This photo essay shows the day-to-day life of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during the 79-day Umbrella Movement protests that took place in the autumn of 2014. During that period, protesters occupied streets in three districts in Hong Kong with the aim of reforming elections so that Hong Kong people would be allowed to vote for the territory’s top official—the Chief Executive—and for all the lawmakers (only half of which were directly elected).
I have another article—The Hong Kong Protests of 2019-2020—which covers the more recent protests.
At the time, news coverage tended to focus on tense confrontations between protesters and police. Footage of demonstrators fleeing from police and shielding themselves from teargas and pepper spray caught the world’s attention, but those images don’t represent the whole story. The aim of my photography was to try to present the individual people involved.
The protests were for the most part very peaceful. I visited the various protest sites around thirty times but never encountered any violence and only witnessed a few tense scenes.
The nature of the protest changed day-by-day, hour by hour. During the evening, thousands of protesters might occupy the streets; but the next morning this might be reduced to a few hundred hardcore members manning the barricades as their comrades trooped off blurry-eyed to work or school after spending the night on the pavement.
What made Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests in 2014 so distinctive was the young protesters’ total commitment to non-violent civil disobedience—there has been no looting and almost no vandalism aside from chalked slogans on the pavement. Unfortunately, as the protests were coming to an end, a few frustrated protesters smashed glass panes at the entrance of the Hong Kong’s Central Government Offices, putting a blemish on what had otherwise been a remarkable show of restraint. Even the symbol of the protest movement—the umbrella—was one of resistance and protection rather than aggression and attack (this changed in the more recent protests of 2019-2020).
And this is ultimately what the protest was about—protection. Concerned about the growing encroachment of mainland China into the territory’s politics, media and social fabric, the student protesters maintained that in order to safeguard Hong Kong’s unique culture and identity, one of the most important measures was for Hong Kong citizens to have the freedom to nominate and elect its own leader.
The Reason for the Protest
The protest started in response to the announcement by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) on 31 August 2014 regarding the 2017 elections for the territory’ s top political post (the Chief Executive). The announcement can be summed up as: “For the first time you will be able to elect the Chief Executive through universal suffrage, BUT we will select all the candidates for you beforehand via a selection committee.”
That proposal was in line with the Basic Law, the document that is the foundation of the One Country Two Systems policy and which is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a certain amount of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty. Article 45 of the Basic Law clearly states that there is a two-step process to the election of the Chief Executive, with one step being selection/election and the other being approval by the central government. However, many Hong Kong people, disenchanted with the performance of all three Chief Executives since the handover in 1997, had been hoping for greater say into who runs the territory.
The aim of the protest was to allow Hong Kong people greater say in the nomination of candidates for Chief Executive.
How the Protests Grew
The protests started as a five-day boycott (22-26 September) of college and university classes by the The Hong Kong Federation of Students (which was composed of the student unions of the territory’s eight universities). Towards the climax of the boycott, the student unions were joined by Scholarism (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholarism), a political activist group led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong.
As part of the boycott, students protested outside the Central Government Complex in Admiralty district and demanded free, fair and open elections. A separate protest campaign—Occupy Central with Peace and Love (their website is now offline)—was to begin on 1 October. This movement was led by Benny Tai, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. As the name suggests, this campaign was loosely based on the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On Friday evening (26 September), the last scheduled day of the student boycott, a small group of protesters managed to push through the police cordon and past the gates outside the main government offices and…well…they just sat down around the flagpoles in the forecourt, where they were immediately ringed in by police. In keeping with the non-violent spirit of the protest, the student protesters did not attempt to vandalize or enter the government buildings. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, but the police, clad in their usual uniform—short-sleeved shirt, trousers and cap—and reflective vests, acted with restraint. During the evening, two prominent student leaders were arrested at the protest site.
The next day police cleared the forecourt of protesters. In general, the police behaved reasonably, using minimal force to carry people away, but a few officers struck out with their batons and some others rashly and unnecessarily used pepper spray on students. This heavy-handed treatment of non-violent student protesters was televised live and provoked a strong public reaction. Another issue was the police’s continued detention of student leader Joshua Wong.
On Sunday morning, protesters started streaming towards the government office mainly to support the students and ensure they were not manhandled by the police. The main rallying cry was ‘protect the students‘ and not ‘occupy the streets‘. The police, now wearing helmets and with many officers clad in full riot gear, halted the protesters. I am not sure what they thought this would achieve.
