Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

To the Beleaguered Hong Kong 'Umbrella Revolution': The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

By Sarah CutlerPublished October 24, 2014

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Though the Hong Kong protests have faced their share of problems, from the lack of a cohesive message to publicity issues rooted in the Communist Party's censorship, these protests have taught the world some valuable lessons.
By Sarah Cutler, 10/24/14

Despite an auspicious beginning of stellar organization and discipline, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in recent weeks have run into problems. Put simply, the Umbrella Revolution is petering out, even though the demonstrators' demands are far from being met ——Hong Kong's top leader, chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, remains in office; the pro-democracy camp's quest to win genuine universal suffrage from Beijing appears to have little chance of being realized; and planned talks with the government of Hong Kong by no means guarantee any tangible gain.

What's more, the movement faces a publicity issue: thanks to Communist Party control over the media in Mainland China, many there are strongly opposed to the demonstrators, whom the media portrays as "spoiled troublemakers," while others are unaware the protests are even happening. The movement also isn't terribly cohesive: its members have gone so far as to protest high housing prices, using the main pro-democracy platform to advocate for their own myriad issues.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing Occupy Central is the fact that its very mission may be misinformed. Though protesters are accusing Beijing of breaking its promise of universal suffrage in Hong Kong, that may not be the case at all. Hong Kong's "Basic Law," or Constitution, stipulates that once there is universal suffrage in 2017, all candidates for chief executive will need to get the approval of a nominating committee. If those in Hong Kong have an issue with that policy, constitutional reform is a better avenue for them to pursue. 

All this is not to say that the protests, flawed as they may be, have been for naught. Instead, these protests have taught China — and the world — some important lessons:

First, the movement has shown China, not for the first time, that Hong Kong sticks up for itself. Whether Beijing ultimately agrees to the protesters' demands, or whether the protest fizzles away before that can happen, the image of waves of protesters filling Hong Kong streets will no doubt flash through Chinese politicians' minds whenever they consider future policies at odds with Hong Kong's interests. 

In addition, the movement has served as a fascinating case study of what happens when protests are unable to garner the attention of those who could be their staunchest supporters — in this case, Mainland Chinese, many of whom are already cynical of their government's policies. Because Beijing wants to avoid protests on its own soil, it has taken media and Internet censorship to an all-time high, effectively keeping Mainland Chinese in the dark about the protests, and portraying the protesters as irrational whenever it does refer to them. Though Western media has focused heavily on coverage of the protests, those living in Mainland China have little to no access to reliable news updates on the subject.

This presents an interesting challenge to Chinese people living outside of China, in particular to college students studying abroad in the US or elsewhere. With their immensely higher level of access to information, these students are in a unique position to keep their family and friends back home informed of what's going on in Hong Kong. With their help, Mainland Chinese could make an informed decision about whether to side with Occupy Central, perhaps pushing the movement to new heights with their support.

Finally, the protests politicized a new generation, which by itself is a powerful result. The Washington Post chronicled one 17-year-old protest leader's discussion with reporters, in which he said, "I'm organizing because thirty years from now, I don't want my own kid to be on the streets, fighting for democracy."