ON THE FRONTLINE: Three years after the Umbrella Movement

ON THE FRONTLINE: Three years after the Umbrella Movement

Petula Sik-Ying Ho

Following the death of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo in July, the subsequent disappearance of his wife, Liu Xia, and the disqualification in the same month of four pro-democracy lawmakers from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, our hearts sunk once again at the news of the sentences handed down to the young activists for pro-democracy advocacy. In August 2017, 16 young activists (the 13 + 3) were jailed for participating in two separate protests that challenged the government. They had already been convicted and served sentences, but the Department of Justice later filed an appeal against sentences it argued were ‘too light’. Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal ruled in its favour. These events occurred against a backdrop of a crackdown on political protests and restrictions on free speech in Hon Kong, with many more young protesters awaiting trial. Many supporters of democracy see the ruling as a politically motivated move that pushes the city towards a judicial culture that errs on the side of power over rights.

The first case involved 13 defendants including League of Social Democrats (LSD) Vice-Chairman Raphael Wong, Land Justice League convener Willis Ho, and activist Billy Chiu who in 2014 demonstrated against the government’s plan to develop the northeast New Territories. The young protesters feared the development plan would fail to protect residents and the environment, and argued that the policy-making process surrounding the development was undemocratic. Some in the group protested outside the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo), while others attempted to enter the LegCo building. All were found guilty of unlawful assembly in 2015 and had already served between 80 and 150 hours of community service. On August 15, the Court of Appeal sentenced 12 of the defendants to 13 months in prison and one, who alone admitted guilt, to eight months.

The second case involves Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, three young activists who played a central role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests. They were convicted of unlawful assembly in July 2016. Wong was sentenced to 80 hours of community service, Law received 120 hours, and Chow received a three-week suspended jail sentence. On August 17, the Court of Appeal re-sentenced Wong to six months behind bars, Law to eight months, and Chow to seven months. On August 20 the pro-democracy civic sector held a rally condemning the re-prosecution of the 16 young people, which had the biggest turnout since the Umbrella Movement.

The revised sentences can be seen as a means of excluding pro-democracy activists from participation in the limited degree of democracy Hong Kong is allowed. According to Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, any individual who receives a prison sentence of more than three months is deprived of the right to run in legislature and district council elections for five years. The first tier of leaders in the newly formed political party Demosisto including Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Derek Lam are now in jail and there are others who will soon be tried and convicted. Thus the party is not only deprived of its leadership, but these leaders will be barred from standing for election. Human Rights Watch’s China Director, Sophie Richardson, said, via Hong Kong Free Press that seeking jail time for the three Umbrella Movement leaders ‘a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.’ Human Rights watch also condemned the sentencing ‘a travesty for Hong Kong and the ways in which it has long distinguished itself from the mainland.’

One of the three, Nathan Law, had already been elected to the LegCo in 2016, but was among those recently disqualified as he was deemed to have demonstrated insufficient solemnity in taking the oath at his swearing-in. In his letter to friends, he said:”I serve prison time for those who have participated in the Umbrella Movement and for justice. Don’t feel sorry; be more determined in stepping forward. Although I am in prison, my free spirit will be with those who share our beliefs and values and continue fighting for a better life. Tyranny won’t be overthrown by those who sacrificed but by people who are driven by moral power to collectively make change. Without such a collective will to change, our suffering and pain, inside or outside of prison, will become meaningless.”

Joshua Wong, the most well-known student leader, tweeted before he was sent to the prison: ‘It has ‘created’ the youngest group of political prisoners since the handover.’

The Civic political party described the re-sentencing of the activists as “legal terrorism” in a statement (via Hong Kong Free Press): “The government will stop at nothing in its use of appeal procedures and sentence reviews – what are, in effect, tools of legal terrorism – to deal with protesters and social movements opposed to the establishment. The appeal and jail sentence is a form of institutional violence and political suppression…”

 Women activists and political prisoners
Among the 13 political prisoners, there were 3 women, Willis Ho, Yim Man Wah and Chow Kuo Yin. (Before them, there was also Hui Ka Kei, a HKU student who was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment because of the Mongkok Civil Unrest. Willis Ho, one of the activists who challenged the Northeast New Territories development plan, wrote before she was sentenced to 13 months in prison: “I have to admit, I see darkness and despair in our society. I don’t want to spread negative energy but in despair I can see light resisting against the darkness. The light is weak but it exists. I could only see on television the result of the court’s decision: my boyfriend and fellow protesters on television in jail. Such a “setback” will make us stronger. We will support and be there for each other. We know that there are people who are with us making changes in different positions.The decision to plead not guilty and the refusal to express regret over my action is a steadfast statement that the sentence cannot change, it cannot change our belief and make me feel regret.”

Her mother shared her feelings on her daughter’s trial on Facebook:”Today, among the 13 defendants of Northeast New Territories protest, is my dearest [daughter]….I can only send my support in silence. When you see the sun rise, the sun set and the stars at night, I am with you, thinking about you and giving you strength. When you are back, you will be stronger with a lot more experience. I want you know that I am so proud of you and you have done nothing wrong.”

The political awakening brought about by the Umbrella Movement and the preceding protests against the North East New Territory Redevelopment Project has made a tremendous contribution to the growth of Hong Kong’s civil society. We, as Hong Kongers, have never had democracy or the right to determine our own future. The tireless efforts of these young activists over the past few years have led the way in exposing the injustices of a hegemonic real estate industry, the politics of collusion between big business and government, and an undemocratic constitution that denies Hong Kongers the chance to decide their future.

For daring to ask for democracy, our young activists are now paying a heavy price. Through our research we have been documenting the injuries experienced by Umbrella Movement activists, the women in particular, since 2014. Our research participants include sex young women who formed a Facebook group ‘Young Girls’ Heart.’. Of these six, three have been directly affected by the crackdown on protesters. One is Willis Ho, now in jail. Yip Po Lam was sentenced to two weeks in jail and is appealing against the sentence, which carries the risk that it might be increased. The third, Tiffany Yuen is the girlfriend of Nathan Law.

We hope to draw attention to the situation of Hong Kong and to invite people to stand in solidarity with our pursuit for democracy and justice. We are keen reach out to those in our research networks to invite their moral and social support for the young prisoners of conscience, their partners, friends and fellow activists. We continue to encourage these young women to speak up for themselves, their friends and partners who are in prisons and document these experiences.

In the long run, Hong Kong’s civil society needs resources to create alternative, independent institutions working on community organizing, journalism, research, human rights monitoring and civic and community legal education. These are the institutions that can support young political prisoners upon their release from jail, revitalize them and integrate them into the democratic movement and help them to carry on their lives. We need support from outside HK.

As a first step, we are planning a research project and international tour to mobilise moral and political support for the young political prisoners. This project involves the intimate comrades (partners, family and friends) in international seminars to speak up about their experiences of encountering political violence. Through this project, we hope that their unheard voices can be acknowledged by the larger community and that there will be exchange of views on experiences and strategies of challenging authoritarian rule among academics, social movement leaders and activists. This tour will also promote the audience’s understanding of the relevance of Hong Kong’s political crisis to their own societies. In the context of attacks on free speech and democracy across the world, increasing authoritarianism in China and China’s support for oppressive regimes elsewhere, what is happening in Hong Kong matters.


Petula Sik-Ying Ho is a 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 Movement 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).v