Hong Kong: How Did The Umbrella Become a Political Weapon?

(Photo: Deutsche Welle)

By Holly Mottram – Contributor

In 2014, the umbrella became a symbol of democracy and self-determination in Hong Kong. First used merely as an item of self-defence in protection against pepper spray and tear gas, the umbrella soon became a recognisable icon of the Hong Kong protesters’ plea for more independence from China. It was not only in 2014 that the umbrella adopted a political meaning, but again in late 2019, when pro-democracy protesters stormed Hong Kong University. It has become a political object that has infiltrated Hong Kongese affairs and culture. To the protesters, it is more than a means of protection, but a symbol of unity against overbearing Chinese control.

The first time the world recognised the words ‘Umbrella Movement’ or ‘Umbrella Revolution’ were in late 2014 with The Guardian, New York Times and Washington Post all using the name in their articles about Hong Kong protests. Later adopted by Occupy Central, a civil disobedience campaign demanding the right for Hong Kong to select its own leaders, the Umbrella Movement became the title for those protesting against China’s tight grip on the region. Since then, the humble umbrella has become an item for protection and privacy, to symbolise democracy, self-determination and independence.

In late 2014, as the initial round of pro-democracy protests hit Hong Kong, police became severe in their treatment of campaigners, defending the city with tear gas, pepper spray and personnel in full riot gear. These protests were in response to Beijing breaking their promise of free and fair elections in Hong Kong in 2017. Pro-democracy protesters argued for greater independence from China’s tight grasp. Specifically protesting Beijing’s selection of officials for Hong Kong through a committee process which screens out unsuitable candidates, or as the campaigners saw it, screening out those who did not fully support the Beijing government. Citizens campaigned to be governed by their own people elected democratically and fairly. 

But what does this have to do with umbrellas? And why is it relevant now? 

In the midst of these peaceful sit-ins, and occupation of the main arterial routes into central Hong Kong, police responded with tear gas, riot equipment and rubber bullets. Campaigners had to find a way to combat these whilst maintaining their peaceful approach so as not to arouse more violence from police. This need for peaceful protection caused thousands upon thousands of Hong Kong’s residents to put up umbrellas. Stunning images of over 10,000 citizens sitting in the roads with umbrellas held high above their heads emerged and were witnessed worldwide. The umbrella almost immediately became a sign of the pro-democracy protesters, to such an extent that on the 28th September 2014, the Chinese Government began censoring any internet posts that contained the word – ‘umbrella’, a true homage to the status it had gained.

After the 2014 protests fizzled out, with no concessions from the government about changes to their electoral system, over 5 years later a new round of pro-democracy protests began, campaigning against a new law that allowed Hong Kong prisoners to be extradited to China. Although this law was thrown out after international outrage, protests continued and morphed into campaigns for democracy and more independence from China. Here the umbrella is a tool of self-defence, protection and privacy resurfaced, in a new and different way. 

The 2019 protests, unlike 2014, were more actively violent, they were not sit-ins, but barricading Hong Kong University, or occupying public places, smashing buildings or CCTV. The umbrella had morphed into a tool of the oppressed, no longer happy with simple peaceful protest, but wanting a better place to live, governed by its own people to its own ends. Umbrellas were now used as a weapon when police got too close, it was used to barricade doors shut, as a tool to obscure cameras and finally as a symbol of unity. Mainland China banned the sale of umbrellas to addresses in Hong Kong and began their routine censorship of the word. The umbrella had become so much more than a household object, but an internationally recognised icon of Hong Kong protesters’ rights and wants. 

The whimsical irony of a crowd fighting off rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and riot batons with a thin sheet of plastic is incredible, and yet, in many ways, they won. The law allowing Hong Kong’s prisoners to be extradited was overturned, international outcry at police brutality and the conduct of the Chinese Government could not be ignored, documentaries and television shows were made about single actors in the larger crowd and The Umbrella Movement was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. 

Unrest in Hong Kong continues, even into June of 2020 where, once again, people can be seen marching with umbrellas held high in opposition to the new National Security Law aimed at extending Beijing’s security laws into Hong Kong. It is uncertain whether these protests, peaceful or otherwise, will ever result in serious change in Hong Kong law or independence, but campaigners continue to hope, protected by the now iconic umbrella.

So, the next time there is a light drizzle outside, and you reach for your umbrella, remember it is so much more than that to so many people. 

Sources: 

Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, 2014. Hong Kong Protests Are Leaderless But Orderly. New York Times

nytimes.com/2014/10/01/world/asia/in-hong-kong-clean-and-polite-but-a-protest-nonetheless.html

Ann Telnaes, 2014. Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2014/09/30/hong-kongs-umbrella-revolution/

Jonathon Kaiman, 2014. Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution: The Guardian Briefing. The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/30/-sp-hong-kong-umbrella-revolution-pro-democracy-protests

Chloe Whiteaker, 2019. Essential Tool For Hong Kong Protesters? An Umbrella. Bloomberg

https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2019-hong-kong-protesters-umbrellas/

Grace Tsoi, 2020. Hong Kong Security Law: What Is It And Is It Worrying?. BBC News

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