The arriving protesters, blocked from progressing towards the Central Government Complex by the police, flooded into nearby streets blocking traffic on Connaught Road. To take advantage of this development, the organizers of Occupy Central with Peace and Love announced an immediate start to their campaign. More and more protesters started streaming into the streets, and then police made the rash decision to try to clear the streets using tear gas and pepper spray. Because of the risks associated with using tear gas on crowds, it is generally not used against peaceful demonstrators, and it is uncertain as to whether the use of tear gas by police on that day was lawful (researchblog.law.hku.hk/2014/09/legal-authority-for-police-to-use-tear.html). In any case, its use only served to escalate the protest (In the protests of 2019-2020, tear gas was used a LOT, but in 2014, people were shocked to see tear gas being used in the streets).
It was a hot day, so many protesters had brought umbrellas to the protest to shield themselves from the sun. The umbrellas instead ended up being use to ward off tear gas canisters and pepper spray. This is how the Umbrella Movement got its name.
While police were struggling in their attempt to clear the streets in Admiralty, protesters used social media to quickly mobilize. In a matter of minutes they were able to occupy main thoroughfares in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, opening up two new fronts for the police to try to control and sending a message of “Even if you keep us out of one place, we can easily pop up in another place.”
At Admiralty, police eventually ceased the tear gas attacks and retreated back inside the main government complex. Strategically outmaneuvered, the police had lost the battle. And with the heavy-handed tactics, they lost the respect of many of Hong Kong’s citizens.
I have no idea if the student leaders had planned on this kind of occupation, but at the end of the day, protesters were in control of three sites. There was an attempt to establish a fourth site—in Tsim Sha Tsui—but that one fizzled out.
The Admiralty Site
The main site protest site was in Admiralty, where protesters occupied several city blocks and surrounded the main government offices, including the Legislative Council building as well as the office of the Chief Executive. On weekends and public holidays the number of protesters swelled into the tens of thousands, with numbers dwindling to several hundred in the morning as those who stayed overnight went to school, went to work or just went home to freshen up and get some rest.
The atmosphere there was incredibly civil—kind of like a mellow folk festival, but with large rallies, small forums and informal singalongs among friends.
In November, with the weather finally starting to cool and the the government cancelling talks with the student leaders, the protesters began to settle in, setting up more and tents throughout the site.
Volunteers at Admiralty
A small army of student volunteers (as well as a number of volunteers from churches and Christian groups) helped maintain the site, providing free food, water and other essential supplies. Volunteers walked through the site to collect waste and bring it to one of several recycling stations for separation; they even gave talks on waste collection methods. Volunteers set up and manned first aid stations (whose staff included many medical students) and phone-recharging centers, assisted people clambering over traffic barriers and helped maintain an orderly flow of pedestrian traffic. I asked a few volunteers if they knew who was coordinating the efforts, and they all replied that no one was actually in charge; that different groups took it upon themselves to recognize a need and then work towards meeting that need.
The Study Corner at Admiralty
In early October, a study center sprang up in the middle of the site with several tables set up for students trying to keep up with their coursework.
So where did all those tables and chairs come from? Many of them were made by volunteer carpenters such as these men:
After a few weeks, the study center acquired a roof and started to look a little like a café.
The Causeway Bay Site
A second site occupied a couple of blocks in Causeway Bay, a shopping and entertainment district a few kilometers to the East of Admiraly. The site was centered on the super busy intersection outside the Sogo department store. Usually, there were only a few hundred protesters there at any given time. The mood there was also laid back, but as an occupation site, it seemed rather vulnerable—a kind of isolated outpost.
The Mong Kok Site
The third site was in Mong Kok, a densely populated, perpetually busy commercial and residential district across the harbor in Kowloon. Here protesters occupied the normally bustling intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street. The intersection was later cleared, but protesters maintained control of a few blocks of Nathan Road and another couple of blocks north of the intersection. If you watched the news and saw scuffles between different groups of civilians this is likely where that was happening. The protesters were sometimes subject to harassment and attacks. (I don’t have any photos of this, but I did take some video footage of minor confrontations).
Some of the anti-protesters were local residents who were angry with the disruption in their neighborhood, but some seemed to be hired thugs. On 3 October, for example, a group of masked men attacked protesters and pulled down stalls. The attackers were later recorded on video being ushered away by police and into waiting taxis.
