A year on from last year's umbrella protests, things in Hong Kong look calm. But beneath the surface, activists are taking the fight onlineby En Liang Khong / September 1, 2015 / Leave a comment
It was a late November evening last year, during the pro-democracy protests’ final phase, when I arrived in Hong Kong. As dusk set in, I headed straight from the airport to Admiralty district. Here was the core of the movement, where protesters had built a vast tent city across a multi-lane highway, cutting through the city’s financial centre. Once I entered, the mood among the activists and academics steering me through was grim; they were anxious about rumours of an oncoming police assault. It could not have contrasted more with the free-wheeling displays of protest art all around us. I watched as activists debated under a giant suspended canopy, stitched together from 250 broken umbrellas, that had been used as shields against waves of tear gas.
Turnout at last month’s pro-democracy march through Hong Kong, a rally led by the Civil Human Rights Front alliance and held annually ever since the 1997 handover of sovereignty from Britain to China, was at its lowest since 2008. Half a year on, the debate about the meaning of the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” is inconclusive. It might be easy to assume that 2014 was an anomaly. But if the Hong Kong protesters unleashed one force, it has been an awakening online; a renegotiation of how the digital influences the political.
The Umbrella Revolution is our most recent example of the legacy left by the global social explosions of 2011, from the “Arab Spring” uprisings to Occupy Wall Street, when social media took centre stage as a source for both information and mobilisation. On the day that riot police deployed tear gas, pepper spray and batons on the protesters, 12 tweets about Hong Kong were being posted every second. The then 17-year-old student activist Joshua Wong, founder of the campaigning group Scholarism, observed: “Without Facebook there would be no Occupy Central, without Facebook there would be no Joshua Wong.”
The state has since initiated a crackdown. Unlike the surveillance that dominates digital communication on the mainland, freedom of speech for the 74 per cent of Hong Kong’s population who are internet users is protected by the territory’s Bill of…