A Fishball Revolution and Umbrella Soldiers: The Battle for Hong Kong's Soul
Protesters look on behind a fire set by them at a junction at Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China (February 9, 2016).
Image Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

A Fishball Revolution and Umbrella Soldiers: The Battle for Hong Kong's Soul

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What started off as a government enforcement action against unlicensed street hawkers selling fishballs and tofu in Hong Kong on the first night of the Year of the Monkey ended in the most violent clash between police and protesters since the Hong Kong protests in 2014, known as the Umbrella Movement.

But the “Fishball Revolution” was not about fishballs. To a younger generation, these street hawkers symbolize Hong Kong’s identity, slowly coalescing toward the mainland. The protesters want Hong Kong to become more, rather than less, of a democracy. But their demands from the Umbrella Movement’s peaceful resistance fell on deaf ears and now these young activists are seeking more drastic measures. Some are moving toward violent resistance, whilst others seek to enter the political establishment. Either way, both camps focus as much on local symbolism and pro-Hong Kong causes as on the ‘China factor.’

When Hong Kong was handed over by the British to China in 1997, China agreed to a “one country, two systems” model under which Hong Kong’s civil liberties and political system would be guaranteed at least until 2047. But the erosion of the “one country, two system” model is happening faster than Hong Kongers could fathom – most recently highlighted by what looks like the secret abduction and arrest of booksellers who had been working on a controversial book about Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Concerns over the mainland’s influence and Hong Kong’s identity help explain why a political, satirical, low-budget movie called Ten Years outperformed the release of the latest Star Wars movie in Hong Kong. The movie plays into fears of Hong Kongers of what the territory could look like ten years from now – completely absorbed by the mainland, with local culture and the Cantonese language both marginalized.

“If Ten Years had been released earlier, even a year before, it would have sounded so unrealistic [and] unimaginable, but now it seems more and more possible,” says Victoria Hui, an associate professor at Notre Dame University, who has appeared before U.S. Congress to testify on the future of democracy in Hong Kong.

It is this sense of urgency that leads a younger generation to act – it is their future at stake, but it is currently in the ruling hands of an older generation. Some young activists are seeking to change that by joining the system themselves.

This year’s Legislative Council elections in September will be critical, Hui believes: “What happens in the next few years rather than 20 years down the road is more important … and I think the upcoming elections are going to be the most important.”

One of those seeking to enter the political system is Joshua Wong, the face of the Umbrella Movement. He is currently barred from running in the Legislative Council elections, because he is only 19 years old. He is challenging a rule in court to lower the age threshold for running for office.

Whereas an older generation often left the city whenever they had the possibility, a younger generation has no choice and is committed to the future of democracy in Hong Kong, he says in an interview with The Diplomat. “After the Umbrella Movement, more of the new generation care about Hong Kong, [because it is] the place they were born and it is quite easy to let them to show their care and commitment to this city,” says Wong.

Newly established activist-led parties, called “Umbrella Soldiers,” focus on community and grassroots work to win over hearts and minds in the districts. “At the beginning [pro-establishment parties] do not see us as a threat. They might think that we just come to play and we do not really want to work for the community,” says 22-year-old Jimmy Yuen, community liaison officer of the Kowloon East Community party – one of the Umbrella Soldiers parties.

But in the 2015 district elections, some Umbrella Soldiers were elected into office (although they lost in most districts, their losses were often only by a small margin). People voted for them, says Yuen, because “they think that we are young, have passion and we know how to solve the community problems. And we do not only sit in the office and only passively listen … we will actively listen to people.”

Surveys have suggested that Hong Kongers are proud of their local identity. Over the past decade, people identify more strongly as ‘Hong Kongers’ and increasingly less so as ‘Chinese’, according to surveys conducted by the Public Opinion Program at Hong Kong University. The latest poll results even indicate that the “feeling of being ‘citizens of the PRC’ is the weakest among all identities tested.” And this trend, according to the surveys, is even more pronounced among the younger generation. The “Umbrella Soldiers” are poised to tap into this demographic shift.

But violent resistance over localist, pro-Hong  Kong causes such as the street hawkers may backfire. The so-called Fishball Revolution may have actually helped the pro-establishment camp in the upcoming elections. “Middle-aged people, in my generation and beyond, go for stability. So when they see what they consider as real chaos in Hong Kong, there may be a backlash against the entire pro-democracy camp,” says Hui.

In the movie Ten Years, a youth mob organizes riots, giving the Hong Kong government a reason to invoke a controversial national security law and call in the People’s Liberation Army from the mainland. The Fishball Revolution that played out in Mong Kok earlier this month has invoked feelings that a scenario like the one in Ten Years may not be that far off from reality – a fear that plays into the polarization between the pro-stability and pro-democracy camps.

Joshua Wong is aware that the Umbrella campaign needs to focus on local issues and adopt a positive stance: “Instead of only having the image or perception of [being] anti-China, it is necessary to build up the pro-Hong Kong campaign.”

After the abducted booksellers, people felt powerless, said Wong. “However, it is not a time for us to be depressed, it is not a time for us to be sad,” he says. “We should be more realistic and pragmatic and try to continue to commit to the movement, because it’s a long-term battle toward the Communist Party of China.”

But whereas some “Umbrella Soldiers” perceive this as a battle over the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers in the political arena, the Fishball Revolution is perhaps a sign that some activists are taking the idea of this ‘battle’ more literally.

(Joshua Wong was interviewed a few days before the Fishball Revolution incident in Mong Kok. He was unavailable for follow-up questions.)

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