Written by Jackie Sheehan.
President Xi Jinping is in Macau for the 15th-anniversary celebrations of the territory’s transfer from Portuguese sovereignty to that of the PRC, December 1999’s much lower-key and less fraught handover which followed Hong Kong’s fractious reversion in July 1997. Public protest is rare in Macau, apart from a few recent strikes by casino workers feeling the pinch as Xi’s mainland anti-corruption campaign hits the revenues of Macau’s main, indeed very nearly its only, industry. While Xi is in town, though, the Macanese authorities are taking no chances, turning back an Occupy Central delegation from Hong Kong at the ferry terminal, and banning the opening or carrying of umbrellas in most venues, including the airport.
For since Occupy Central adopted the umbrella as its symbol, pressed into use to protect student demonstrators from pepper spray and tear gas on the very first of 75 nights of street protest and occupation from September to December 2014, the humble yellow dome has joined the PRC’s collection of politically-taboo household objects. Beijingers showed their disapproval of Deng Xiaoping’s June 4 suppression of the 1989 democracy movement by smashing little bottles (xiao ping, a homophone for Deng’s given name), and when imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo was unable to attend his own Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2010, the iconic image of his award standing on an empty chair on the platform made chairs a forbidden term, so that sympathisers could make their feelings known by simply placing an empty chair outside their front door.
One Hong Kong journalist waiting for Xi’s arrival reports that “They said you couldn’t open umbrellas at the airport because it would affect the flights.” If civilians on the ground in sensible rain gear really are such a hazard to aviation, you’d think that planes would be falling out the sky every other day over Ireland, yet as I write, an orderly succession of aircraft passes in front of my window, somehow managing to negotiate the flight path into Cork Airport despite a profusion of brollies in the city’s streets. Other sources in Macau solicitously insisted that it was too windy to risk unfurling an umbrella, so perhaps some sort of Mary Poppins-style bird-strike incident was the real fear.
But since the CCP leadership’s control-freakery knows no bounds, perhaps future protest movements could be a bit more careful in their choice of symbol? Otherwise all sorts of other handy items will join the banned list and be unavailable to those folk who simply need to use them. If a Sensible Shoes Revolution were to come next, a whole generation of Hong Kongers could end up martyrs to their arches from having to avoid blighting their futures with a display of overtly political footwear.
Despite its playful, creative, and highly photogenic features, the Umbrella Revolution hasn’t been all fun and games for its participants. Many who were not prominent activists have found they are banned from travelling to the rest of the PRC, with potentially very serious consequences for their careers. But in its diversity, its admirable adherence to non-violence despite some extreme provocation, and its determination to continue the fight for a meaningful choice of candidates at the next election for Chief Executive despite the dismantling of all three Occupy sites, it has been the bright spot in an otherwise grim year for democratization and human rights in China.
While the central government in Beijing stressed the illegality of the movement (though Hong Kong’s authorities hid behind private companies bringing injunctions against the protest camps for obstruction of public rights of way, rather than exercising their right to take over the actions, which would have given the activists their day in court) and accused it of “seriously undermining Hong Kong’s social order, economy, democratic progress and rule of law”, the world saw students sitting under streetlamps on the traffic-free roads to do their homework, picking up their own litter, and when the last camps were finally cleared, folding up their own tents, and generally not looking at all like a chaotic rabble bent on malice and destruction. The reduced traffic in Hong Kong during the movement notably improved the air quality, too, the clouds clearing so that, ironically, umbrellas were not needed.
The scale of the mobilization at its peaks this year has made plain the strong sense of a specifically Hong Kong identity now existing in the territory, as well as the significant grievances shared by many ordinary citizens priced out of its much-vaunted prosperity as well as excluded from choosing its leaders. Renewed activism and protest in Hong Kong in 2015 is thus as certain a prospect as precipitation – rainy days will surely come again, and so will those hopeful yellow umbrellas.