The Umbrella Revolution and The First Generation of Asian Thinkers
In 2001, Singaporean diplomat and writer Kishore Mahbubani added the essay “Bridging the Divide: The Singapore Experience,” to that year’s edition of his controversial 1998 book Can Asians Think? It was a candid essay about the country’s miraculous development. He wrote that societies should be judged ultimately on their ability to deliver to their citizens most of their human needs: food, shelter, health, education, a clean environment, a sense of community, and a sense of purpose in life. It was the end of history for the small island state, and with that success Mahbubani now suggested that perhaps Singapore could provide recipes for progress on a crowded planet.
Twelve years later, in January 2013, the People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since 1959, lost an unprecedented second parliamentary seat, having won only 60 percent of the votes in the 2011 general election. It seemed all was not entirely well with Singaporean society. Opinion Editor at The Straits Times Chua Mui Hoong returned to this theme in her column on October 26, 2014, suggesting instead that the biggest risk to governing Singapore was the growing gap between rich and poor, not only in income, but also in values. To demonstrate her point, she looked to Hong Kong and the Umbrella Revolution, quoting Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung at a press conference to international media, which had taken place a day before the only public debate between the government and student protestors. In relation to the month-old protest, Leung said that if the protestors’ demands for universal suffrage were met, then it was “entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than 1,800 U.S. dollars (2,250 Singapore dollars) a month.” He went on to remark that if the public nominated candidates, then the largest sector of society—the poor—would likely dominate the electoral process. The rise and continued energy of the Umbrella Revolution, like the lost elections in Singapore, are perhaps part of the people’s judgment that societies in Asia are not yet as Mahbubani described in 2001 and that the recipes need a little more time to reach perfection.
After the 79 days of protest that started with a hundred secondary school students joining the leader of student-led activist group Scholarism, Joshua Wong, to scale the fencing of Civic Square in front of the Hong Kong government buildings, nothing seemed to have changed. Their actions were a reaction to the decision by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to “vet” the nominees in the next Hong Kong government Chief Executive election in 2017. The tear gassing, pepper spraying, and charges by the police over those last few days of September and into early October only served to galvanize the three major organizations involved and urge many who might have stayed at home out onto the streets. Joining Scholarism was the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) led by Secretary-General Alex Chow, which represents Hong Kong’s tertiary education system—though it is largely limited to the eight institutions funded by the Hong Kong University Grants Committee. The other major organization was Occupy Central with Peace and Love, led by professors Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming.
During those first seven chaotic days, kids as young as thirteen, armed only with umbrellas, surgical masks, and backpacks, tried to hold fast against well-trained and well-equipped young police officers. The police would later say that they had not used this much tear gas since they handled the groups of muscular belligerent Korean farmers protesting during the WTO meeting in 2005. Worse still, many anticipated and feared the arrival of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which was stationed at the Central Barracks, a stone’s throw from the roads the Umbrella Revolution occupied. Thankfully, they never came. In their place, members of local triads appeared on October 3. Wearing their own surgical masks, they attacked students and appeared to support the Anti-Occupy Central group and the Blue Ribbons. The color was adopted to support the police and to oppose the yellow ribbon emblem of the Umbrella Revolution. After several further nights of trouble from these angry opposition groups, the police succeeded in containing efforts by the triads and direct confrontation by the other two groups, though not without the stench of allegations that would never have appeared had it not been for the government and police attempting to move the protesters vicariously.
Late in the evening of October 21, 2014, the night after Chief Executive CY Leung’s comments on the voting power of the poor, the only discussions between the youth and government representatives ended politely and, predictably, inconclusively. The students’ demands for change were met with a clear statement from the government that there would be no immediate resignation of the Chief Executive or electoral reform. Alex Chow of the HKFS had begun with the broader theme of the widening wealth gap in the city, the large number of people living below the poverty line, and the frustration and resignation with which many youth looked upon their futures. Disappointingly, these urgent points were not explored further, even though they were of most immediate relevance to those who had now been protesting and living on the streets for nearly a month. It was a watershed moment for the adults to demonstrate the new Asian thinking that Mahbubani had referenced 16 years ago. The governing elite could have shown the younger generation—ultimately their charges—that as leaders and the wiser elder generation—at least in a Confucian sense—they could and would respond to the voices calling for attention with imagination and courage. But it didn’t happen.
“If you want to see capitalism in action, go to Hong Kong,” Milton Friedman once said. Wealth inequality in the city is now one of the highest in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.537. It has steadily increased from 0.429 in 1976. In 2012, the bottom 50 percent of household income earners earned just under 18 percent of total household income, a proportion which has remained largely unchanged since 2000. This means that roughly one million people out of a population of seven and a half million live in poverty. An underlying problem facing locally educated Hong Kong youth is the abrupt shift to a service economy, which requires skills they aren’t taught or can’t acquire from their parents. With low social and cultural capital, they aren’t able to compete with overseas-educated students and expatriates.
About four years ago, I established a small program to support students from some of the more disadvantaged areas of Hong Kong. Our work is designed to address some of the consequences of failing social mobility by giving youth better access to opportunities to build social and cultural capital. It started with a young man, Joseph (not his real name), who was doing well at his school even though it was not the best resourced or most academically accomplished. He had expressed a genuine desire to get out of the district in which he had been born and raised, work hard, and return to better the place. Four years on, he is still committed, but knows he has already fallen behind as he hasn’t managed to get the start in tertiary education that he anticipated and desperately needed.
