FRIDAY marked four years since tens of thousands of young people took to the streets of Hong Kong to demand authorities listen to their pleas for universal suffrage in the former British colony.
It spawned what is now popularly known as the Umbrella Revolution – part of the Occupy movement – which saw people mainly in their teens and early twenties achieve what many had thought impossible.
They brought central Hong Kong to a standstill for 79-days, made politicians sit up and listen, and stood strong in the face of Chinese authorities.
Since those heady days of hope, progress has all but halted and the pro-democracy movement has battled repeated attempts to muzzle them.
Hong Kong was handed back to China by the British in 1997. Under the terms of the handover, semi-autonomous Hong Kong is meant to enjoy freedoms unseen on the mainland, including freedom of expression, association, and elections.
However, the space for political dissent has shrunk in the face of an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping. Beijing resists any challenges to its sovereignty in Hong Kong.
While the lack of progress for the pro-democracy movement is certainly disheartening, it hasn’t broken their spirit, Agnes Chow, one of the instigators of the Umbrella Revolution, told Asian Correspondent.
“While everyone, including me, might have a sense of exasperation… it doesn’t mean that we’re going to give up our beliefs or give up on the social movement,” Chow said.
“We’re just praying for very basic human rights in Hong Kong – the right to decide our future, the right to decide our leader.”
It is a show of remarkable tenacity in the face of the absolute behemoth of the Chinese government. The tactics being employed by Xi’s administration are getting increasingly oppressive and are being felt more acutely across Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy and independence campaigners have been blocked from standing for office and others banned from the legislature after being lawfully elected.
Dozens of activists have been convicted of minor offenses, and some have received lengthy jail terms.
Authorities have repeatedly tried to shut down meetings of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. And the space for free media and expression is being squeezed.
In September, Hong Kong’s security bureau announced it was banning the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party at the request of the police. The move was recommended under the Societies Ordinance, which prohibits certain groups on the basis of national security.
Anyone who violates the ordinance by attending meetings or giving donations to a prohibited group faces fines of up to HK$20,000 (US$2,550) and a possible year-long prison sentence.
“They are taking a far more hardline attitude towards Hong Kong democratic ideals and the political red line keeps on changing, keeps on narrowing,” said Chow, who has herself been barred from running in Hong Kong Island’s legislative council by-election due to her advocacy for self-determination.
Negative reaction from the attempt to muzzle Chow prompted Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, to speak out in defence of the decision.
“Any suggestion of Hong Kong independence, self-determination, independence as a choice or self-autonomy is not in line with Basic Law requirements and deviates from the important principle of ‘one country two systems,'” Lam said, referring to the agreement with China that allows Hong Kong semi-autonomy while remaining a province of the mainland.
Lam is widely accepted to be a Beijing pick, ushered into power by a predominantly pro-China Election Committee. She has unapologetically toed the line of China’s Communist Party (CCP), and she is not alone. Beneath her, the whole government is expected to carry the party line, Chow says.
Under the current system, and with China’s Xi securing himself a potential lifelong tenure as president, change is going to be far from easy – if, indeed, possible.
These seemingly insurmountable odds have many people in Hong Kong feeling dejected and understandably “powerless.”
In the face of such adversity, it is the responsibility of the political parties and activist groups to rally support and remind Hong Kongers what’s at stake, Chow believes.
Her own political group Demosistos, lead with fellow activist and friend Joshua Wong, may have changed their approach slightly but they’re still very much espousing the pro-democracy doctrine and working to engage young people to take up the mantle.
Members of the group give tours to under 20-year-olds around the site of the 2014 Occupy movement, telling their personal stories of the 79-day sit-in.
Social media has become a powerful tool to organise and keep up the momentum of events and information.
Chow, herself only 21, works on street stations the group runs to engage people directly.
“Nowadays, we may not have a large-scale social movement happening, but in preparation for the next social movement we have to do a lot of preparation work, a lot of promotion work to get more people to have interest in caring about society,” she said.
Chow recently attended the Freedom Film Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she ran a workshop that acted as a kind of bootcamp for young activists. She is spreading the word on the importance of peaceful protest, hoping to help those in other countries while also keeping Hong Kong’s plight in the minds of the international community. She recognises that international pressure is a useful tool when dealing with an oppressive government.
While progress of the pro-democracy movement may be slow, the young people that started it have lost none of the courage and persistence that drove them to shutdown central Hong Kong four years ago.
“With social movements, it’s always difficult for the people to achieve a political aim because our enemy, the Chinese Communist Party, is so powerful and so strong that they will not back down easily,” Chow said.
“The important thing is not to give up; not to give up our beliefs and not to give up on what we know is right.”