Jason Y. Ng’s Street-Level View of Hong Kong’s Year of Umbrellas

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Before my visit to Hong Kong in mid-October 2014, I was worried. The Occupy Movement was two weeks old and I’d booked a room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, site of the Xinhua News Agency Headquarters and de facto PRC embassy before the 1997 Handover. It was a building rich in somber history, where mainland officials had worked during the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and Tiananmen protests five years later. The Cosmopolitan is located in front of a large cemetery, and to get to the rest of Hong Kong you need to take a tram or bus. But with the Occupy Movement in nearby Causeway Bay and Admiralty, the trams weren’t running and the buses were re-routed.  When I arrived, I noticed the irony of banners near the hotel celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which occurred just days after students in Hong Kong shut down major thoroughfares around government headquarters in protest. I had a more immediate concern, however, than politics: How would my husband and I get to my three book events without public transportation?

We ended up walking to Causeway Bay’s MTR station for some trips and leaving an hour earlier than usual when traveling by cab for others. It wasn’t a big deal for four days. But what surprised me most about the Umbrella Movement was that my local friends — in their 40s,50s, and 60s — all seemed fine with the disruption. They encouraged us to visit Occupy and see the tent city on what was once the main artery of Hong Kong Island.

This was not the Hong Kong I knew in the 1990s when I was in college and grad school, and later an editor in academic publishing. Back then very few Hong Kong residents cared about politics, my field of study. In fact, not a few acquaintances declared my studies a waste of time. If one was going to give up precious work time to earn an advanced degree, they reasoned, it should be in business or finance.  Protests weren’t unheard of in Hong Kong then. But the annual June 4 vigils in Victoria Park dropped from 150,000 people in 1990 (the first anniversary of the massacre, and my first year in Hong Kong) to 35,000 in 1995. I didn’t know anyone who went to the protests, or even talked much about them.

Two decades later, I found the atmosphere in Hong Kong drastically changed, as had the politics and Hong Kong’s relationship with China. I knew that students and other activists had taken to the streets in support of universal suffrage. But it wasn’t until I read Jason Y. Ng’s new book, Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (Blacksmith Books, 2016), which was recently published in Hong Kong and is the first significant English language book on the 2014 movement, that I fully grasped all that is now at stake.

During the protests, Jeff Wasserstrom reported on the events for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He also revisited the movement in a commentary, written during a return visit to Hong Kong one year on, in which he reflected on what a difference the intervening 12 months had made.  He described a talk about the protest he gave at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival: “The intensity of the crowd’s interest was palpable — behind and informing all the questions and comments I received, including ones that challenged rather than supported my assertions, I sensed a genuine desire to think through the topic profoundly, and in a way that mattered.”

That also describes Ng’s book — thinking through the topic profoundly and in ways that mattered. Ng was a participant-observer. Although the Umbrella Movement is generally associated with student protesters, older activists, including legislators and clergymen, were also instrumental in starting it. Ng spent a lot of time in Admiralty, site of the tent city. He provided free homework assistance in English, essay writing, and law; he slept on the street and then returned to his law office during the day; his first-hand experiences of the Umbrella Movement bring his book’s pages to life.

Ng starts with a play-by-play account of September 28, 2014, when Occupy Central began. But he quickly moves into Hong Kong Politics 101, going back to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the contract that set into motion Hong Kong’s handover to China on July 1, 1997. The political system in Hong Kong is odd, according to Ng, and I would agree. Of the 6.5 million residents at the time of the Handover, only 800+ people could vote for the newly created chief executive of Hong Kong, the successor to the old London-appointed Governors of the colonial system. Those numbers have both increased over the years: now Hong Kong has 7.2 million people, yet a mere 1200 people and groups elect the chief executive.

As Ng explains, the reason the Umbrella Movement blossomed was because in 2007 Beijing had promised Hong Kong residents that they would be able to choose their chief executive by direct elections in 2017 and that representatives in the Legislative Council, or LegCo, would be directly elected in 2020. But Beijing threw a curveball on August 31, 2014, issuing an edict on electoral reform stipulating that the central government would form a Nominating Committee that would, according to Ng, “nominate two to three candidates for the office of Chief Executive in accordance with democratic procedures. Each candidate must have the endorsement of more than half of all the members of the Nominating Committee…” So much for free elections: the candidates selected would surely be those most amenable to working with Beijing. It was this “8/31 Framework” that brought out student protesters a couple weeks later. Before a month had passed, the Umbrella Movement was paralyzing the central district, generating admiring headlines in the international press, and being denounced by Beijing as an illegitimate struggle creating “chaos” that was tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation and bad for business.

Throughout his book, Ng writes about the different student groups involved, including both university and high school groups, and how there was never one single leader who could unify the protesters. (Joshua Wong, who has received the lion’s share of attention in the Western press, was one leader among many.) The author does a great job of outlining the structure of these groups and their leaders, and in a way that reads like a thriller.

The last part of the book includes an analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and what’s to come. The students and other activists Ng met were dedicated at first, but as time passed and the protesters and public opinion started to change, the lack of leadership left the struggle without a chance for the kind of success seen in places like Tunisia several years earlier, where protests brought changes in governing structures.

Politically, Hong Kong is unique, Ng stresses. It’s not a city-state like Singapore, and, he claims, only a tiny minority would wish it to become that. It’s also not like other big PRC cities: Britain and the Beijing agreed in the Joint Declaration that it could retain a great deal of autonomy for 50 years after the Handover, or until 2047. Hong Kong has its own currency, its own laws and courts, and its own regional government. Ng writes that the Basic Law, which protects these rights in Hong Kong until 2047, is vague when it comes to direct elections. It mentions one person, one vote, but doesn’t spell out how that’s to happen.

The year and a few months since the streets of Hong Kong were cleared have seen troubling incidents occur. A growing fringe element has turned to violence — against the government and mainland shoppers — although it receives very little public support. Five Hong Kong Chinese booksellers were abducted and detained in China at the end of last year; two held overseas passports at the time of their disappearance. The government has also made moves to repress discussion of the Umbrella Movement. When I contacted Ng, he told me that every one of the Chinese books published about the Umbrella Movement has been pulled from Hong Kong bookstore shelves — not just the ones that present the struggle favorably, they are not even stocking books that criticize it. “It is as if the Movement had never happened,” says Ng.

His publisher, Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books, had a difficult time securing a printer for Umbrellas, he says. He finally found a local one that would cooperate after two — one on the mainland, one in Hong Kong — had turned him down. But Spurrier never thought about withdrawing publication of Umbrellas in Bloom, which is the third book in a series of Hong Kong books by Ng.  “Mainland authorities won’t worry too much about English-language books ‘spiritually polluting’ China,” Spurrier wrote in an email to me . “But still, I strongly feel that freedoms only exist while people continue to exercise them. We have freedom of speech and freedom of publication in Hong Kong, but the moment we feel too scared to exercise them, then they are gone. So we have to carry on publishing.”

At the end of his book, Ng sums up what I’d been thinking in Hong Kong during the Movement. People born after the 1980s are engaged in civic life more than ever before, with record numbers of registered voters. They are forming political parties and running for public office. As Ng writes toward the conclusion, “the seed planted by the Umbrella Movement…has taken hold.” The next Chief Executive election will be held next year, and still only 1200 people and organizations can vote. I will be interested in seeing what politically engaged Hong Kong youths do in the coming year, and know that, whatever tack they take, I can count on Ng, an astute tracker of local politics, to weigh in insightfully on their actions in essays and perhaps even in an epilogue to a second edition of Umbrellas in Bloom.

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