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Opinion | Hong Kong and the Independence Movement That Doesn’t Know Itself

And so from Beijing’s perspective, when pro-democracy protesters and their supporters reject what it perceives as its right to intervene here, they are challenging its very sovereignty. In this, at least, Beijing is correct. It knows what many Hong Kongers don’t seem to have fully appreciated: Admit it or not, we are actually rejecting Chinese sovereignty — we are already an independence movement in disguise. And it all started with the Umbrella Movement.
In their notorious 8/31 white paper, the Chinese authorities in Beijing put forward that they had 全面管治權 over Hong Kong, roughly: the “all-inclusive power to govern, no holds barred.” The autonomy enjoyed by the special administrative region is not a given; it is given, or granted, by Beijing. Being told this angered many Hong Kongers, especially those longing for universal suffrage and those who had expected China to act as a responsible ruler and keep the promises it made, including in the Basic Law, for years to come. They saw Beijing’s declaration as an undue attempt to expand its power over Hong Kong, and they made a counter-declaration, in effect, setting out an entirely different vision for the city’s future.
Sep. 28, 2014 is now seen as the day that officially marks the beginning of the Umbrella Movement, and what happened on that day is that a bunch of people who opposed Beijing’s plans for Hong Kong, many of them students, rushed out the city’s main roads, bypassing the adults’ and elites’ own plans, and began occupying the streets in protest. Although they weren’t calling for Hong Kong’s independence then, they already were, perhaps without realizing it, rejecting the Beijing Consensus.
The Umbrella Movement also contained the political DNA of today’s next-generation protesters. It, too, had factions, internal struggles and disagreements over tactics. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an academic who had been advocating a kind of Occupy operation in Central, a business district, was forced to accept a modified version of his own idea after supporters of the student leader Joshua Wong scaled the gates of the Legislative Council in Admiralty, triggering the police crackdown that really kick-started the movement.
In the course of the 79-day occupation that followed, the sit-in in Admiralty turned into something like a village of mostly young people and adults acting as chaperones of sorts. (A tented library was set up so that students could cram for exams.) But there was a second power center: the camps in Mong Kok, a working-class area, which gathered an older and more mixed crowd. Already back then, the protests’ metabolism ran on decentralization.
The Umbrella Movement was also the initial stage of the “do not split” ethos that binds protesters together today: If you disagree with a proposed action, sit it out, but don’t get in its way. Protesters got used to there being different modes of action in 2014, and that paved the way for an even more flexible, pragmatic approach that people follow now.
There were divergences of views between, say, Benny Tai and Joshua Wong and between the protesters in Admiralty and those in Mong Kok, but everyone was in the same fight together, on the side of democracy. Five years later, the notion that this cohesion, built around our aspirations and identity, extends beyond our differences has only grown stronger. And so has our hunger for self-determination. Even the people who aren’t calling for outright independence are part of an independence movement. The Umbrella Movement was the first battle in the clash of Chinese civilization.
Lewis Lau Yiu-man is a contributor to Stand News in Hong Kong and Up Media in Taiwan.
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