Same Color, Different Path
December 11, 2018
Shots of tear gas ring out on a major thoroughfare. Protesters roar as they disperse from a phalanx of riot police. Waves of yellow ripple from the frontlines. A city is under siege.
For the fourth weekend, angry protesters have overrun Paris and other parts of France, demanding a proposed fuel tax be scrapped and other complaints—high taxes, stagnant wages and a yawning wealth gap—be heard.
Demonstrators wear a yellow reflective vest, safety gear that all motorists in France are required to put on after getting out of their vehicle in an emergency. The brightly coloured vest has become a symbol of despair and a defiant call for change.
The similarities between Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Movement and the Yellow Vest Protests in France are striking, not only because their insignias share a color but also because of how and why they happened.
Like Occupy, the French protests have been spontaneous, leaderless and self-organised via social media. Neither was tied to a political party, although the threat of it being “hijacked” by politicians was ever-present. Just as Occupy protesters distrusted career politicians in the pan-democracy camp, the Yellow Vests have been wary of becoming pawns in the power struggle between nationalist Marine Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron.
But the most poignant common thread is what engendered both uprisings in the first place. Both Hong Kong and France had been a political tinderbox before social and economic frustrations finally bubbled to the surface.
In Hong Kong, skyrocketing property prices and gaping income equality had fueled widespread discontent, made worse by government policies that favoured the business elite. The controversial electoral reform bill, tabled by C.Y. Leung’s government and subsequently narrowed by a Beijing interpretation, was merely the spark that set off an explosion years in the making.
In France, the fuel tax was the tipping point, but beneath the surface are more deep-rooted economic woes, including the widening rift between big cities and poor rural areas where working families have been left behind by globalisation and the urban elite who benefit from it.
In many ways, what happened in Hong Kong and France are both unexpected and expected: the eruption of a popular uprising might have caught the authorities by surprise, but they should have seen the writing on the wall a long time coming.
These similarities notwithstanding, the two movements are also marked by stark differences. For starters, Occupy was largely nonviolent. Hong Kong protesters earned praise by exercising restraint and discipline, fending off police offensives with little more than umbrellas, cling wrap and eye goggles.
By contrast, it didn’t take long for the protests in France to devolve into spurts of urban riots. The Yellow Vests responded to tear gas and water cannons with bricks and metal barricades. Hundreds have been arrested for looting, arson and vandalism, which resulted in four deaths.
Some in Hong Kong believe that it was this violent escalation that compelled Macron to temporarily suspend the fuel tax and offer to raise the minimum wage, among other concessions. Indeed, four years after Occupy, whether violence is a necessary evil in protest movements remains one of the most divisive questions facing activists in Hong Kong.
Ever since Occupy ended on a sour note, those committed to the principle of peaceful resistance have been harshly criticised for missed opportunities. Radical splinter groups argue that only violence—rather than slogans, songs and marches—can bring political change.
That Macron backed down only after protesters stepped up their fight has reignited a bruising debate in Hong Kong and given radical groups a live example of “why violence works.”
But to subscribe to that argument is to ignore several key cultural and political differences that shaped the two uprisings.
France has a centuries-old history of political and even regime change brought about by civil unrest. The credo guiding the country—liberty, equality and fraternity—is deeply entrenched in the national psyche.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, has always been an economic city where prosperity trumps ideology, and stability is valued over principles. Until Occupy, not many in Hong Kong had heard of the concept of civil disobedience as a means to address social injustices. Throughout the movement, the biggest complaints from citizens were the daily inconveniences caused by street blockages.
Polls conducted during the Occupy Movement put public support for protesters somewhere between 8 and 25 per cent, whereas over three-quarters of the French population rally behind the Yellow Vests. It is this difference in public support and societal priorities that contributed to the disparate results in Occupy and the French protests.
There is also the difference in government accountability. In France and other modern democracies, politicians have one eye on their poll numbers and the other on the next election. If Macron and his government appear unsympathetic to the Yellow Vests’ demands or inept in handling the crisis, they will face a political reckoning. Genuine universal suffrage provides the necessary checks and balances to hold to account tone-deaf politicians and poor policy decisions.
The same cannot be said of Hong Kong. Not only are the city’s chief executive and nearly half the lawmakers not elected by the general electorate, public opinion—the one thing that used to give local politicians some pause—had lost much of its potency by the time Occupy erupted in 2014.
The leadership changes in Hong Kong and Beijing in 2012 had much to do with the sudden shift in the authorities’ attitude toward public polls and protest turnouts. Under President Xi Jinping’s strongman leadership and Leung’s hard-nosed management style, it became imperative to implement the national agenda in Hong Kong, where the public liked it or not.
Furthermore, Beijing feared that any concessions made to the Occupy protesters would embolden them, weaken the credibility of the central government, and worse, encourage similar anti-government insurgencies on the mainland, especially in troubled spots like Tibet and Xinjiang. For the sake of national security, the authorities had to quickly put out the fire, or better yet, let it run out of oxygen on its own.
The Occupy Movement was preceded by popular uprisings in Ukraine, the Arab states, and Taiwan. What followed has been a string of similar revolts in Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, Italy, and now France—the birthplace of revolution. The cycle of rebellion and new order is certain to play out over and again in the age of self-organized protest movements made possible by social media.
As the key actors in Occupy are only now tried in court and old wounds are reopened, how Hong Kong’s protest politics resembles and differs from that overseas is instructive not only in the way we assess the movement’s own legacy, but also in charting a viable path in the political struggle ahead.
This article was published in the print edition of The South China Morning Post under the title "Cultural differences" and online at SCMP.com under the title “What France’s ‘yellow vests’ can teach Hong Kong activists.”