Kin-man Chan: Hong Kong


The Consequence of Perceived Failure of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong


Kin-man Chan

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The candle light vigil commemorating the massacre in Beijing in 1989 will be held on June 4 in Victoria Park, Hong Kong. This annual event is seen as an important battle against “the politics of forgetting” prevailing in China – the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t allow open debate on the tragedies happened under its rule including the massive death in late 1950s due to irrational economic policies caused by Great Leap Forward and the collective killings in 1960s due to factional conflicts and collective madness in the Cultural Revolution. The June 4 crackdown is another historical event treated as taboo that any attempts to discuss or commemorate the incident will be seen as subversive. In the past 26 years, civil society organizations in Hong Kong have been able to take advantage of One Country Two Systems by organizing the candle light vigil regardless of pressure exerted by the Chinese government such as taking away the organizers’ visa permits to China. This year, however, the pressure came from within. The university student unions jointly decided to boycott the vigil as they believe that the event promotes Chinese patriotism that Hong Kong people shouldn’t subscribe. This split among pro-democracy forces is seen as the consequence of the “failure” of the Umbrella Movement.

The movement that occupied the main streets of Hong Kong for 79 days in late 2014 has been seen as a failure by some of its participants after Beijing refused to make any concession concerning democratic reform in Hong Kong. Some young people believe that if universal suffrage is not allowed under the Basic Law, a mini constitution of Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty, they will then opt for Hong Kong independence (and fight against any forces, including pro-democracy camp, promoting Chinese identity). If peaceful civil disobedience could not generate enough pressure, they will opt for violence. The riot broke out in Mongkok during the 2016 Chinese New Year led by Hong Kong Indigenous, a group fighting for independence, was a response to this “failure”.

But is Umbrella Movement really a failure? Gamson (1975) argues that a movement can be assessed according to the extent the challenger is accepted by its antagonists as a valid spoke-person for a legitimate set of interests, and the gain of “new advantages” by the group’s beneficiary. The latter can be regarded as policy changes and the former as changes in the policy process (Rochon & Mazmanian, 1993). But there could be other effects such as changes in social values (Rochon & Mazmanian, 1993) and expansion of movement’s social base (Diani, 1997) that Gamson’s model neglected. Looking at the time dimension, Tarrow (1989) warns that the impact of a social movement should not be assessed instantly as there are cycles of protest. Short-term setback in the aftermath of a movement could leave a positive legacy for future struggles. Giugni (1998) argues that due to the heterogeneousness of protestors, there could be divergent movement claims and thus assessments of a movement. “Subjectivity” of protestors, i.e., how different protestors attribute meaning to their participation, should be considered as well as the “unintended consequences” of the movement.

The Umbrella Movement is not just a “networked social movement” triggered by a student strikes in August, 2014. People had already been prepared to join the occupation by the movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) for more than one year. The movement did have leadership (constituted by student, OCLP, and opposition party leaders), particularly at the early stage, but it was loose and incoherent. At the end, it left enormous space for individual participants to shape the movement. The heterogeneous backgrounds of protestors, in terms of class, age and gender, also brought in divergent interpretations of the movement including perceptions of its impacts. Many young participants judged the movement according to the regime’s immediate refusal to accept the movement objective (universal suffrage). The middle-aged protestors were relatively more patient by seeing it as a long-term struggle. Many middle-aged women in our study, however, revealed that they participated in the protest not exactly for democracy, but to protect students from police violence. They appreciated the movement’s spirit of non-violence and self-sacrifice regardless of the failure in achieving changes in the election system. The practices of sharing (food, medicine and others), equality (deliberation in decision-making process concerning management of the occupy sites), environmental concerns (recycling and sustainable energy used) and artistic creations (paintings, sculptures and posters) in the occupation captured people’s imagination of utopian community. The legacy is created.

After the occupation, young professionals such as lawyers and medical doctors, established 18 groups in their respective fields to support democracy and social justice. New political parties have been established by young movement leaders such as Joshua Wong. Tens of young activists have participated in a district level election and will run the coming Legislative Council election. “The whole generation of youth is awakened!” has been widely praised as the consequence of the Umbrella Movement. The organizational base and repertoire of protest have been expanded.

But the city instead has been clouded by pessimism when the authorities started to step up control over the universities (professors were accused to have spread harmful ideas among youngsters) and prosecute the protestors. The moderate leaders of the movement were exhausted by handling attacks from both the regime and their fellow protestors. They finally lost momentum in leading further non-violence resistance. Though there is a significant rise of radicalism among young people in terms of movement objective (independence) and tactic (violence), it is unclear if they can gain support from the community at large. As long as the economy remains sound and the civil service remains efficient, large scale protest seems difficult to mobilize unless political reform is in the public agenda again. Hong Kong will likely fall into a political stalemate leading to fatigue and at time violent conflicts. How will Hong Kong democracy movement organizers turn these rages into impetus for agenda setting and bring people hope by transcending the fear when confronting China the Goliath? As a scholar and movement organizer, it is a personal challenge both intellectual and existential.



Diani, M. (1997) “Social Movements and Social Capital: a Network Perspective on Movement Outcomes.” Mobilization. 2:129-47.
Gamson, W.A. (1990) The Strategy of Social Protest. Belmont: Wadsworth. 2nd Ed.
Giugni, M.G. (1998) “Was It Worth the Effort? The Outcomes and Consequences of Social Movements” Annual Reviews of Sociology. 98:371-93.
Rochon, T., Mazmanian, D.A. (1993) “Social Movement and the Policy Process” in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 528:75-87.
Tarrow, S. (1989) Democracy and Disorder. Oxford: Clarendon.


Kin-man Kinman Chan-portrait-pictnChan is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace. Email: kmchancuhk [at]




Banner Image: Candle Vigil of the Umbrella Movement for Democracy in Hong Kong, photo by Kin-man Chan, June 4, 2016.



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