By Lorand Laskai
October 3: While the world is watching Occupy Central, one group has gone beyond mere spectating. Six nights ago when students in Hong Kong braved waves of tear gas, after days of trying unsuccessfully to occupy the park in front of the government headquarters, another site of the Hong Kong government came under occupation: the Hong Kong Economic and Cooperation Exchange office in Taipei. The occupiers—Taiwanese students.
“We wanted to support the Hong Kong students in Taiwan, and send our message of support to Hong Kong,” said Chun Yi, a college sophomore who took part in the occupation.
Taiwanese students are no strangers to protesting China. Many of them took part in the historic occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, called the Sunflower movement, earlier this year in March when Taiwan’s pro-reunification president Ma Ying-jeou attempted to ram an unpopular trade pact with China through the legislature.
As Taiwanese students waged their own battles with police on Taipei streets, many young Hong Kongers sat glued to their computer monitors, watching live streams of the protests and firing off words of support and advice over Facebook. “Today’s Hong Kong is tomorrow’s Taiwan,” wrote young Hong Kongers warning their Taiwanese counterparts not to give in to greater dependency on China. Now, with Hong Kongers on the streets, the roles have reversed.
But the depth of the ongoing conversation between students on the streets of Taipei and Hong Kong extends beyond mere words of support. An important dialogue about tactics and strategy—about how to make civil disobedience work in a Chinese cultural context—is taking place as well. One recent editorial in the People’s Daily, a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), directed particular blame towards Taiwanese “independence activists” for Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, claiming they imparted their protest experience on Hong Kongers—which in an exaggerated, hyperbolic kind of way holds a lode of truth.
In the months leading up to Occupy Central, one of the many places Hong Kong students, who have been nothing if not eclectic in their searches for ideas and inspiration, looked for a model for action was towards the Sunflower movement and its successes. Back in June, some Hong Kong students even attempted an exact replication of the Legislative Yuan occupation, rashly staging an occupation of Hong Kong’s Legislative Assembly. Though the mimic occupation was an instant bust—students were dragged out immediately—and created internal disarray among Hong Kong activists, the conversation with their Taiwanese counterparts continued. Hong Kong students looked towards what worked and implemented it in their own struggle, while also mining for clues, tactics and symbols in their city’s own protesting past, mainland Chinese protests back to the student-led May Fourth Movement of 1919, and events in other parts of the world
Rachel Cheung, a journalism major protesting this week, recalls watching the Legislative Yuan occupation on live stream. “[Taiwanese students] threw away their rubbish and recycled cans, I know it’s something really little, but they paid attention to important details… many of us thought this was something we should follow.” Beijing has claimed in recent days that Occupy Central is uncorking bottomless chaos, but the protest sites across Hong Kong, which have been models of cleanliness and orderliness—the Independent went so far as to call it possibly “the most polite demonstration ever”—says otherwise.
Taiwanese have been happy to share their experiences as well. One Taiwanese encouraged the Hong Kong protesters to make sure journalists stayed on the scene, ending an online post on the subject with the phrase: “No camera, no truth.”
Last week’s student strike, which jumpstarted the massive occupation across Hong Kong underway, heavily bore the Sunflower movement’s mark. According to student organizers, they looked towards the Sunflower movement for assistance, replicating the division of responsibilities between organizers, volunteers and protesters that made the Sunflower movement flexible and responsive. They also booked professors to take part in a lecture series modeled after the teach-ins held in the occupied Legislative Yuan, which contributed to the Sunflower movement’s legitimizing air of civic engagement.
“The movement here is more advanced,” said Jeffery Wang, a Taiwanese student who participated in the Sunflower movement and is now studying abroad in Hong Kong. “What took us two or three weeks to do, they’ve learned from us and done in two days.”
“We’re sort of copy cats,” quipped Kris Cheng, a Hong Kong based activist and writer.
But Occupy Central faces significantly more difficult challenges. While the degree of exchange between Hong Kong and Taiwan is understandable, unlike Taiwan, which is an island democracy, Hong Kong has no form of democratic accountability. The police on the street report to the Chief Executive, and the Chief Executive only answers to Beijing. Taiwanese agree Hong Kongers will need all the help they can get.