Joseph has a keen interest in politics; he is acutely aware of the inequality of opportunity in his district of Tin Shui Wai. In 2006, the community was labeled by Carrie Lam, then the director of social welfare, as the “city of misery” after a number of suicides, incidences of domestic violence, and reports that it had the highest unemployment rate of the 15 neighboring districts. Joseph explained that he had gone to the protests but, like many others, did not belong to one of the eight tertiary education institutions represented by HKFS, but to one of the twenty others. He participated in the protests for a few days, but to his disappointment, found it difficult to identify with the speakers and leaders, none of whom represented non-HKFS institutions or those who had not continued their education.
Those like Joseph who are determined to pursue a tertiary-level education but do not gain entrance to a government-funded institution must pay around HK$100,000 per year for a sub-degree or associate degree, which can then lead to the possibility of entering a full degree program in yet another private institution. This is a heavy burden in a district where the median monthly income is around HK$10,000 per person. As Leo Goodstadt, former chief policy adviser to the Hong Kong government, wrote in Poverty in the Midst of Affluence, the last book in his trilogy on Hong Kong, “As with public housing and other social services, officials in charge of education were anxious to expand the private sector and to encourage a business-related model among subsidized schools … through a ‘Direct Subsidy Scheme’ which would make possible the quasi-privatization of most of Hong Kong’s best schools … a ‘pilot scheme’ for the widening inequality of opportunity.” After 79 days of protest, none of these issues were raised by either side, but then Scholarism had been here before with the government.
Scholarism emerged in August 2012 during a successful students’ protest against the implementation of moral and national education, largely imposed by Beijing, as a compulsory subject. Then, in June 2013, Scholarism issued a statement demanding the civil nomination of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in 2017. To some, they were simply precocious children. Alex Lo, a senior writer and leading columnist for the South China Morning Post, wrote dismissively in his August 2013 op-ed piece about the group’s rejection of an invitation to an informal roundtable dinner with Chief Executive CY Leung to discuss current political reforms and their demand that any discussions be “open and transparent.” Lo concluded his piece by referring to the students as “Josh and his gang,” and made the prediction that in time the kids would be clamoring to speak to Leung. Lo’s sentiments were typical and, prior to the scaling of the Civic Square fence on September 26, widely held—the older generation contemptuous of the younger—the hallmarks of Confucianism in practice. Scholarism and HKFS represent a demographic that has genuine concerns; they are not simply willful and sullen teenagers to be disparaged. But in the end, their leaderships’ narrow focus on democracy and the resignation of the chief executive allowed the government to avoid addressing larger and more crucial societal issues.
By late October and early November, members of the local community in Mongkok, perhaps triads or blue ribbons, took it upon themselves to throw everything from hammers to bags of excrement on the protesters. The police were quick to encourage the protesters to leave as they made it known they could not protect anyone from this abuse. And so as the weather cooled during November and the rain came down, the youth focused on the Tamar site, the location of the new Central Government Offices of Hong Kong, pitching dozens of tents for the long haul. They created a community on the roads and pavements that showed Hong Kong youth could be creative, polite, and civil, even to those who confronted them—in reply to screaming and threatening opposition, they would sing Happy Birthday! With exams pending, they built a library to continue their studies, implemented recycling efforts, and maintained hygiene and order. While universal suffrage remained beyond reach, the streets and buildings were not. The voices of thousands of individual protesters were expressed in a powerful mosaic, covering the tarmac in chalk, paint, and drawing paper, across the bridges in huge banners and posters, and along walls and stairs of government buildings on post-it notes and projections of text messages. It was a glorious, varied articulation of the concerns of individual youth and desires for, and about, their future. Some were tired with the unfairness of Hong Kong society, some pointed at the current administration, and others called for greater human rights and universal suffrage. At Hong Kong’s Cenotaph, a memorial dedicated to the great fallen of the two world wars, they even expressed their respect for those who had died for freedom.
In the introduction to Can Asians Think?, Kishore Mahbubani expressed his disappointment that the book had not triggered the debate he felt was much needed. Mahbubani had wondered whether Asians would have the imagination and deep thinking to be able to create a new world for themselves or whether they would continue to rely on Western ideas to govern and plan their emerging societies. He explained that among the crucial elements needed for Asian thinking was the ability to blend Asian values with Western values. The examples of Asian values he provided were attachment to the family, deference to social interests, thrift, conservatism in social mores, and respect for authority. As for Western values, he highlighted the emphasis on individual achievements, political and economic freedom, and respect for the rule of law. Only by drawing on a mix of these could and would Asians emerge from behind, where they had surprisingly found themselves residing after the last thousand years, to reclaim their place as part of the world leadership.
Judging by the thousands of graphics, illustrations, and quotations from Thoreau to Tupac, the Umbrella Revolution has showed that a large number of Hong Kong youth are now capable of allowing, and even embracing, a multitude of voices and opinions without falling into a social structure led by Confucian stereotypes. While the demands of their leadership can be described as too narrowly focused, there was no elitism on the streets, and no censuring of the thousands of offerings. The youth were defined by their behavior, showing at all times a general level of creativity and civility—even to the police who had pepper-sprayed them. They demonstrated that some Asians can indeed now “think” and that the ideas of individual liberty have been adopted not just in name but also finally in deed. It is less clear what the Hong Kong government has learned.