Transposable Protest Legacies

By Cole Carnesecca

While the Umbrella Movement may ultimately prove lacking in results, it certainly has not lacked in drama. Part of that drama comes from the attempt to locate the Hong Kong protests into a broader legacy of social movements. The image of young Hong Kong students calling for expanded democratic rights drew immediate comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the “Occupy Central” part of the movement seemed a clear nod to the Occupy Movement in the United States. Both of these links reflect the transferable nature of protest legacies and the importance of legacy mobility for contemporary protests in China (and beyond). Yet protest legacies can mean very different things to activists and their targets, giving shape to how a movement is understood culturally and structurally, as well as how activists and state agents act. To illustrate this point, I will consider four movement legacies that serve as significant sources for the Umbrella Revolution and their implications for how the Hong Kong protests have unfolded.

The most obvious of these sources is the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The parallels are many: student-led movement, pro-democracy, long term sit-ins, etc. Even the aborted attempt by a trio of student leaders to fly from Hong Kong to Beijing to press their case echoes the famous kneeling petition and eventual confrontation between student leaders and Chinese Premier Li Peng. Moreover, Hong Kong played a critical support role during the protest by helping provide funding, tents, etc. for the students in the square. This legacy is not merely symbolic or tactical. And this legacy is as salient for the party-state as it is for the Hong Kong protesters. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) clearly remembers both the significance of the Tiananmen protest (and the fallout of the CCP’s reaction to it) and the role that Hong Kong played. Oddly enough, the CCP has reused parts of the same old script, claiming early on that the Hong Kong protests were a product of foreign instigation and therefore somehow illegitimate. For both sides, the possibility and threat of the 1989 legacy have been an intricate part of narrative. (Interestingly, the press has pushed this image to the extent that a similarly bloody confrontation is the ultimately desired outcome).

Another legacy – and a more clearly transnational one – on which the protesters have drawn is that of the Occupy Movement in the United States. The name of the movement (Occupy Central佔中) as well as the attempted disruption of economic and political centers borrow rather obviously from the Occupy Wall Street protests and subsequent Occupy Movement. While it is not the case that the Hong Kong protest are in some way derivative of its American namesake, the rhetorical and tactical nod to the Occupy Movement highlights an important interaction of protest narratives. The connection to a US based movement combines both the usefulness of the Occupy Movement’s symbolic power and the appeal to a more internationally recognizable movement context.

Yet, while the legacies of Tiananmen and Occupy Movements are likely the most media worthy, they are not the most immediately important. For both protesters and the CCP, the Hong Kong protest’s link to the legacies of domestic Chinese independence movements and Taiwanese democratic protests carry far more contextual and narrative weight.

While the look and feel of the protests in Hong Kong are nothing like the unrest that has characterized the independence movements in both Tibet and Xinjiang, both of these regional independence movements figure more prominently in the calculations that the CCP has had to make in responding to the Hong Kong protests. Hong Kong is one of four major liminal regions of concern to the Chinese state. Tibet and Xinjiang have been territorially part of China for some time while Hong Kong was only returned in 1997 and remains under the “one country, two systems” policy. Taiwan’s limbo political status also figures prominently. But it has been in Tibet and Xinjiang where violent clashes with separatist movements have ratcheted up state concerns about the limits to which they can grant these liminal regions political autonomy. In that context, the state’s fears regarding the Hong Kong protests is that any sign of concession will be the first step in losing ground in their claims to Taiwan and will only further embolden movements in Tibet and Xinjiang. As such, this legacy significantly constrains the possibilities for state response.

For the protesters, there is one final, and largely overlooked, protest legacy shaping the context and expectations of the movement: the Taiwanese student democratic movements. Beginning with the Wild Lily Movement in 1990 and its influence on Taiwanese democratization, Taiwanese students similarly rallied during the Wild Strawberries Movement (2008) and the Sunflower Movement (2014). Taiwan’s liminal political status and the aim of pushing for more fully realized (and properly defended) democratic participation carry clear parallels to the Hong Kong protests. The tactics are also largely similar: prolonged sit-ins that effectively shut down major sections of the city. But there is also the narrative of emerging local identity vis-à-vis the Chinese mainland that colors both Hong Kong and Taiwan protests. Where the Taiwanese movements highlighted a growing sense of Taiwanese identity, the Hong Kong protests similarly exhibited the emerging identification among some in Hong Kong of being Hong Kongers (as opposed to being vaguely Chinese). Whether the state took this linked legacy into consideration is unclear – they had enough to worry about from the Tiananmen and separatist similarities. But the Taiwanese protest legacy may be the most interesting descriptive link and raises even more questions about its proscriptive possibilities.

In each of these cases, my point has been to not only illustrate important protests that seem to have influenced the Hong Kong protests, but also to point to how these legacies can shape the narrative context and structure actions of both protesters and the state. Tiananmen, the Occupy Movement, China’s separatist problems, and Taiwanese student protests all have contributed to how both activists and the state understand the Hong Kong protest and therefore have impacted how it has unfolded.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements in East and Southeast Asia

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