The umbrella movement—the mass occupations that roiled Hong Kong in the last three months of 2014—famously drew its name from the improvised use of umbrellas as shields against police tear gas, fired in an attempt to clear the first group of protesters on September 28. The humble but handy umbrella became a symbol of resistance by ordinary people, using everyday tools, against an unaccountable government. The movement shared some characteristics with other recent mobilizations: it has been widely compared to the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square, Occupy Wall Street and Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement of Spring 2014—but, as its participants point out, the twelve-week Umbrella Movement outlasted them all.

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In fact, the similarities with Tiananmen—also initiated by Chinese student groups calling for more democracy—were superficial. The Umbrella Movement had a set of precisely formulated technical demands; it did not target the Central People’s Government or engage in rhetoric about the future of the nation. The freer environment of Hong Kong offered the protesters a degree of media and institutional support undreamt of by the Tiananmen students, while also putting constraints on the authorities’ response. And, of course, the Umbrella Movement relied on social media and virtual networks unavailable in 1989. Comparisons with the 2011 Occupy movement in the us show up a similar repertoire of actions, not least protest art and education; the libraries set up by Umbrella protesters in Admiralty and Mongkok recall the People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. But the Hong Kong demands were unequivocally concerned with formal democracy and the rule of law, rather than global capitalism and the financial crisis.

The Spring 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan—students and others occupying the Legislative Yuan from 18 March to 10 April, to protest the fast-tracking through parliament of a Service Agreement between Taiwan and China—offers a closer analogy. Both occupations combined legalistic demands about procedure with deeper claims about identity and political representation, amid perceptions that the Beijing government was working hand-in-glove with local economic elites to thwart democratic outcomes; both resorted to novel forms of activism and cultural interventions. Yet the Umbrella Movement remains distinctive, in part because of Hong Kong’s unique status as a relatively free enclave within the People’s Republic of China, under the Basic Law. How then should it be situated among the new protest movements?

The origins of the Umbrella Movement lay in a consultation process on constitutional reform, to implement universal suffrage as promised by Hong Kong’s 1990 Basic Law. In 1997, when the territory became a Special Administrative Region (sar) of the People’s Republic of China, its Basic Law retained the spirit of the British colonial institutions: the former office of Governor was replaced by a ‘Chief Executive’, while the Legislative Council (LegCo) maintained the division between directly elected seats, based on geographical constituencies, and those representing ‘functional’ constituencies, mainly business interests.footnote1 Nevertheless the Basic Law—drafted in the 1980s, by prc officials and representatives of the Hong Kong business elite—affirmed that ‘the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage, upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures’. Similarly, the goal would be direct election to all LegCo seats, though the Basic Law stipulated that neither would happen before 2007–08. In the meantime, the Chief Executive would be chosen by an 800- or 1,200-strong Election Committee. After mass demonstrations in 2003 against the introduction of national security legislation, the Central Government tightened control over the revision process for the Basic Law. In 2004 it also froze the partial democratization of LegCo, begun by the British in the final years of colonial rule but continued after the handover. However, in 2007 the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress ruled that universal suffrage would be introduced for the 2017 election of the Chief Executive, by amending Annex 1 of the Basic Law.

Hong Kong’s democracy supporters had grown frustrated at their lack of bargaining power. The Pan-Democratic camp had been split when the Democratic Party entered into direct negotiations with the Central Liaison Office, Beijing’s representative in Hong Kong, in a 2010 compromise over LegCo reform. With the growing political activism of civil society after the 2003 protests, marches had come to be seen as ineffectual expressions of discontent. This led Benny Tai, a law professor at Hong Kong University, to put forward the idea of civil disobedience as a new ‘lethal weapon’ to increase the Pan-Democrats’ bargaining power in the upcoming round of constitutional reforms. Tai set out eight conditions for his initiative, ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’, to succeed.footnote2 His ideas met with interest among younger Hongkongers, dissatisfied with the system and frustrated with the routinization of protest politics. Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience began to appear in bookshops around town in 2013.

The constitutional process of amending the Basic Law involved the Hong Kong government ‘consulting’ its citizens, from December 2013 to May 2014; the Chief Executive, former property surveyor C. Y. Leung, would then report their views to the National People’s Congress in July. During the consultation process, a key demand put forward by Hong Kong’s Alliance for True Democracy, including the 27 Pan-Democratic LegCo members, was for ‘civil nominations’ of chief executive candidates—which, if they had a sufficient number of signatures, would have to be accepted by the Nomination Committee. On 31 August 2014 the npc Standing Committee pronounced its verdict: universal suffrage would be introduced for the Chief Executive election in 2017, but candidates would be vetted by a Nominating Committee formed ‘in accordance with’ the current Election Committee, and each of the two or three candidates selected would need the votes of more than half the Committee’s members.

The catalyst for the Umbrella Movement was thus first and foremost constitutional and legalistic. Tai’s ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ had been widely criticized for its idealism, and the npc’s August decision seemed to confirm that the group’s strategy was toothless. However, at this point the course of events completely changed in nature: instead of the planned oclp action, what occurred was a bottom-up, ‘spontaneous’—zifa—Umbrella Movement. In the aftermath of the npc ruling, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, led by hku sociology and comparative literature major Alex Chow, and Scholarism, the high-school activist group led by 17-year old Joshua Wong, sprang into action. They called for a week of class boycotts from September 22, culminating in a sit-in by high-school students outside the LegCo building on Friday, September 26. That night, Wong and a group of fellow students broke into Civic Square, originally a public space in front of LegCo but recently cordoned off. When news spread that some of the students were being detained by the police and their homes searched, more people flocked to join the sit-ins.