The Umbrella Movement: a leaderless movement supported by citizens’ umbrellas

by | 13 Oct 2014 | The Blog | 0 comments

The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong is a critical milestone of pro-democracy campaigning in this postcolonial society. Differing from the previous movement mobilisation, the Umbrella Movement is neither planned nor led by any leader. Instead, the movement is a result of creative and flexible collaborations among constituents. Even the name ‘Umbrella Movement’ – given due to the umbrellas used by the protestors as self-defence from pepper spray – highlight the creative tactics being used. What is more intriguing is why participants keep supporting the civil disobedience without a clear organisation or foreseeable end in this capitalist city in which instrumental rationality and utilitarianism seem thoroughly embedded.

Wall Street Journal Hong Kong Timeline

Click the image to go to an excellent timeline of events in Hong Kong by he Wall Street Journal.

On 26 September 2014, the student leaders of Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students along with several hundred young demonstrators entered the public plaza of the Central Government Complex which was barred from public entry after a week of student boycotts[1. Reuters (2014) ‘Hong Kong Students Storm Government HQ to Demand Full Democracy’, Newsweek, 26.09.2014. Available at: (Accessed 03 Oct 2014)]. The leaders were detained and the demonstrators were restricted from movement by the police. On the 28th, the protest was made known to the world for pepper spray and teargas versus umbrellas which are the ‘weapons’ used by the police and the protestors respectively. In the following days and nights, there has been a dramatic influx of movement participants actively and voluntarily occupying the three major districts for business, government offices, shopping centres and residential high-rise, including Admiralty / Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok[2. Ryall, J. (2014) ‘Hong Kong Protests: What You Need to Know About the Umbrella Revolution’, 29.09.2014. Mashable, Available at: (Accessed 03 Oct 2014)]. Not only do the constituents take turns to join the mass sit-ins, but there are continuous material supplies such as food, drinks, umbrellas and masks for free.

Many thousands of people in scattered crowds have paralyzed economic activities and transport in these areas without using any violent act. They are said to be the most polite protesters in the world as they clean up, recycle and even apologise for the inconvenience caused[3. Dearden, L. (2014) ‘Are these the world’s most polite protesters? Hong Kong activists clean up, recycle and even apologise to police after night of violent clashes’, Belfast Telegram, 29.09.2014. Available at: (Accessed 03 Oct 2014)]. The demonstration continued across the National Day of the People’s Republic of China on the 1 October and the demonstrators show no sign of withdrawal despite attempts at persuasion through propaganda and threats and use of violence[4. Curran, E., Yung, C. and Hunter, G. S. (2014) ‘Hong Kong Government Seeks to Wait Out Protesters’, The Wall Street Journal, 02.10.2014. Available at: (Accessed 03 Oct 2014) ].

AFP Infographic: Why do they call him 689?

Click the image to see an infographic by AFP explaining the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive

What has driven the demonstrations is the urge for universal suffrage and civil nomination, the latter being a proposal for more democratic nomination of candidates to the election of the Chief Executive (CE). Prior to the Umbrella Movement, The National People’s Congress Standing Committee ruled out civil nomination and kept the 1200-member nomination committee, restricting the election of CE to a maximum of 3 candidates who are supported by at least half of the committee. Current CE Leung was elected by a 1200-member Election Committee out of 3.5 million registered voters. These voters were representatives distributed unevenly in 4 sectors, mainly business and industry (see the timeline, above, and the graphic here). Demands for the Beijing government in granting the universal suffrage and civil nomination of candidates for the electoral reform in 2017 have been raised by different activist groups. One group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), has already proposed pressuring Beijing by sending 10,000 volunteers to occupy the financial and business centre Central until the demands are met [5].

