Democratic movements gradually accumulate momentum; they do not succeed overnight. Look at Taiwan: From the post-World War II era to the establishment of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986 took 41 years.
Freedom of speech in Hong Kong was never freer than during British colonial rule.
At that time, foreign publications with the democratic theories that Taiwanese intellectuals craved were all imported from Hong Kong. Hong Kongers were the first in the Chinese-speaking world to have a taste of freedom, and it seemed as if a democratic movement could have sprung from that political landscape.
However, things did not go as expected. Hong Kong intellectuals might have missed their best opportunity, and there will be no second chance, as opportunity knocks but once.
It is not surprising that Hong Kong has fared worse since the 1997 handover to China. If Beijing shows no tolerance toward Chinese, they are unlikely to relax their control over Hong Kongers.
Led by a trio of students — Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), Alex Chow (周永康) and Nathan Law (羅冠聰) — protesters stormed into Hong Kong’s Civic Square on Sept. 26, 2014, as part of the “Umbrella movement.”
The three were charged in 2015 with joining an unlawful assembly and inciting others to join an unlawful assembly.
The Hong Kong Department of Justice argued that the original sentences were too lenient and therefore applied for a review of the sentences last month. The Court of Appeal on Aug. 17 ruled that the three should be sentenced to between six and eight months in prison.
Since they had completed their original terms, the court set a vicious precedent by bringing them to trial twice for the same offenses.
The first ruling was made based on legal considerations, but the second ruling was made based purely on political ones.
This precedent is certain to become an important standard for Hong Kong courts, and it surely must have been approved by Beijing.
If the Umbrella movement had occurred in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the protesters might have been sentenced to life imprisonment or perhaps even to death, as such a protest would have hurt the Chinese regime’s dignity.
Civil disobedience in Hong Kong clearly cannot be put on a par with the Wild Lily or Sunflower movements in Taiwan.
The 1990 Wild Lily movement occurred after the death of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) in 1988 and after the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had started to decline. Above all, Taiwanese lost their fear of the KMT’s rule after Chiang abolished martial law in 1987.
The 2014 Sunflower movement occurred after two transitions of government power, when public awareness of civil rights had grown. No party could continue to act recklessly, and public support became necessary for almost every policy.
Thus, the era of dictatorship ended, and it was impossible for a single party to rule according to its own will and against public convictions.
The energy of democratic movements often depends on long-term persuasion and momentum. The Hong Kong trio appeared at a time when China continues to grow stronger.
Today, Beijing even dares to infuriate the international community by abusing Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波); controlling Hong Kong is as easy for Beijing as taking something out of its pocket.
It is clear that the three students will never be accorded civil treatment.
Despite these frustrations, the trio’s sentences are going to stimulate Hong Kong’s future democratic movements.
On Aug. 20, more than 20,000 Hong Kong residents took to the streets in support of the three. The street demonstration proclaimed that not only has Hong Kong’s civic awareness not been extinguished, but it has ignited greater protests.
Civil disobedience cannot be achieved through a single campaign. An example of this is the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident: Several democratic leaders were arrested and some were sentenced to death for their involvement in the incident, but the flames of Taiwan’s democratic movement did not die out.
The new generation that rose up in the 1980s filled the gap left by those leaders and launched the campaign that would establish the DPP.
The Court of Appeal’s ruling will not suppress Hong Kongers’ civic awareness — just as protesters from the Sunflower movement went on to establish the New Power Party.
The success of a democratic movement requires not only new generations, but also the continual bringing forward of new political concepts. The trio themselves belong to the new generation, and the price they are paying will create a ripple effect.
Rather than being finished, Hong Kong’s democratic movement has a new beginning.
The perseverance and courage displayed by the trio will win them greater respect, and more young people will insist on their belief in civil disobedience.
Chen Fang-ming is a professor at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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