only to have them return in full-force. Pepper spray and threats of increased force did not break up encampments either. In Mong Kok, a neighborhood with a large camp of protesters, pro-government thugs attacked the group on Friday. Although unclear if the thugs were connected to the government, protesters decried the lack of response by police and officials. But these heavy handed tactics did little to dampen the momentum of protests.

The international community has voiced support for the Umbrella Revolution, particularly in the West where leaders are wary of Communist rule in Beijing. But there is a fine line foreign countries can walk, particularly given Hong Kong’s history of colonization and independence. If Beijing can cast protests as foreign meddling, officials will be handed a green light for a crackdown.

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