December 2, 2014

Letter: Umbrella movement more dynamic than represented

In his op-ed “Under My Umbrella” (10/24/14) David Grossman arguest that the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong’s protest for a more democratic election process under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, will end as soon as the CCP says it will. As an international student from Hong Kong, I quibble with such an assertion. It is my belief that the Umbrella Movement is an Apollonian, republican movement that cements Hong Kong’s best characteristics: a British determination to the rule of law and civic participation, and a strong, pragmatic, nonviolent, and homogeneous civic consciousness. The events since 9/28 have revealed:

Support from the middle class. In recent years before the current protests, Hong Kong’s middle class has been largely cynical about progressive political change. On one side it sees the establishment, paid by a grotesque hegemony of Chinese and business interests, and therefore not to be trusted; on the other, it sees callow pan-Democrats, hijacking a moral high ground of political rights to air crass or inconvenient causes, seeming like populist buffoons. In fear of disorder, Hong Kong’s middle class reluctantly accepted the limited suffrage outlined by the white paper as a possible catalyst of measured change.

Yet this consensus was shattered by the protests on September 28 that started the Umbrella Movement. The protests, led by astounding self-organization through social media feeds and media campaigns, have shattered much of the illusion that the protestors are indolent radicals. In fact, many of the students who participated in the protest are not insurgents, but middle-class students in law, medicine, and business. Hence, the protests have enjoyed some support from professional communities—from local businesses donating food and other supplies, to lawyers providing free homework help to street protesters. The protest has become a testament to public reason and civic compassion.

The public had long known that, though the robust real estate and banking industries had sustained general welfare for long, rising land prices and private monopolies would make it difficult for most young people to reach financial independence. With the Umbrella Movement, it became possible to express such discontent beyond a fatalistic que sera sera. When student groups called for the public to wear black to work on September 29 to express solidarity for the protest, many white-collar workers joined. The Movement, from this view, is the birth of a new political consciousness.

Ambivalence from the CCP. It is difficult for an outsider to suss out what exactly the party intends to do: to piece out, from state-run periodicals, public speeches, and loosely connected actions, a true motive. There is rumor that the reforms of Xi Jinping, the newly minted leader of China’s leadership, were opposed by certain members of the Politburo (the Party’s core group of officials), who led the cause to restrain universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In public remarks, Xi scarcely made note of the protests in October, instead calling for respect of “one country, two systems.” A brief hubbub arose on November 10, when an official conversation was held between Xi and Hong Kong Chief Executive C. Y. Leung, Xi did not officially “affirm” the actions of Leung’s administration, as was customary. Most curiously, in October, a party-run newspaper in Hong Kong announced the winner of a photography contest: an image of Xi holding a black umbrella.

This all sounds like a conspiracy theory, and it may just be so. Those who know more are obviously not writing editorials, and it is silly to believe that Xi is a closet Gorbachev. But this also indicates that Beijing has a cautious relationship with the current Hong Kong administration, and is open to a reorganization, if not relinquishment, of power.

Does this mean that change is imminent? It seems unlikely that Beijing would allow uninhibited universal suffrage. But, for a state that worships stasis, Beijing must be considering a democratic mechanism of public opinion more favorable to its authority than the instability of a long-term protest. I am holding out to the possibility  of the electoral committee opening up, perhaps in the 2022 Chief Executive elections, to allow more student voices.

But can such a response be a timely and adequate valve for public anger? Can a compromise heal nascent societal rifts? A recent resurgence of protests in late November, spurred by an attempt by the police to clear out protestors from Mong Kok, has seen the rise of more violent protest groups, and more unabashed police brutality. The Western media has long given up—with Obama weakly declaring support for “openness in government”—and it’s not certain what external support would accomplish anyway.

As part of the Hong Kong Students’ Association, I am co-directing a symposium with academics and key local political figures to discuss the Umbrella Movement and its ramifications. But as I, far from home, bury myself in this rapid, unending stream of news and photographs, I feel that a new world—its precepts unpinnable—is unfolding, while I am just at its edge.

Wing Kui Brian Ng is a third-year majoring in Economics and English Literature.