Umbrella Movement / September 2016 (Issue 33)

Umbrella Movement Two Years On: Feeling the Fear of Life Lived as Threat

by Michael O'Sullivan

Firstly, I do not read Chinese or speak Cantonese fluently, so, as my students tell me, I am "out of the loop" and am missing out on the majority of what gets written in Hong Kong about Hong Kong. However, having lived in the city for over seven years, I am now entitled to vote for the first time. As a voter and as a teacher who has offered a course on literature and politics for two years (2015 and 2016) to bright, intelligent students who are deeply concerned about the future of Hong Kong, I wish to reflect on the Umbrella Movement (UM) through the reflections of these students while also offering some thoughts of my own.


"Out of the Loop"

Expats are not expected to know what is "really" going on in Hong Kong. My partner, who is a Hongkonger, reminds me of this as do my students who are activists, netizens and Hong Kong citizens interested in the "One Country, Two Systems" policy. It is of course correct—expats like me who don't speak Cantonese fluently and who don't read Chinese are "out of the loop" no matter how much we try to read up on or discuss the issues. For example, I asked students in class for their opinions about the Mong Kok "riots." We had a lively discussion. That evening, I received a 7000-word email complete with links to all the relevant stories and statistics from Chinese-language sites embedded correctly from a student who started her point in class by saying effectively that I was "out of the loop." After reading her email, I realised how right she was but also how informed our students are. I am officially "out of the loop." I admit it. I will not be understood by the majority here if I speak about what I see and feel in Hong Kong. If I tried to stand for election for Hong Kong's governing body the Legislative Council (LegCo), no one would vote for me. They would be mad to vote for me. I would be useless in LegCo as whenever I stood up I would have to speak in English. They would not only not trust me because I was an expat, but also because I could not speak the language of politics here—Cantonese—and so the vast majority would not even want to try to understand my take on policy.


Life as Threat

Why am I labouring this point? Well, because in being as objective, as politically conscientious and as politically "liberal" as the various protest movements, splinter groups, nationalist/independence groups and their supporters want and claim to be, there is also a tendency to take possession of, and ring fence, the "loop." The Cantonese heritage is in these times, for many, an endangered and deeply self-conscious linguistic and cultural heritage and so too are the political and cultural narratives in Cantonese on the political future of Hong Kong. This "threat consciousness" pervades everything. Our schools, our hospitals, our universities, our jobs and livelihoods are all under threat. Why then should we not also feel that our discussion of what is "really" going on in Hong Kong is also under threat? Take what you must but leave us this, leave us our narratives and our understanding of what is "really" going on. You might have the power, but we have the counter-arguments and the detail on the true nature of our struggle. Language can determine the contours of a struggle and Cantonese must have an overriding influence here that I cannot see. But it is also true that when people are under threat they perceive everything as a potential threat. They are often not aware of how they act differently when they are acting out of fear. I see this in my students. And yet the loop is fast becoming all there is. The tragedy is that this "threat" is only going to get worse, so our bright, young people are born into, and nurtured into, this philosophy of threat and fear. The political backstory now has so many plots and counter-plots one would need at least a two-year self-funded MA degree in recent media history taught in Cantonese from a leading HK university to speak with any kind of authority. There has never been a protest movement like it. It is everywhere. To pun Churchill, HK's one-time de facto Commander-in-Chief, never have so many owed so much to so small a virtual space. Or again, it is about fighting them on the streets, the stalls, the Internet breaches and never surrendering. Churchill puns aside, the pan-localist, pan-"real democracy" is a new kind of protest, a protest-as-daily-practice-of-living movement, a three-, four- or five-year protest movement that has an Internet footprint like no other protest movement in history. Hongkong netizens under “life as threat” have made this the biggest story around and it's only going to get bigger. Therefore, I will most likely become ever more "out of the loop" as the threat grows. I will be like an astronaut caught in the darkness of an endless orbit around a planet I can only catch glimpses of. And, of course, none of this matters. What matters is the future of Hong Kong.


Political Parties "R" Us

The vast array of movements and splinter groups is not only the result of "life as threat." It is precisely because the Hong Kong political party system and LegCo show is in many ways, a more authentic scam, a bigger political charade than any other televised parliamentary proceedings. With no real power up for grabs, spectators come to believe that politics can be played out with no real repercussions. People crave real politics. Splinter groups, interest groups, localists, nationalists, netizens etc. have sprung up and received notoriety outside LegCo.. Hongkongers see daily on their screens that the official practice of politics in the Hong Kong LegCo is not only largely meaningless, but also that when the LegCo has to act responsibly and vote on the most important issue for Hong Kong, it even botched a mass walkout that sought to derail the political process. However, the irony is that the parties and the candidates are now being delegitimised by a largely illegitimate LegCo on the basis of their unwillingness to "really" commit to a politics that cannot entertain discussions of political independence. The publicly stated political statements of Edward Leung, a local politician who gained over 66,000 votes, were deemed not sufficiently authentic by a largely unelected team of civil servants. This will push the practice of "real" politics in Hong Kong further outside the official system. If the supporters of candidates such as Edward Leung are not accommodated inside LegCo, then they will have to practice politics on the Net and on the streets, and we have already seen that their methods are very different to those that had us all sitting on the streets in Mong Kok and Admiralty.


