Remembering Occupy Hong Kong – reflections of a student protest organizer

On the first anniversary of the start of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, student organizer Tommy Cheung, a 21 year-old studying at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, reflects on the remarkable events of last year, the role young people played and what the future holds for Hong Kong.

Student organizer, Tommy Cheung, pictured by a major highway in central Hong Kong next to government headquarters. The highway was the main pro-democracy protest site in late 2014.

One year on from Occupy HK, it is still hard for me to go back to the protest area in downtown Hong Kong. Our memories, our history are there. But the trajectory of democratic movements elsewhere tells us victory is rarely won in the first battle.

These days, I am more pessimistic about the power of protest alone to bring about change but I remain completely optimistic about the future of Hong Kong. I have faith in Hong Kong’s people if not our leaders. There is a shift in our mind-set, a resolve to preserve the autonomy of our city, to defend our freedoms and the rule of law. Young people feel they need to act to prevent Beijing interfering further in Hong Kong’s affairs. 

There is a resolve to preserve the autonomy of our city, to defend our freedoms and the rule of law. Young people feel they need to act.
Tommy Cheung, Hong Kong pro-democracy student organizer,

While the struggle for genuine democracy in Hong Kong goes on, we can take solace that Beijing’s proposal to elect Hong Kong’s leader in 2017 was ultimately defeated when our legislature voted on it in June. This was a victory for everyone that took part in the Umbrella Movement. 

The movement was unprecedented. For the first time tens of thousands of Hong Kong people took part in civil disobedience. When students across the city began the week-long class boycott to protest against Beijing’s proposal, I never imagined events would unfold as they did.

There was panic and anger on the first Sunday, [28 September 2014], when police tried to clear the streets by firing dozens of rounds of tear gas. Most of us had never experienced our eyes stinging, or knew how to protect ourselves. My instinct was to run.

Since Occupy, many young people no longer trust the police. They are seen as serving the government rather than the people. We could not believe they used such force against an overwhelmingly peaceful protest. People used umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray and baton charges, and that is how the movement got its name.

The young people taking part were more fearless than the older generation, for whom the bloodshed of 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing was still vivid. My generation are not haunted by such memories.

Dancing to Beijing’s tune

A few days in, we were all exhausted but we hoped that the huge outpouring of support would force the Hong Kong government to listen to us.

Yet, it was obvious the government was dancing to Beijing’s tune and early on there was a genuine fear the People’s Liberation Army would be deployed to clear the streets. This was one of the darkest moments for me. As a student organizer, I felt the weight of responsibility to protect fellow protesters. We had to think of the worst-case scenario, numbers of casualties and how to protect people.

One of the challenges of a genuine grassroots movement is there are so many voices and it can be difficult to make decisions or find consensus. Some students wanted to escalate the protest, but others argued we should retreat while the momentum was with us.

When talks with the government took place in late October, they offered no olive branch. People could see the government were just the puppets of Beijing. Looking back, this was the moment we should have escalated the protest.

A pro-democracy protester remains defiant after Hong Kong police fired tear gas on 28 September 2014. Copyright: AFP/Getty XAUME OLLEROS

I felt dejected and frustrated, but we kept looking for ways to inject new energy into the movement. Some of us attempted to travel to Beijing to try and meet the real decision-makers. We knew we would be prevented from leaving Hong Kong Airport but it was important that we tried.

Final days

November and December were extremely difficult, as the protest dragged on with no breakthrough. There were many opinions inside the movement as to what our next move should be. The wider support from Hong Kong people appeared to be dissipating. 

My biggest regret is the night of Sunday 30 November, when some protesters wanted to occupy government buildings, in an effort to regain momentum. We failed to convince enough people to join the action, leaving those who took part to face police beatings. If I could change one night it would be that.

When police finally cleared the main protest site on 11 December it was hard to watch them arrest my friends. A year on, most still have charges hanging over them.

Moving forward

The biggest lesson I learnt from Occupy is the need to play the long game. We need to look past the 2017 election and a narrow focus on reforming the Basic Law [Hong Kong’s mini-constitution]. We need to gain the support of all parts of Hong Kong society - protest is not the only way to do this.

The genuine participation of young people is crucial to achieving this. We are confident about our identity, our values and our place in the world. We look beyond Beijing. 

We have instilled a belief in liberal values and democracy in the next generation. Beijing can never take that away.
Tommy Cheung

We must link up with other social movements across the world. In the face of a backlash from authorities in many parts of Asia and the wider world, young people are leading the way in bringing about social change. We only have to look to our peers in Taiwan, Japan, and Malaysia, to see this. 

The Umbrella Movement had a profound effect on me, and like many it left me with emotional scars. Yet, I remain confident young people will win future battles for human rights and democracy in Hong Kong.We have instilled a belief in liberal values and democracy in the next generation. Beijing can never take that away.