Anger was directed against police, who were accused of either actively colluding with triad members or of simply looking the other way. Student leaders suggested abandoning the Mong Kok site to concentrate their manpower at the main site, but the protest area in Mong Kok was mainly run by grassroots activists (not student groups), and they had no intention on leaving.
Many artists visited the sites to sketch and paint works and other artists put up posters, banners and sculptures. By the end of the protests, the Admiralty site looked like an outdoor contemporary art gallery. I am not in the middle of editing those photos and posting them on my art blog. At the moment I have only completed one page: Art of the Umbrella Movement: Part 1. Paintings and Sketches
Caricature artists also dropped by from time to time to sketch participants in the Umbrella Movement.
Press & Researchers
Reporters came from around the world.
In addition, local universities conducted research at the sites.
The police had a tough time as they had to work long hours and put up with a lot of abuse. In the end, they were probably the biggest ‘losers’ in this battle. It became clear that the role of the police had become politicized.
Did Most Hong Kong People Support the Protests ?
It is safe to say that most Hong Kong citizens would have liked a greater say in the choice of Chief Executive, but it is unclear whether this is mainly due to their dissatisfaction with all three post-handover leaders (Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang and C. Y. Leung) or a deep desire for democracy and political self-determination.
Not everyone in favor of increased democracy, however, agreed that protests were the best way forward. Among Hong Kong residents opposed to the protests are those who:
- preferred a less-confrontational wait-and-see approach in the hope that China would gradually become a more open and democratic country
- were somewhat supportive of the protests, but felt the students hade made their point and should pack it in
- had resigned themselves to the belief that the Mainland’s ‘grip’ over Hong Kong would inevitably become even tighter over time, so students should just return to classes, work harder, graduate and think about emigrating
- saw Hong Kong’s future as being inextricably intertwined with China and believed that if one had a more positive outlook, it would be possible to take advantage of all the things China has to offer
- worked or lived near the protest sites and were fed up with the disruption.
There are also those opposed to democracy in general. These include:
- Beijing loyalists such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its supporters. The DAB is a political party that has been unwaveringly loyal to China’s Central Government. It is is quite well supported in Hong Kong due to its strong organization at the grassroots level and efforts at representing its constituents;
- Ardent nationalist groups such as Caring Hong Kong Power, Voice of Loving Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Youth Care. They are known for their use of Cultural-Revolution-style intimidation tactics (badcanto.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/the-conspiracy-behind-suicidal-pro-china-organisations/ & www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2013/09/09/2003571680);
- Anti-imperialists who view the pro-democracy movement as a plot hatched, planned and funded by American intelligence services looking to destabilize the territory and weaken China (the protesting university students are viewed as unwitting dupes manipulated into betraying their country). Here is an article by Laura Ruggeri outlining this argument: Agents of Chaos. How the U.S. Seeded a Colour Revolution in Hong Kong.
There exist deep divisions within Hong Kong and it is unlikely that the majority of Hong Kong people supported the protests.
Did the Protest Have a Chance to Succeed?
Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong people had twice used massive protests to stave off unpopular political proposals. They forced the Hong Kong government into shelving the introduction of far-reaching anti-sedition laws (the Article 23 protests of 1993 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Basic_Law_Article_23) and into indefinitely delaying the introduction of a mandatory Moral and National Education curriculum in the territory’s secondary schools (the student-led protests of 2012 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_and_national_education). It was during this second campaign, that many of the student leaders of this current campaign gained experience.
However, this time the protest was against a decision by China’s central government, which would not want to see a precedent of being forced though public dissent to backtrack on official policy.
Thus, even if there was disagreement among different political factions in China about what to do with Hong Kong, the idea of Chinese leaders giving in to protesters’ demands for greater democracy seemed rather far-fetched.
In addition, Hong Kong simply lacks leverage with China. With a typical strike or boycott, protesters send a message of “We are prepared to make a sacrifice to get what we want. We will suffer, but you will suffer, too; so it is in your best interest to meet our demands.” In this case, however, Beijing can simply say “Yeah, about that suffering…if you want to suffer, that’s fine with us. We can help you suffer some more. Shall we shut down your economy?”
During the protests, Beijing started applying gentle pressure already by halting many group tours from the mainland. As Mainland tourists made up the bulk of visitors to Hong Kong, local businesses began to feel the pinch and public antagonism towards the protesters grew. In this CNN video, Michael DeGolyer describes this strategy of slowly applying crushing pressure as the ‘anaconda scenario’ (edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2014/10/08/pkg-stevens-hong-kong-anaconda-strategy.cnn.html).