Hong Kong is a fast-paced financial hub, ranked among the most expensive cities in the world, and is a special administrative zone of the People’s Republic of China. Taipei, on the other hand, is a midsize Asian city known for its placid green hills and welcoming people and being the seat of a government officially still diplomatically at war with the PRC. What student activists in both contexts share is a common foe and common hurdles: oppressive stereotypes about Chinese being unfit or uninterested in democratic participation, the constant specter of “instability” and chaos” from detractors, and the skepticism of their elders. Together, students in Taiwan and Hong Kong have crafted their own brand of social activism, marked by a spirit of benign civic awareness and displays of exceeding politeness or orderliness, which has managed to jolt the greater public into action.
Despite the distance between Hong Kong’s bustling, hyper-modern business metropolis and the slow pace of Taipei, a common connection comes from growing up in China’s shadow. The generation that has taken to the streets of Hong Kong and Taipei was raised during the economically prosperous 1990s, an era before China’s rise was certain and the credentials of democracy were cast in doubt.
The current generation of Taiwanese youth was born into a recently democratized society and taught to value it. “The anthem we recited every morning told us to cherish democracy,” said Yeh Jiunn Tyng, a student organizer who participated in the Sunflower movement. “We even had a class on democracy, though we later learned it was an illusion that Taiwan already has a completely democratic country.”
Their Hong Kong counterparts also grew up in a city in transition, recently handed over to the PRC, but one with a degree of expected continuity, where the laws and guarantees of British administration would remain in effect, including the promise of eventual democracy. “We’re quite Westernized here,” said Ian Cheng, a student participating in Occupy Central, “[we] naturally received a Westernized education that said democracy is important. It maybe wasn’t fancy or could solve every problem, but we always thought it could improve the situations for Hong Kong.”
Caught in a growing sphere of corrosive Chinese political influence and money, Taiwan and Hong Kong have become the sites of multiplying scandals and public incidents, which like a trail of clues, all led back to Beijing. Suppression of free speech, the weakening of the independent press, egregious land grabs by corrupt officials, revisions to the education system without public consultation: all are issues that have recurred in both contexts with increasing regularity.
As this disillusionment set in, students took to organizing. We can pinpoint this date quite precisely to 2007-2008. In Hong Kong the government’s planned demolition of Queens and Star Ferry Pier, two historically significant landmarks from British administration, became the unlikely site of protest against government unaccountability. “For most people it wasn’t about the history of the pier,“ said Kris Cheng who first began protesting during the piers incident. “It was about the brutalism of our government.” “Young people of a new wave were siting in and locking themselves on the pier… it doesn’t sound new now, but it was then.”
2008 also marked the election of pro-unification president Ma Ying-jieo in Taiwan. When Ma invited a high level delegation on Chinese officials to Taiwan later that year, he harshly cracked down on protests and symbols of Taiwanese identity in preparation. Incensed by the suppression of free speech, a group of students calling themselves the Wild Strawberries sprung into action and occupied the square in front of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial.
Both movements suffered the problems and setbacks associated with being untested. They were unsuccessful in swaying a general public squeamish about idealistic students creating a ruckus in public. Plans to demolish the piers in Hong Kong went forward. The Taiwanese public eventually grew weary of the Wild Strawberries and the police evicted them. Nevertheless, both movements pioneered important tactics like occupying spaces of public significant and organizing over the Internet (Facebook, coincidentally, was released in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2008). These methods would be used over the next six years to raise attention to government unaccountability and the political corrosiveness of Chinese influence with varying, but growing levels of success.
All along, Taiwanese and Hong Kong student activists compared and learned from each other’s experiences. When in early 2014, Taiwanese students began protesting the government’s proposed “sinification” of history textbooks, they looked towards the success of a group of secondary school students called “Scholarism” in fighting the implementation of Beijing’s Patriotic Education in Hong Kong.
The remarkable success of student movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong represents a new stage in the struggle for democracy and autonomy from Beijing, and the maturation of a form of civil disobedience refined for a Chinese cultural context. It’s hard to say whether the current conversation between Taiwanese and Hong Kong students that has brought about this advent will develop into direct coordination. Hong Kong and Taiwan, after all, remain different places with very different political environments. Yet, with Hong Kongers now on the streets, we can be sure the Taiwanese are taking notes.
*A shorter version of this piece has appeared at the Huffington Post.
Lorand Laskai is a writer in Beijing. He previously lived in Tainan, Taiwan. He edits New Bloom, an online magazine on youth culture and politics in the Sinosphere, and tweets @lorandlaskai.