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The legacy of Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Man’

Like Tiananmen’s ‘Tank Man,’ his legacy for democratic protest will outlive current crisis

October 10, 2014 6:00AM ET

On Sept. 29, tens of thousands of student protesters in Hong Kong’s central business district used umbrellas to shield against police pepper sprays. The scene was captured by thousands of cameras, leading many to marvel at the protesters’ bravery. Their movement has been called the Umbrella Revolution, and “Umbrella Man” has become a symbol of a cry for democracy and defiance of Beijing.

It reminds us of the iconic image of “Tank Man,” a brave Chinese protester who stood in front of a column of tanks rolling along Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. There are also some other similarities between the Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong demonstrations. For one, idealistic students demanding greater democratic rights sparked both actions. Both had prolonged protests with no solution in sight. In the case of Tiananmen, unfortunately, the protesters’ bravery ended in bloodshed, and Tank Man has since disappeared.

Many pundits argue that this time is different and bloodshed is unlikely. But the enduring stalemate in Hong Kong suggests otherwise.

The students have two basic requests. First, that an authentic election with universal suffrage be held in 2017, with no vetting of candidates by a pro-Beijing committee. Second, that current Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying steps down.

It is unlikely that Beijing will allow free elections in Hong Kong — or any part of China. Since his election as president of China on March 13, 2013, Xi Jinping has been consolidating power. His anti-corruption campaigns have won him popularity among the Chinese populace. He has built a reputation as a strong leader by resisting opposition and international pressure.

Leung has made clear that he will not resign. A Beijing loyalist, he is Hong Kong’s third chief executive since the city’s sovereignty was transferred from the British to Chinese in 1997. He is largely seen as Beijing’s puppet. Leung has assigned his representative and Hong Kong’s second in command, Carrie Lam, to negotiate with the students.

After tensions escalated for several days and police brought in rubber bullets and weapons, matters appeared to calm down earlier this week as civil servants return to work and schools reopened. But on Thursday the government canceled scheduled talks with student representatives, raising the stakes as both sides traded accusations in separate press conferences. The student leader Joshua Wang has pledged a long-term and “persistent” fight, calling on protesters to return to the streets in large numbers on Friday. 

‘Umbrella Man’ may disappear but will become an inspiration for future generations of brave young men and women who want to live in a better, more democratic world.

Where does it go from here?

“The students are hopeful,” said Priscilla Chan, who works in the event-planning industry in Hong Kong. Since the demonstrations began, she has changed her Facebook profile picture to a yellow umbrella with the caption “Who is afraid of umbrella.” She appeared agitated and emotional in her Facebook messages. “We have a history of making Beijing back off!”

Chan pointed to the fact that in 2003 more than 500,000 protesters demanded Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, step down. As a result, Tung resigned in 2005. Hong Kongers have stalled Beijing’s effort to introduce a “national education” program, a curriculum for primary and secondary schools that many fear is a brainwashing tool by the Communist Party.

Not everyone agrees. “Beijing cannot allow this [free election] to happen,” said Howard Lam, a professor who teaches an eMBA program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It will set a bad precedent, not only for Hong Kong but also for elsewhere in China” — a reference to Tibet, Xinjiang and others areas that are potentially in conflict with Beijing.

Lam suggests that people in Hong Kong are divided. For example, most people on the 1,200-person nominating committee that selects candidates for office are business elites with strong ties to Beijing. Hong Kong officials say this is one step in the right direction. After all, Hong Kong never held fully democratic elections even during British rule.

Protesters contend that the mandate given to handpicked committee members is Beijing’s way of blocking people with different political views from seeking public office. The underlying reason is a deep distrust of Beijing’s rule. People fear their rights will not be protected and they will enjoy less freedom.

Overall, it’s hard to envision what the results of the demonstrations will be. The best possible outcome could be that students negotiate a partial or symbolic victory. This may mean better representation in the 1,200-person election committee or ability to exert more pressure for political reforms in Hong Kong.

Some China observers speculate that Xi plans to lead China through a gradual and orderly political reform. And Hong Kong might be the first real test of what Xi’s consolidation of power entails.

Hong Kong could be a testing ground for Xi to pioneer the “one country, two systems” model of governance, a move toward a more open and democratic China — although it may not be in the form of Western style of democracy.

If that happens, a symbolic victory for Hong Kong students could be a significant one for China in the long run, and Xi Jinping could be one of the greatest leaders in China’s recent history.

Alternatively, the protests may just fizzle out, an outcome that Beijing hopes for. Students will become fatigued, business will continue as usual, and the streets of Hong Kong will return to normal. And life will go on.

But Hong Kong will no longer be the same.

“Tank Man” has disappeared but is not forgotten. “Umbrella Man” may also disappear but will become an inspiration for future generations of brave young men and women who want to live in a better, more democratic world. 

Helen H. Wang is award-winning author and expert on China’s middle class.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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China, Hong Kong
Xi Jinping

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