HONG KONG (AFP) – Hundreds of Hong Kong pro-democracy supporters holding yellow umbrellas held three minutes’ silence outside the city’s government offices Wednesday to mark the second anniversary of mass protests challenging Beijing.
The anniversary of the “Umbrella Revolution” comes as tensions remain high in the semi-autonomous city, with fears growing that China is tightening its grip.
Huge rallies in 2014 demanding fully free leadership elections and other democratic reforms for Hong Kong brought parts of the city to a standstill for more than two months.
Those demands were snubbed by Beijing, but since then former Umbrella Movement protesters have won seats as city lawmakers.
Some of them are now pushing for a complete break from China as the fledgling independence movement gains support.
Former Umbrella Movement protest leader Nathan Law, 23, became Hong Kong’s youngest legislator in the recent citywide elections. He now advocates self-determination for Hong Kong and was due to address crowds later Wednesday.
At 5:58 pm (0958 GMT) those gathered held three minutes’ silence to mark the time two years ago when police fired tear gas at student-led pro-democracy protesters.
That galvanised tens of thousands to come onto the streets in support.
HK police use pepper spray on October 16, 2014. Reuters Photo by Carlos Barria
The largely peaceful demonstrations spawned sprawling protest camps, with tents and artworks set up on highways and shopping streets.
The movement gained its name from protesters’ use of umbrellas to shield them from tear gas, pepper spray, sun and rain alike.
Supporters Wednesday said they felt the rallies had changed the city for the better.
“The Umbrella Movement transformed many in the city to care about the community, so we must make an effort to remember this incident,” said school student Joy Chan, 14.
Chan said she had taken part in the protests in 2014 — many school-age protesters joined the demonstrations and makeshift classrooms were set up so they could continue their studies.
Housewife Claire Weber, 42, said she was at the site two years ago when police fired tear gas at the crowds.
“No matter what, or how messy the political environment gets, we must persist,” she told AFP.
The atmosphere Wednesday was carnivalesque, with souvenirs including miniature yellow paper umbrellas — the symbol of the movement — handed out to those taking part.
Metres-tall signs reading “I want real universal suffrage” were displayed, an echo of the slogans of 2014.
Law said the movement had led to more political awareness for those who had been involved.
“It is very important for them to keep reminding themselves why they came out … and keep the faith in the future and stand for all the Hong Kong people,” he told AFP.
Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” deal, which guaranteed its freedoms for 50 years.
But there are deep concerns those liberties are under threat in a number of areas, from politics to education and the media.
CreditAlex Hofford/European Pressphoto Agency
Riot police launch tear gas into the crowd as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. Hong Kong police used tear gas on Sunday and warned of further measures as they tried to clear thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered outside government headquarters in a challenge to Beijing over its decision to restrict democratic reforms for the city. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)
Post-Umbrella Hong Kong opens potentially explosive political era
HONG KONG: Two years after the pro-democracy “Umbrella Revolution” began, Hong Kong is entering uncharted political territory as former protesters prepare to take office, advocating a possible split from China.
The first major elections since the 2014 rallies saw rebel politicians win seats earlier this month as fears grow that Beijing is tightening its grip on the city in a number of areas, from politics to education and the media.
Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” deal, which guaranteed its freedoms for 50 years. There are deep concerns those liberties are under threat.
It was 2014 that shaped this key new group of lawmakers who will now promote self-determination or independence from Beijing inside the legislature when it starts its new term in October.
Wednesday (Sep 28) marks two years to the day since the “Umbrella Movement” protests calling for democratic reform exploded onto the streets. Police fired tear gas on gathering crowds, galvanising tens of thousands more to join them in what became more than two months of rallies.
Despite huge numbers, the largely peaceful protests failed to win concessions from Beijing.
However, the momentum and consequent disappointment heavily influenced the young protesters who recently won seats in the Legislative Council (Legco) – Hong Kong’s lawmaking body – in citywide polls.
They say the failure of the protests forced them to turn to a more radical message which has gained support among voters demanding change.
At least five new legislators support self-determination or independence, which was not on the agenda during the 2014 rallies and is a departure from the traditional stance of the rest of the pro-democracy camp.
Former Umbrella Movement student leader Nathan Law is the best-known of the new breed — at 23 he is Legco’s youngest ever lawmaker.
Hong Kong police during democracy protests
Law’s new party Demosisto, founded with fellow Umbrella Movement campaigner Joshua Wong, is calling for self-determination for Hong Kong in frustration at the intransigence of the authorities.
“We are not pushing for independence but Hong Kongers should be able to choose their own future. Independence is one option,” Law told AFP.
Fellow new lawmaker Eddie Chu, 38, who also participated in the 2014 protests, says it is time to “take back the right” of self-determination as previous tactics have failed.
“From changing the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution) to seeking independence — all are acceptable to me,” he told AFP.
CHAOS AND CONFRONTATION
Beijing has warned it will not tolerate any talk of independence “inside or outside” the Legco.
The Hong Kong government – criticised as a stooge of Beijing – banned the most vocal independence candidates from standing in the Legco polls.
And in a system skewed towards Beijing friendly groups, the pro-establishment camp still holds 40 seats against the pro-democracy camp’s 30.
But the new lawmakers have said they will not tone down their message, with observers predicting fireworks.
Political analyst Joseph Cheng says the first year of Legco’s new term will be “chaotic and difficult”.
“The pro-independence legislators will use every single relevant issue to articulate their position,” says Cheng.
The pro-establishment camp will unite against any talk of self-determination or independence, while the new breed may also have to take on opposition in their own camp, where the moderate democrats still hold sway, Cheng adds.
Meanwhile, the public will be hoping the fresh crop of lawmakers will push a range of social issues that have stagnated in the deeply divided legislature, including supply of affordable housing in a city where rents are sky high.
But with faultlines starker than ever, progress will be tough.
Those frustrations may well drive some new lawmakers to campaign on the streets once more if they feel they cannot make headway in Legco, says political analyst Willy Lam.
“They have indicated they will use non-violent methods, but the possibility of ugly confrontation between these new young Turks and the police cannot be ruled out,” says Lam.
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