WhyItMatters

An anniversary comes and goes

Protester holding yellow umbrellas outside the Legislative Council during a march in Hong Kong, China, on Sept 28, 2015.
Protester holding yellow umbrellas outside the Legislative Council during a march in Hong Kong, China, on Sept 28, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

What are anniversaries but artificial markers of events past? And so it was for the first anniversary of the Occupy movement, which passed on Monday with little more than a murmur.

Commemorative events over the weekend saw paltry crowds - a far cry from the tens of thousands that gathered last year to agitate for free election of Hong Kong's leader.

However, the low turnouts are instructive in reflecting the current state of Hong Kong society: fatigued, polarised - and cynical that there can be political change.

Pro-democracy activists have taken their cue, saying this is a time for soul-searching. Meanwhile, Beijing and the Hong Kong government seem optimistic that they will be able to set the political agenda.

Monday's small gathering doesn't mean Hong Kongers have forgotten the 79-day occupation or that they won't react similarly once there is an issue to galvanise them. As one at the anniversary rally said: "I believe Hong Kongers will show up at critical moments."

One to watch would be when Beijing indicates its choice for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017. If the unpopular incumbent Leung Chun Ying is anointed again, that may be a rallying point.

Another would be if Beijing - feeling that its hand has been strengthened - decides to ram through policies such as the controversial national security law, Article 23.

The pro-democracy activists should be mindful that they not give the authorities any excuses to do so. Joshua Wong, the movement's iconic young face, calling for Hong Kong's right to "self-determination" is not only delusional but also dangerous in this regard.

The Occupy anniversary was useful in providing a time and space for reflection. The wrong lesson drawn, however, would mean it's counterproductive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'An anniversary comes and goes'. Print Edition | Subscribe