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17 October 2014, Gateway House

Umbrella movement’s symbolic dilemma

The protests in Hong Kong portray a grim future for Beijing's 'one country, two systems' policy. But do the constructively-inclined, young campaigners need a new set of symbols, signs and ideologies to differentiate themselves from the feeble-minded followers of the merely hostile?

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Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement can be interpreted in two ways, at least phonetically, if not politically. In mainland China, the movement has been called the ‘Hong Kong Occupy Central Movement’.  Hong Kongers more colloquially dub it as Umbrella Dissident Movement.

It is hard to deny that this prolonged and polemical campaign is ominous for the future of a Chinese community based on the idea of “one country, two systems” given that people are widely polarised and a consensus seems to be impossible to achieve.

So far, the campaigners have been in a dilemma: how to continue the campaign without sabotaging the security and prosperity of Hong Kong. Many mothers in Hong Kong have joined the demonstrations to persuade the young participants to use more constructive methods of advocacy..

The constructively-inclined campaigners need a new set of symbols, signs and ideologies to differentiate themselves from the feeble-minded followers of the merely hostile. At the same time, they have to prove  themselves as not mere chess pieces controlled by shadow players.

Even a cursory look at the Umbrella Movement shows many other embedded discrepancies and contradictions—these are evident in their slogans, statements, complaints expressed through Tweets, and the media coverage about why, how and what they are really fighting for.

So far, among all the gadgets and “weapons” used in this campaign are symbols from other similar movements that have used Twitter and Jasmine Revolution-style mobilisation (from Tunisia to the Arab uprisings to China in 2011) as well as the Occupy Wall Street-style agora movement, yellow ribbons (elements of Revolution Corporate Identity, which all proven to be different expressions of cynicism from the governed).

All these are imported icons and instruments of revolution, which ironically belong to the debilitating and corrupting capitalist system and a globalisation regime that the movement really should be fighting against, instead of embracing them.

In order to safeguard Hong Kongers’ inalienable rights and the contracted promise of electoral reform—including freedom of speech, autonomy, democracy, the prosperity of consumerism based on free flow of cargo, capital and people—the campaigners have chosen to occupy The Central, a typical Hong Kong-style mall—a symbol of consumerism rather than one of democracy—to express their dislike of “dictatorship” and of being controlled and hoodwinked.

However, before this movement began in late September, what has “occupied” the media, both in Hong Kong and mainland China, are harangues about mainland Chinese purchases of milk power, maternity community hospitals, and the unprepossessing habits of tourists. Weeks before the onset of the movement, a pregnant woman from mainland China was briefly detained at the immigration checkpoint in Hong Kong and finally denied entry simply because she was pregnant and suspected of appropriating the medical resources of Hong Kongers.

In other words, between mainland China and Hong Kong, the conflicts have not only been represented in the political sphere but have already trickled down to daily life and affected the general public. The conflict is no longer—and should not be—framed as antagonism between the politically dispossessed and those who govern at the top.

Since its “return” to China, Hong Kong has been addressed officially as the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (SAR). The meaning of that acronym has now been unofficially changed to the Skyscrapers and Agoras Resistance (SAR). It reminds both the governors and citizens that the future of Hong Kong is not only in the hands of administrators, but will also be decided by “members” of the renamed “SAR.”

Hong Kongers, especially those who support the protestors, should not anticipate that their homeland will move in their preferred direction, especially if they have failed to explore the visions that can truly unite all citizens and address the real troubles which concerning national identity, social justice and disempowerment  within Chinese society.

They cannot behave like everything they are fighting against—while consuming imported Fast Moving Consumer Goods—can be masked as Fast Moving Counter-regime Goods. Nor can they hope at the same time that Hong Kong will regain the position and prosperity it had during British colonial rule.

Zhou Lei is a researcher at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies in Nanjing, China.

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