Opinions towards OCLP are polarised. On the one hand, the tycoons and the foreign business groups are strongly opposed to Occupy Central as it might ‘cripple commerce in the Central Business District’ as well as the local business[6. Hu, F. (2014) ‘Hong Kong Democracy Protest Plan Worries Foreign Businesses’, Bloomberg Businessweek, 11.06.2014. Available at: (Accessed 03 Oct 2014)]. In a capitalist city like Hong Kong, economic stability is seen by a broad majority as a fundamental priority. The warnings sent out by the tycoons have also been used in the counter movement. The Anti-Occupy Central campaign produced a video threatening the potential damage caused by OCLP. During the protests, the government has also been spreading propaganda highlighting the danger of economic instability caused by the Umbrella Movement. At the same time, a group of pro-autonomy academic scholars and politicians promoting the City-state status of Hong Kong also expressed harsh criticisms which regarded OCLP as cost-ineffective and time-consuming in the fight for democracy. On the other hand, some middle-class professionals and religious groups show support for OCLP, including academic scholars, social workers and some liberal Christian and Catholic churches that promote the common goal of fighting for the right to universal suffrage of Hongkoners at all costs. In a civil referendum organised by OCLP on the proposals for electoral reform, one fifth of the registered voters voted. The proposal by the Alliance for True Democracy won the referendum by securing 42.1% of the valid ballots. Candidates can be put forward by the public, the nominating committee and political parties. The nomination can be either by 35,000 registered voters or by a party which secured at least 5% of the vote in the last Legco election[7. Wikipedia (2014) ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’, Available at: (Accessed 03 Oct 2014)]. Although not every individual agrees with OCLP, it does show that more Hongkongers are not apolitical as they are regarded.

Since the Umbrella Movement began, increasing numbers of constituents have joined occupations despite tangible or intangible costs. Many of them do not identify with any social movement organisation but are proactive in a variety of individual ways. One of the possible reasons for the upsurge in participation is a changing political culture in Hong Kong. The protest culture has been criticised as a ‘sustainable social movement’ which means the social movement organisations do not aim at reaching any tangible or objective ends but merely emphasising a sense of achievement in the process of self-actualisation. The term ‘sustainability’ is a terminology borrowed from environmentalists which refers to the endurance of systems and processes. In the context of social movement, it is a sarcasm placed on the activists who give up in a movement too easily but still lead another movement. The movement has also seen sarcastic challenges to the ‘irrationality of rationality’ behind the protest activities, such as when protests are timed for holidays, to avoid causing inconvenience to the general public as well as for the convenience for movement constituents. The core values upheld by a ‘sustainable movement’ are described as peaceful, rational, non-violent and non-offensive. Due to the persistent failures (however interpreted) of collective actions, some protesters are losing faith in the traditional social movement organisations. At first, they might join actions as invited or influenced by the movement leaders. As the movement develops, however, they don’t leave the occupied districts despite appeals to do so from movement leaders, protests now occur on weekdays despite the violent repression faced by participants. Most of them stick to the principles of ‘peaceful, rational, non-violent and non-offensive’. This time, many of them have strong and clear appeals for a democratic electoral system and are determined to have it responded to, even when leading activists have already backed down several times. Although the persistence of the movement participants is still being tested and the result remains unknown, the Umbrella movement is surely a very unique civil disobedience movement in postcolonial Hong Kong.

The political participation of the Umbrella movement is incredibly high in such an ultra-capitalist city, where the economic rationality is the heart of the free rider problem as seen by resource mobilisation theory (RMT). In the Umbrella movement, it is surprising to see how political freedoms are stressed over economic stability. The traditional RMT answer to the free rider problem is found in social movement organisations – yet so many of the participants in these activities are not affiliated to any organisation. One possible answer may be the change of political culture in Hong Kong. Previous pro-democracy protests were marked by clear agendas and organisations. Adherents and bystanders were many but soon they realised that no tangible outcome could be achieved because the compromises were easily made by movement organisers. Today, we see a different kind of movement, one that is self-sustaining, full of practical wisdom and autonomous.



Chung Yan Priscilla Kam

I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Manchester. My research interests focus on the construction of national identity in postcolonial Hong Kong.