A Tale of Sunflowers and Umbrellas

Not even six months have passed since Taiwan’s Sunflower activists occupied the Legislative Yuan, and now it’s Hong Kong’s turn for mass protests. While a familiar, social media-savvy focus on peace and rationality is already evident, Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” has already diverged from Taiwan’s Sunflower in significant ways.

First, while Hong Kong’s occupation was proposed much farther in advance, it is far less spatially and politically centralized. As with Taiwan’s Sunflowers, the major initial momentum was produced by students loosely affiliated with civic activists. The coordination between the Federation of Students, Scholarism, and Occupy Central with Peace and Love, the highest profile groups, has been spotty at best, leading to several miscommunications and confusion about timing and tactics.

But Hong Kong’s movement, like the Sunflowers, has temporarily transcended its factional origins on a scale that may surprise its original organizers. Like the March 23 riot police attack on students at the Executive Yuan in Taipei, the unexpected tear gas assault by police on Sept. 28 in Hong Kong seems to have unified sentiment and pushed the public in favor of demonstrators. “The Occupy Central people don’t represent me, and I don’t know if they asked anyone before they announced that they were starting earlier than October 1 to build on student momentum, but we’re all in this together!” said Thisby Cheng, a performance arts student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Eerily familiar slogans, “We are all Hong Kong People,” “Save your own Hong Kong,” proliferate in the sprawling on and offline spaces of Hong Kong’s movement. Just as an action nominally instigated by the student-led Black Island Nation Youth Alliance blossomed into the Sunflower Movement, a name not of its initiators choosing, Hong Kong’s movement has already crowd-sourced its moniker, the “Umbrella Movement” —for the everyday tool that demonstrators have wielded to withstand tear gas, sweltering sun, and pounding rain.

Like the Sunflowers, the movement in Hong Kong is drawing support from a wide swath of society. And while the movement has its own Lin Fei-fan-style student star in the 17 year-old Joshua Wong, joining the ranks of long-time local political personalities like “Long Hair” Leung Kwun-hong, the SAR’s campaign defies easy personification. Without a focal point like the podium of Taiwan’s occupied Legislative Yuan, Hong Kong TV crews and cameras are forced to use broader lenses.

Civic Square, adjoining Hong Kong’s Government and the People’s Liberation Army offices, where Joshua Wong and others first climbed the gates, is the closest thing to the movement’s spatial center. The first-aid station of that initial protest site, later dispersed by a now-notorious police attack, has since been reclaimed and now sports a makeshift Umbrella Shrine. This center, unlike the Legislative Yuan, however, is not an occupied building that can be held. The surrounding street occupation has since spread not only into major nearby street arteries running through major commercial business and shopping districts, but also slipped across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon’s dense shopping-residential Mong Kok neighborhood.

At the time of writing, the area on Hong Kong Island from Admiralty to Causeway Bay was still filled largely with black-shirt wearing students. Perhaps counter-intuitively for a student encampment, the mood, while inspired and idealistic, feels more severe, reflecting the higher strategic stakes of the site, as well as the memory of recent violence. The Mong Kok site, while smaller than the island-side encampment, has drawn a wider range of ages and social classes and features an arguably more festive and expressive atmosphere. In this respect, the occupied spaces on Hong Kong Island are somewhat more like Qingdao E. Rd, the street facing the Legislative Yuan, while Mongkok, even if separated from the main encampment by iconic Victoria Harbor, more resembles the sprawling and experimental Jinan Rd  encampments one block down.

The decentralization of supply, first aid, and security teams, both inspiring and unsettling, is another profound difference. Perhaps due to the topology, but also the even more dispersed and ad hoc social organization of Hong Kong activists, there is not yet an institutionalized or badge-wearing security team. The need for strict security was evident early on in Taipei, when plainclothes agents reportedly tried to smuggle in weapons and contraband into the occupied Legislative Yuan, and gangsters outside, in a sad replay of martial law-era tactics, attempted to drive in with motorbikes and firecrackers to intimidate protesters. There have been only a few minor reports of such disturbances in Hong Kong. Instead, vehicles bearing refreshments of food and water are cheered as they enter the encampments. Such a high degree of trust and loose security may turn out to be both a blessing and a curse should the scene turn violent for any reason.

Hong Kong likely received more international media attention in the first day of protests than Taiwan did during the entire 24 days of the Sunflower occupation. The most straightforward explanation for this is that there are more foreign journalists based in Hong Kong (many of whom were denied Chinese visas), and that the precedent of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown makes journalists loathe to miss the terrifying possibility of a replay. Moreover, for journalists with limited training in regional language and history, Hong Kong’s story is much easier to spin as a simple morality play of Western-style democracy versus Chinese authoritarianism. During the Sunflower occupation, the case of Taiwan was far more difficult to distill after being filtered through state and corporate media and diluted by international focus on a missing Malaysian plane and a crisis in Crimea.

Fortunately, Taiwan’s tale is being written into Hong Kong’s. The Sunflowers and their sympathizers partly inspired this new generation of activists. They demonstrate in solidarity at Liberty Square in Taipei, send messages of support on social media, and fundraise for flights to join their counterparts. While half a million peaceful demonstrators in front of the Presidential Office on March 30 was still barely  enough to make the world notice Taiwan, all eyes are on Hong Kong, and the two societies’ increasingly networked struggle has turned a new corner.