Hundreds of democracy activists protested outside government headquarters in Hong Kong on Thursday, marking the third anniversary of the start of the Occupy Central campaign for fully democratic elections that brought hundreds of thousands onto the city’s streets at its height.
Protesters stood in silence at 5.58 p.m., the exact moment that police fired the first round of tear gas into unarmed crowds of student-led protesters, who defended themselves with umbrellas, giving the Umbrella Movement its nickname.
Audio clips of the tear gas firing were played at the rally, while clouds of steam were produced to imitate the firing of the gas.
Three years on from the start of the movement, democracy activists say they have seen scant progress, with widespread complaints that the city’s promised autonomy is already eroding in favor of heavy handed interference by Beijing.
Former pro-democracy movement student leader Fanny Cheung said internal disagreements about the overall strategy for the protest had split the movement, making it less effective, and dividing activists ever since.
“I don’t know if we will be able to achieve the ultimate goal [of the Occupy movement],” Cheung told RFA onThursday. “Since the umbrellas came down, it seems there has been a political awakening, but internal divisions mean that it will be very hard to find a way around the obstacles in front of us.”
She said “mismanagement” of the main speakers’ stage at the Occupy site in the downtown business district of Admiralty had sparked divisions between different factions, some of whom believed that the protesters should have hung on until their demands for universal suffrage were met.
“Today, I came out to the rally with the feeling that at some level, this was an atonement, because we made a mess of it, and wondering about my own responsibility for those divisions,” she said.
A protester surnamed Wong, 73, said he had been at the Admiralty camp on an urban expressway for the entire during of 79 days, until protesters were cleared from the area by police.
“I didn’t really do anything — I’m old — but I felt as if we would have to live with it for the rest of our lives if we didn’t come out onto the streets,” Wong said. “So I thought I should come out too; that we all should have come out to support them.”
Student leaders jailed
Others said they were at the rally to show support for three former leaders of the movement who were jailed last month.
Former Occupy leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow who were jailed in August by the city’s Court of Appeal after the government requested a review of their community service sentences on public order charges linked to their storming of an area outside government headquarters at the start of the Occupy protests.
Kevin Yam, convenor of the pro-democracy Progressive Lawyers Group, said the struggle for democracy in the former British colony was unlikely to be achieved quickly, however.
“This isn’t a flash in the pan; it’s going to take a lot of ongoing, hard work from everyone,” Yam said. “We will have to swallow our anger and work patiently.”
“I think the initial enthusiasm of the Occupy movement will gradually be forgotten.”
Yam hit out at Beijing for tightening its grip on the city in recent years, and alienating the younger generation.
“Revenge, violence and cold-bloodedness are easy to let in, but much harder to get rid of,” Yam warned. “The most important thing is that we don’t forget the original intention … which is not just the power to choose our political representatives; it’s also a whole set of values like love, peace and tolerance.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong justice secretary Rimsky Yuen hit at a declining ranking given to Hong Kong by the World Economic Forum for judicial independence, following a string of high-profile legal interventions by China’s parliament.
Yuen said he couldn’t see any “objective factors” affecting judicial independence in Hong Kong, although “some events in society” could have affected a more subjective view, but gave no further details.
Declining judicial independence
The WEF cut Hong Kong’s ranking for judicial independence from 6.3 out of 7 last year to 6.1 this year.
Eric Cheung, law scholar at the University of Hong Kong, said the changes in rankings were “cause for concern.”
“We had a major interpretation [from China’s parliament] recently, right when a Hong Kong court was deliberating on a case, which was a big blow to Hong Kong’s judicial independence,” Cheung said. “I hope that Beijing won’t use its power lightly in the future, to avoid damaging it.”
“The rule of law and judicial independence in Hong Kong are its bedrock, and any changes could have an impact on the commercial environment.”
Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy” under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China, but many say the city’s traditional freedoms are now a thing of the past, as Beijing seeks to wield ever greater influence over the city’s media, publishing, and political scene.
Calls for independence were rare in the city until the failure of the 2014 pro-democracy movement to overturn a decree from Beijing insisting that all electoral candidates for chief executive in 2017 be vetted by China’s supporters.
Leaders of the 79-day civil disobedience movement rejected the Aug. 31, 2014 decree by the National People’s Congress (NPC) as “fake universal suffrage.”
But Hong Kong courts recently stripped six directly elected pan-democratic legislators of their seats following an NPC interpretation invalidating their oaths of allegiance to China.
The government-requested review into the sentencing of Wong, Chow and Law has also been criticized as part of a politically motivated retaliation instigated by Beijing.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
Article originally appeared in Radio Free Asia on 28 September 2017