What differentiates the protest now from Occupy movement

Left: Protesters in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district on Oct 10, 2014. Right: Protesters occupy a road during a demonstration against a proposed extradition Bill in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.
Left: Protesters in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district on Oct 10, 2014. Right: Protesters occupy a road during a demonstration against a proposed extradition Bill in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.PHOTOS: ST FILE, REUTERS

Thousands of protesters storming a main thoroughfare, police in riot gear firing tear gas and pepper spray, traffic in a key financial district brought to a standstill.

On some level, scenes from Hong Kong over the past days call to mind the Occupy movement protests of 2014, but there are key differences between the two - significantly, a palpable sense of urgency.

This week's demonstration has been more than just over a piece of legislation. It is about an outpouring of frustrations over the perceived erosion of rights and, more importantly, about what it means to be a Hong Konger.

The protests against the extradition Bill appear to lack a clear leader, with many organising themselves through chat groups on secure messaging app Telegram.

It makes it far harder for the local authorities to cripple a movement by jailing or taking legal action against the leader, as was seen with the Occupy movement, Lowy Institute research fellow and Generation HK author Ben Bland said yesterday. "My sense is that people are willing to risk so much because it is not just about their legal system, it is about their identity, it is about their way of life.

"This all comes down to identity and the sense of what it means to be a Hong Konger and what Hong Kong means," he told The Straits Times.

"Even though the rule of law is an abstract concept, that cuts to the heart of what makes Hong Kong different from the rest of China."

 
 
 
 

Under "one country, two systems", Beijing has promised the special administrative region (SAR) a "high degree of autonomy".

In the five years since the Occupy movement protests, however, Hong Kong has seen its relative freedom gradually eroded - with booksellers who specialise in gossipy tomes about the Communist Party leadership disappearing, and reappearing in the mainland, confessing to a litany of crimes; rules barring any insult to the national anthem; an attempt to introduce compulsory national education; and more emphasis on Mandarin in a city where the lingua franca is Cantonese.

There is a fear that should the legislation pass, it could be used on political dissidents with trumped-up charges.

Calling 2014 "a more innocent time", Mr Bland noted that while protesters during the Umbrella Movement did not expect full democracy, they were hopeful of at least some concessions from Beijing.

In 2003, hundreds of thousands massed on the streets to oppose a national security law they felt would threaten civil liberties. The ensuing furore meant the government had to back down and shelve its implementation.

Now, they feel threatened, "having tried so many other things, and they have no option left but to go to the streets in this manner", added Mr Bland.

As with 2014, many of the protesters this time are relatively young and fed up with the way the central government has tried to enforce its policies in the city.

And many, too, have been inspired by the previous protest.

Nearly one in seven people in the city taking to the streets is something no political party, pressure group or activist would have been able to deliver, Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said yesterday.

The Hong Kong SAR government was "politically inept" to not see the likely impact of its approach to ram through the laws, he said.

For now, protesters are calling for another mass rally on Sunday, and it remains to be seen whether the government will back down as it did in 2003.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2019, with the headline 'What differentiates the protest now from Occupy movement'. Print Edition | Subscribe