The Umbrella Movement as a Symbol of Possibility

Looking back on the UM, there is a sense now that we knew at the time, towards the end, that it would not achieve the political objectives it set itself. In the end, it was more about sustaining a protest movement as a symbol that would remind us, moving forward, of what support there was for change. The legacy of the UM is this heightened political consciousness and collective political acuity that is the result of "life as threat" but also of the UM as symbol of possibility. China might have its "Chinese Dream" but Hongkongers, being more pragmatic, have their efficient, well-organised and well-intentioned checks and balances for maintaining Hong Kong-style "democracy." Grounded on a respected legal system, Hong Kong-style "democracy" values justice as fairness without the political pandering and endless showmanship of US democratic elections. Hong Kong-style "democracy" is a top-down style of government grounded on a harsh meritocratic system that results in Hong Kong being one of the most unequal developed cities in the world. However, Hongkongers seem to be fine with this harsh top-down meritocracy that leaves so many out of the education and success loop. What Hongkongers really dislike is any erosion of the values associated with freedom of expression, free market economic policies, freedom of movement, freedom to start-up and maintain businesses, education with a liberal-arts leaning, the protection of privacy and a style of politics that has modelled itself on Western democracies for many decades. Since the majority of politics is today more about symbols and style than anything else, China would be well-advised to let Hong Kong keep the symbolic political practices and traditions that make Hongkongers feel their values are not being eroded. For example, the hammer and sickle of the Chinese Communist Party is not needed on flagpoles in community sportsgrounds. Hong Kong does not need five-year economic plans. Hong Kong women will never give up their choice to have three children and couples will not give in to political restrictions on the size of their families. Hong Kong people will always reserve the right to make as much fun as possible of their political leaders, something they share with democracies like the US and the UK.

The Causeway Bay bookseller disappearances controversy is perhaps the gravest threat to these values we have yet seen. Until there is a clear and well-documented LegCo response to these "disappearances," extraordinary renditions, "kidnappings," then faith in official parliamentary politics in Hong Kong will be fractured and the practice of "life as threat" will take charge. So long as popular local candidates continue to be delegitimised by a LegCo operation that is losing legitimacy for more and more the city's residents, street politics and netizen activism will grow. The invasive surveillance of Edward Leung together with the growing surveillance and intrusions into academic life—my profession—in Hong Kong also need the Hong Kong Judiciary to act. Hong Kong has always prided itself on the quality, academic freedoms and international standing of its universities. If stories about threats to academic freedoms in Hong Kong continue to surface, then those seeking to destabilise the universities will already have achieved their aims. Students are informed educational consumers and any institutional stain or implied lack of freedom will be quick to influence their decisions about where to spend their money. It will affect internationalisation, university ranking and ultimately funding with the result that fewer local students will have the opportunity to study locally in an international environment. Already the number of Hong Kong students applying to universities in Mainland China has grown ten-fold. If this offers our young people greater opportunities then it is a good thing but we must ensure we open up more degree places for local students in Hong Kong.


What Students Say

The young generation of committed student activists who have taken part in street protests and have created new political parties and publications (Hong Kong National Party, Demosistō) are more intent on learning through praxis than by attending cross-cultural humanities courses. However, students in Hong Kong have displayed a great willingness to engage in humanities courses that are willing to address the new political climate by offering readings and seminars that allow them to reference their own political work and political writings and publications alongside works by such writers as Orwell, Arendt, Foucault and Chomsky. In the "Literature and Politics" course I offered in 2015 and 2016, students gave 45-minute group presentations at the end of the course on such issues as the Hong Kong dock strike of 2013 and on the new "localism" movement in the city. Students displayed a willingness to employ the "liberal" ideas they have imbibed in classes so as to enact what seemed like their own practice of civic responsibility in their college work. The classroom became an extension of the streets they had been occupying and on which they had been attending and giving talks, in some cases on topics related to what we were reading in class. They discussed how they believed this sense of civic responsibility should also impact on how they are taught. One student wrote in her "reflections" on the course: "In a university where liberal ideas are cherished, it is reasonable for students to have some rights to decide their education policy and system […]. Given that students have serious attitudes towards learning, they can be helpful for the improvement of the university policy. Unfortunately, I have to admit that many students nowadays no longer share the interest of learning with the older generation college students. Yet, society still holds some responsibility to that phenomenon." I believe that such responses demonstrate how students are clearly working to balance the more "liberal" ideas of their educational context with ideas that have been passed down to them through their early schooling and through their family lives, ideas possibly more related to a Confucian influence. However, the important point for me was how students respond to important local issues by being mindful of the strong liberal tradition in Hong Kong and of the core Hong Kong values while at the same time recalling family roots that lie closer to Confucian values. The willingness to persevere in working out how all these voices can be merged and transformed into a life that looks beyond threat is what our students and young people offer us as we re-imagine the possibilities still afforded us by our memories of the UM.

 Michael O'Sullivan teaches English literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He writes creatively on literature and education and also through poems and short stories. His recent book is Academic Barbarism, Universities and Inequality. [Cha profile]



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