At the same time as public support for their protests began to wane. the students themselves were getting worn out mentally and physically as they tried to cope with the pressures of living on the street while trying to keep up with their classwork and negotiate with disapproving parents.
As the situation at the protest sites can unfold rapidly, even if protesters could get away for a night’s rest, some of them would set the alarm to wake up every two or three hours so that they could return if needed. The effects began take their toll and the students’ resolve began to waver.
It is hard to see what the students could gain from Beijing. Perhaps, the best they could have hoped for was to extract some minor concessions from the local government. Commenting on an article by local businessman Allan Zeman (entitled ‘We can keep building on our can do spirit’), James Tan suggested these possible concessions:
“[for the HK government to (for example):
- hold independent public enquiries into allegations of: 1. use of excessive force by the police since September 27th during all the recent protests; 2. collusion between police and triads in recent days.
- apologise for illegally detaining student leaders for over 48 hours;
- review all charges against all protesters since September 27th;
- consider conveying student and protesters’ demands w.r.t. NPCSC’s Framework for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017 to the NPCSC, subject to the outcome of planned negotiations between students and the government”
What did the Protesters Expect to Achieve?
I asked many participants this question. Surprisingly, not one of the people I spoke to expected the protests to change anything. They all said that they simply wanted their voices to be heard and realized that the protest might be the last time they would have the chance. Perhaps the Umbrella Movement’s leaders had higher hopes, but the ordinary people I talked to were all rather pragmatic and pessimistic.
Many people hoped that the local government will be more responsive to its citizens’ needs and wants. The government cannot be ousted at the ballot box, but the students showed that Hong Kong people were willing to make a stand for what they believe in.
If a more careful, caring and considerate governing style takes root in Hong Kong, perhaps that will be the lasting legacy of these protests.
You can visit the Google Photos gallery (photos.app.goo.gl/DzJy8gM8oKy6XAcXA) album where there are more than 200 images (including the ones on this page) at a resolution of 2048 x 1035. This gallery is not yet up to date. You can also view a gallery of 554 black-and-white photos on Flickr: HK Pro-democracy protests 2014
A couple of people have mentioned that I should not show people’s faces in the pictures. However, all the photos in these albums only show people attending a protest (Freedom of assembly is normally enjoyed in Hong Kong) and the protest is only in support of increased democracy (a principle enshrined in the Basic Law). Bear in mind that the aim of the photo gallery is to present a more human side to the protests. Simply having photos of anonymous masked protesters will not achieve that aim.
If you are featured in one of the photos and would like to NOT be identifiable, let me know and I will pixelate your face.
The protests came to an end late November (Mong Kok) and early December (Admiralty and Causeway Bay) after bus companies obtained court injunctions requiring the streets to be cleared. One by one, the protest sites were cleared. Protesters packed up and police and cleaning crews moved in, meeting little to no resistance.
There were quite a few causes for the end of the protest:
- The legal actions taken by the bus companies, which would have put anyone failing to comply with the orders to clears the site in contempt of court
- The protester’s exhaustion (many of them were students, who would soon sit for exams)
- Dwindling public support
- Lack of leadership among the protesters (there was no one actually in charge of the protests)
- Government intransigence.
Were the protests successful? The government made no concessions and the protests ended, so it emerged as a clear ‘victor’.
I put ‘victor’ in quotation marks because by taking such a hardline against peaceful protesters and refusing to make any concessions, the government unwittingly gave birth to more radical protest movements that have ideologies ranging from stressing localism to calling for independence. When the opportunity came to protest again during the so-called Fishball Revolution (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Mong_Kok_civil_unrest) during the Lunar New Year Holiday in 2016, the number of protesters was much smaller, but they were a lot nastier, as witnessed by their attacks on police The protest quickly escalated to a riot, with protesters hurling bricks at police and viciously assaulting a fallen officer, leading to one of his colleagues firing warning shots into the air.
Similarly, the anti-extradition bill protests of 2019-2020 have been marred by the use of violence. vandalism and intimidation.
The protesters of the Umbrella Movement won nothing. However, regarding the people I spoke to—the ones who expressed a desire to be heard—I suppose that to a certain extent, they did succeed. For a couple of months, their voices were heard.
~Photos and text by longzijun
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