Over the past month, Hong Kong has witnessed two protests targeting Chinese traders that were met with a police using pepper spray inside of malls. Some of the protesters called the traders ‘locusts’ and ‘Chinese piggies,’ some called for the establishment of a Hong Kong state. These protests stood in sharp contrast to the photogenic, tenacious, clean and commune-like ‘Wonderland’ occupation near the government offices in Admiralty that police cleared in December, 79 days after they tried to prevent it with 87 volleys of tear gas. The most important questions that arise from these protests is how they connect to the Umbrella Movement and what it means for the future of Hong Kong protests.
To take a wide perspective, what concerns most Hong Kong people is the political, economic, and cultural engulfment of Hong Kong and looming fear that Hong Kong is becoming as ‘just another Chinese city.’ This is manifest on many levels. At the political level, there are diminished political and civil rights that garner the most international attention and sympathy. It was also on this level that students, organized through the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) linking university student unions together, planted the roots of the unplanned Umbrella Movement with a Class Boycott. They focused on the Beijing’s ‘8/31’ decision that demanded only loyal Communist Party acolytes could run in an election where the Hong Kong public were given suffrage. Tear gassing transformed the Class Boycott into the much large Umbrella Movement. It expanded focus slightly, condemning the police response and calling for Chief Executive CY Leung’s resignation.
The nomenclature debates within Hong Kong about what to call what happened can help illuminate what is happening now. Occupy was clearly a social movement, making ‘Umbrella Movement’ seem more appropriate, but many wanted to call it the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. HKFS student leaders disliked the term, insisting they weren’t trying to overthrow the government. Nor did the movement accomplish any of its goals. The occupation ended after intense violence and surrender without any of the protesters demands being met.
Yet none of the students I spoke with during the first days of the Class Boycott – launched a week before Occupy began – thought that they would be able to reverse Beijing’s decision. From the beginning, they were calling for a revolution in public consciousness. They wanted Hong Kongers to fight against the odds, to take a stand, and not resign themselves to fatalism. They wanted a newly breed of political consciousness in Hong Kong and they delivered.
The defeat of Occupy as a social movement with policy goals, and three decades of ‘pan-democratic’ oppositional political failures preceding it, is reshaping political consciousness in ways those students ago might not have imagined in September. Among them, two ideas are blending: yungmo spirit and ‘localism.’ Yungmo spirit was born in the violence of Occupied Mong Kok and embraces confrontational ‘militant’ politics. It stands in sharp contrast to the politeness, willingness to endure violence, and hope that compromise can be found with autocrats that was evident throughout Occupy. Localism, in turn, was a more-or-less an outcast line of thought that asks that independence being considered, that local interests take priority, and local livelihoods and culture be restored.
Together, they form an ideology that is antagonistic both to the tactics of Occupy and the policies of the current regime. It is difficult to assess how popular these ideas are but it is evident that they have taken root. Students at the University of Hong Kong, for instance, have voted to leave HKFS. Recent protests in Sha Tin and Tuen Mun, which involved many people who were participants at Occupy, used very different tactics and focused on different issues. To take the anti-trader protesters at their word, these protests should not be seen as a continuation of the Umbrella Movement. It is instead part of a larger ‘revolution’ in consciousness on how to confront local problems under an increasingly authoritarian, illegitimate, and unresponsive Special Administrative Region (SAR) regime that explicitly puts Beijing’s interest first.
These activists are now targeting the economic and cultural engulfment of Hong Kong. In these domains, perhaps nothing strikes a populist nerve as much than Chinese tourists and ‘parallel traders’, stemming from the relaxation of the Individual Visit Scheme by Beijing authorities. The Economist reports that, “last year the territory of 7.3m people received 47.3m visits from the mainland, 16% more than in 2013 and a tenfold increase compared with the number in 2000.” 90% of these tourists were Chinese. The governments own statistics show that between 2004 and 2013, cosmetic and personal care product retail outlets grew by 1,500% and clothing and footwear by 42% while grocery stores dropped by 30% and bookshops by 24%. Only and retail-sector and landlord tycoons seem to be benefiting from this.
What drove the protests in Sha Tin and Tuen Mun were the estimated twenty thousand Chinese traders who exploit multi-entry permits to take advantage of price differences in Hong Kong and the mainland. Many neighbourhoods near the Shenzhen border have been slowly transformed by this trade. Pharmacies and jewellery shops now dominate malls and traders and their packages crowd out public transit. When confronted, traders are known to tell residents that Hong Kong’s economy would be nothing without them. Neither the Hong Kong or central governments are doing much to stop the trade.
Political entrepreneurs have seized on this. These anti-parallel trader campaigns aim to bring this newfound revolutionary spirit, a mixture of localism and yungmo, to a wider audience that was uninterested in the Umbrella Movement. Their performances show neighbourhood residents that police will violently suppress any protest critical of government policy, including those that interest them. They are aiming to reinforce categorical boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’: ‘we’ are the indignant locals; ‘they’ are the tourists, the traders, the Communist Party, the traders, the tycoons, and the SAR government.
They are inventing a new repertoire of resistance in Hong Kong. Abandoning the moral high ground and perhaps liberalism generally, they are not aiming for the ‘worthiness’ displayed during the Umbrella Movement. Perhaps yungmo ‘militantism’ should be seen a natural response to authoritarian disinterest in negotiation and dialogue. We are learning that in a city where citizens have no weapons ‘militantism’ takes the form of public humiliation, harassment, bigoted language, and creating dynamics that unleash police and paid thug violence. What might be more worrying, however, is that their illiberal tactics seem to be working. The Beijing-loyalist DAB party has just added a cap to travel permits into their campaign platform. This is the type of policy concession that 79 days of Occupy didn’t deliver.