Hong Kong protests exemplify civil disobedience

By Johnny McCabe

(Chris Stowers/McClatchy)
(Chris Stowers/McClatchy)

2014 is shaping up to be a landmark year for protests and pro-democracy activism across the entire world. Beginning with fierce conflict in Ukraine over Russian annexation efforts and spanning the gap from the declaration of martial law in Thailand to the narrow defeat of a referendum in Scotland for independence from the U.K., it seems we as a global society are embroiled in a new wave of social upheaval and dramatic transformation. The character of this wave of upheaval trends largely toward violence and brutality, as the fighting in Ukraine and the recent clashes between militarized police and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri have illustrated.

Over the past few weeks, another protest movement erupted in Hong Kong, over the same issues of independence and the questionable boundaries of government power that have informed the other protest movements that spread across social media throughout this year. The images of this revolution, however, stand in stark contrast to the bloodied war zones and occupying militaries of movements past. Instead, Hong Kong protesters have been seen picking up trash, apologizing to commuters and even doing homework. At a time in human history where current events are more visible than ever before because of the Internet, the nonviolent efforts of the Umbrella Revolution are a powerful example of the ability of civil disobedience to enact sweeping social change.

The catalyst of this sweeping movement was a series of regulations on the part of the Chinese government that went into effect at the end of September, which dictated that Beijing would have direct oversight regarding the candidates for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive office, which functions essentially as the legislative and diplomatic leader of the city’s government. This was met with impassioned backlash from the people of Hong Kong, who have occupied a delicate socio-political neutral zone with a large degree of independence following the surrender of the previously British controlled territory to the Chinese government in 1997. Calling for complete autonomy in the democratic process, protestors (mostly students) took to the streets of Hong Kong and were met with swift opposition by riot police.

A few days later, Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai and several like-minded student run groups announced a massive civil disobedience campaign throughout the entire city, which has thus far refused to engage or be moved by riot police in an attempt to dislodge them. The protestors, in accordance with the “Manual of Disobedience,” withstood tear gas and pepper spray peacefully and without the use of violence to defend themselves. And all around the world, sympathetic citizens of all creeds and places of origin have borne witness as the Occupy Central demonstrators refuse to be anything but polite.

This is the true genius behind the Umbrella Revolution. Beijing, conscious of the crucial role Hong Kong plays in their economic and political interactions with the rest of the world, cannot resort to overwhelming force to crush the activists, or else risk another disastrous incident on par with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. At the same time, the very existence of the protest threatens the narrative of internal stability China has been trying to cultivate, even as the demonstrators are some of the most “well-behaved” activists of the recent century.

The Occupy Central campaign, not unlike the city of Hong Kong itself, is based on an unconventional foundation that resides in the space between a political protest and a holistic philosophy of tolerance and equality. All of these factors place the burden of action squarely on the Chinese government; as the sole aggressor in the situation, it cannot trivialize or demonize the protests to any significant effect, and as such must either tolerate their continued presence or acquiesce to their demands.

In the wake of the senseless violence and ultimately fruitless conflicts between police and protestors in Ferguson, the Occupy Central movement stands as a shining example of the power of civil disobedience when filtered through the modern media. The Internet focalizes activism in all its forms, signal boosting causes to sympathetic ears all around the world. Ferocious violence can be an incredible call to action, yet leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, some of the greatest agents of social change in history, have accomplished so much more through peaceful noncompliance.

Imagine what they could have done with a Twitter account.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]