Struggling on: Intimacy as an emerging space of political participation

Struggling on: Intimacy as an emerging space of political participation

Sui-Ting Kong and Sik Ying Ho

Academics in Hong Kong have never been as puzzled when making sense of intimate and family practices, as they have been in the context of the impact of the Umbrella Movement on personal lives. The stories we have collected from participants in and opponents of the Umbrella Movement are forcing us to leave our comfort zone in theorizing practices of intimacy, by taking into account the gains and losses in personal relationships after the Umbrella Movement. This article presents our emerging understanding of how political participation in the Umbrella Movement is mediated by familial language and intersects with the familial and intimacy practices of participants. Furthermore, participation per se is found to have transformed the participants themselves and their familial/intimacy practices. The closer we looked at the (non-) participants’ stories, the more we recognized the cross influence of the micro and the macro-political in the lives of those of both colours of ribbon (1).

To understand the impact of the Umbrella movement on people’s intimate relationships, we conducted joint interviews with 3 pairs of HK men before and after the umbrella movement, first in April 2014 and then in April 2015. Subsequently, we also conducted a focus group with 11 participants from all walks of life. This group included people of differing gender, age, class background, sexual orientation and relationship statuses as well as of varying political orientations. We hoped to explore their understanding of the relevance of democracy for different kinds of personal relationships especially among family members.

In this study, we discovered that intimacy, which is traditionally considered as private and apolitical, is becoming a site for forming narratives mediating citizens’ political participation and non-participation. People’s experiences of being a tough father, an abused daughter or a disciplined sister at home shape their participation in the movement, thus disrupting the view that the narratives that sustain politics are defined by established power, and challenging the longstanding legitimacy of the public-private divide between political participation and intimacy. The term ‘Ah Yae’ (阿爺, paternal grandfather, as authoritarian patriarch) widely employed in describing the top-down governance of the central government of People’s Republic of China mirrors this developing political space mediated by familial languages.

‘The powerful—in this case the state—expects “politics” to be conducted in a particular language, through particular acts that are indexed historically, recognized in the constitution, intelligible in the law or culturally sanctioned as being “political”’ (Khanna, 2012:165).

‘Unruly politics’, as a conceptual lens for analyzing ‘the relationship between power, politics and citizen action’ (Khanna, 2012: 164), enables us to make sense of the Umbrella’s Movement more fully by opening up new questions in examining the ‘success’ of a movement and the reconfiguration of political spaces after the event. What are the new modalities and languages of political action generated after the movement? At the core of ‘unruly politics’ we are searching for the emerging spaces where political participation carries on, even though structural change in the government is not (yet) part of the visible outcome.

Unfolding the overlapping of private and public                                             

The oscillation between individual identity and collective action forms, for us, the basic perspective in formulating our research design (Yates, 2015). In the interviews and focus groups we conducted, we asked the following questions:

  • What did you think about the umbrella movement?
  • Was it a success or failure?
  • How has the Umbrella Movement changed your family relationships?
  • Have your relationships been affected by the movement?
  • Have you changed as a result?

The questions we explored brought us ripples of surprises that so many of our respondents perceived the Umbrella Movement a success despite the negative mainstream discourse about it. The view that the movement had achieved nothing after 79 days of occupation because the Beijing Government had not moved at all in response to this cry for genuine universal suffrage, as propagated by mainstream analysis, did not find a unanimous echo in the interviews. Instead we were really impressed by the way that the participants described the positive impacts of the movement on both themselves and the society, especially for those who had actually participated by either visiting or staying at the occupation sites.

Nonetheless, we were amazed that most research participants did not use political concessions and concrete constitutional changes as the only criteria for measuring success. The participants, especially the active “yellow ribbons” (the pro-democracy camp), were always ready to defend the movement. What strikes us most in these individual and group interviews were the three positive influences that emerged in these participants’ narratives: personal transformation, social awareness and an understanding of humanity.

The impact on the intimate and the personal: The ordinary extraordinary

The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong has altered the normative apolitical social exchanges in families and workplaces, and has even created a force for intimate partners, parents, children and friends to reveal, discuss and debate their political views in their intimate practices.

‘People around me, including friends and family, had rarely bothered about politics. But during the Umbrella Movement, a lot of people have started paying attention to this and started talking about this…’ said Mr. Strong

As this extraordinary movement is gaining an ordinary life in practices of intimacy through entering family talks, peer gatherings and workplace conversations; the prevailing hierarchy, patriarchy and even violence in intimate/familial relationships are made visible for re-examination.

Interviewees described their participation in the Umbrella Movement as a ‘trigger’ to expose the underlying conflicts in political attitudes, moral judgment and values about humanity. In our study, respondents spoke about how they resisted their authoritarian fathers/paternal parents, and to start developing of their own independent thinking. Having a brother who is a policeman or having a husband with a different political orientation, as in the case of two woman interviewees, was described as “painful” and yet “enlightening”. Interviewees further reflected on the lack of fairness and the violence of family authority in the Hong Kong Chinese culture, in the light of their experiences of equal participation and democratic deliberation during the Umbrella Movement.

Despite most interviewees describing Hong Kong family life as “avoiding confrontation”, they also found that they needed to change this familial culture by learning how to communicate better about intra-family differences. Tina said:

‘I do not want to split up with my family because of this. I know many people have “unfriended” others including their families. I don’t think we should do that. It takes more courage to reconcile.’

Witnessing the beauty of humanity has also transformed the authoritarian father’s understanding of self and encouraged him to revisit of his fathering duty. The virtues of care, love and protection he learned in the movement have filtered into his family life. Sometimes, it might even lead to reconciliation with loved ones. As Timothy put it:

‘The greatest impact of the movement is that my heart has been softened. I used to be a tough guy. But I have cried a lot during the movement, 10 times more than I have in the past 50 years. I came to realize that I owe my daughters a lot as I have not spent quality time with them. You can imagine what it is like for a guy who had to open a factory in the Mainland. My relationship with my older daughter was really bad.’

Many of the participants also hinted in the interview that they could no longer see the government as the all-knowing parents. In most cases, ‘self-reliance for happiness’ (自求多福) is the main means for them to relate to paternalistic governance.

This venture into the overlapping of the public and the private opens up a new space for us to explore and narrate lives. Through unpacking these overlapping experiences, we realize that the democratization of society has a major impact on the democratization of family relationships. It leads to both conflicts and reconciliation. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong has then engendered and driven a rising demand for a new modality of family practices, for accommodating to transforming selves, social lives and understandings of humanity.


Khanna, A (2012) Seeing citizen action through an ‘unruly lens’ Development 55(2), 162-172.
Yates, L. (2015). Everyday politics, social practices and movement networks: Daily life in Barceló naive explorcentres. The British Journal of Sociology, 66(2), 236-258.

1. Yellow ribbon refers to supporters of the Umbrella Movement, whereas the blue ribbon refers to its opponents. The different ribbons are often used on Facebook as public displays of political stance as pro-democracy versus pro-establishment respectively.


Sui-Ting Kong is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at University of Hong Kong. She completed her PhD at University of York (UK) in 2014, and subsequently joined University of Hong Kong. She is always interested in innovating qualitative research methods and methodologies for advancing social work practice, and exploring social practices in intimacy and family lives. These research interests are reflected in her studies in both intimate partner violence and end-of-life care. Sik Ying HO is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work & Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. As an academic activist she co-founded the University of democracy-to-come, Hong Kong Shield and HKU Vigilance. Recent books on the Umbrella Movements are Everyday Life in the Era of Resistance (抗命時代的日常) and The Umbrella Politics Quartet (雨傘政治四重奏).