It’s funny, how revolutions get named.
I moved to Hong Kong when I was one, and by the time I was six it became a fact of life that the most important accessory in the hot humid month of a Hong Kong summer is an umbrella. Chinese 太太 (housewives) would never be caught without one, to shield them from the brutal sub-tropical sun, lest their moon white skin be caught by its rays and turn what they consider an undesirable yellow.
On September 28, 2014, the umbrella’s role in Hong Kong society was revolutionized, as protestors used them as shields against tear gas and message boards for crowds and media watching from the urban buildup of skyscrapers and elevated walkways. Thus came about the slightly quirky, very tame title of Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution”.
To the global spectator, it might seem that the events of the umbrella revolution emerged like a viral video—all at once, with plenty of mayhem to show for it. But the fact is that this showdown has been brewing for years. When the English handed back Hong Kong, their last colony, to Communist China in 1997, Hong Kong came outfitted with an a pre-written British-inspired constitution, called the Basic Law. As part of the handover, it was agreed that Basic Law would be preserved and that Hong Kong would always be a part of China but would be allowed to slowly transition to become a true democratic city by 2017. While the People’s Republic of China (PRC) agreed to this tenet at the time, it has since become clear to them that should a truly democratic and free state exist within their empire, it would salt their totalitarian leadership game and inspire internal Chinese dissent. And so, ever so slowly, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Liaison office in Hong Kong have flexed their muscles to roll back democratic reforms and see that only pro-Beijing candidates succeed in Hong Kong politics.
Their have been a few, colorful exceptions to this rule. One is Leung Kwok Hung, known to locals as Long Hair, a pro-democratic legislative council member (equivalent to a state senate position), whose Che Guevara t-shirts, luscious locks, and booming voice make him stand out in any mass protests. Another is Emily Lau, the British-educated leader of the pan-democratic movement.
The types of personalities make the PRC scared of what a Hong Kong democracy would look like. And here enters the latest announcement from Chinese government in Beijing, and the focal point of the umbrella revolution. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee handed down a hardline ruling on August 31 that effectively rules out universal suffrage by allowing a one-person one-vote policy, but only of candidates vetted and approved by the Standing Committee. Much worse than declaring that Hong Kong will never get democracy, the plan, as it stands, is a deceptive shadow version of true universal suffrage. We will get to vote, but only for the puppets propped up by Xi Jinping.
All this is to say that what is happening in Hong Kong right now is a rejection and a demand: a rejection of the fake democracy that the PRC would like us to “compromise” on and a demand for a fulfillment of the promise made in our Basic Law for the right to nominate and vote on our leaders. The protests are acts of civil disobedience that are nothing but peaceful, even in the face of point-blank pepper spray and armored, militarized police. Most inspiring of all is that the leaders aren’t powerful politicos, or, as the Chinese claim, American-backed subversives. Rather, the majority of the organizers and the participants are university students, who have never lived in a democratic country, and who are just barely old enough to vote, but who know, in the very core of their being that a shadow democracy will not suffice, and who yearn for a true voice, however quiet, in the face of tyranny. I stand with them in Occupation.