Nearly Five Years After the Umbrella Movement - Where is Hong Kong Now?

By Rachel Lietzow

While throughout history colonialism has often led to disastrous outcomes for colonized states — manifested in many forms such as ethnic conflict, persecution of indigenous people, resource draining, destruction of governmental institutions, violation of human rights, erasing of culture, and poverty—Britain’s colonization of Hong Kong was truly an outlier in almost all respects. The immense economic development of Hong Kong that took place under a quasi-democratic system created a complex dissonance in Hong Kong’s “Chinese” identity: the Hong Kongers were a people culturally acclimated to Chinese tradition, nationalism, and dynastic rule, yet they experienced firsthand the prosperity of democratic rights and open market institutions. A fitting description of the mainstream Hong Konger perception of identity cannot be described better than as conflicting: “They resist China’s political control, but embrace China as the motherland. The memories of history continue to haunt people today”. [1]

 The integration of the English language into the socio-cultural fabric of Hong Kong lifestyle has added a layer of complexity, that in essence could have boiled down to two contrasting reactions—rejection of English due to ethnic and national pride, or acceptance of English due to trust in the British-installed system and its benefits to economic development. Looking to history, one observes that Hong Kong welcomed the British political system and language in its education system. Though the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the succeeding decades have seen a disparity between China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s political perspective and cultural identity.

 This tension culminated in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, where tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest the Chinese government’s invasion of their right to free and fair elections. I argue that colonialism significantly influenced Hong Kong’s education system and consequently shifted Hong Kong youth’s political stances in favor of a democratic, sovereign Hong Kong with limited Chinese government involvement. An “Anglicized” Hong Kong system featured the standardization of English teaching in schools, international and Western-focused curriculum, and flattering portrayal of democracy.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement was arguably the greatest sign of this relationship’s policy implications and impact on civil society. Beginning in late September and continuing through mid-December of 2014, the Umbrella Movement consisted of a series of protests and occupation of different Hong Kong locations, specifically Admiralty, Mong Kok, and Causeway Bay. The movement’s name originated from student protesters’ use of umbrellas to shield themselves from police pepper spray and tear gas. It became the symbol of peaceful resistance, in a fight to preserve Hong Kong democratic rights.

 The movement arose in reaction to the decision made by China’s Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) to require a screening process for candidates running for Hong Kong’s chief executive position in 2017. [2] The chief executive is the most powerful political figure in Hong Kong, and is responsible for working with Beijing to negotiate policies and make other critical decisions on behalf of the Special Administrative Region. The NPCSC’s decision would deny Hong Kong citizens free and fair elections, as all candidates would first be approved by the Chinese Communist Party before being eligible to run; this change in legislation would allow the Chinese government to have significantly greater political influence over Hong Kong. The decision led many Hong Kong citizens to cry foul, as it seemed to violate the previously agreed upon Basic Law for Hong Kong, which declared that Hong Kong and China operate as “One Country, Two Systems.” [3]

To estimate the amount of political support for China among Hong Kong citizens, the University of Hong Kong polled 1,000 citizens at random this past summer, asking if they were proud of their identity as Chinese citizens. [4] Similar to the results gathered from past years’ polls, HKU found that only one in six young people (18 years to 29 years of age) felt proud to be a Chinese citizen [5] (Lam, 2018). The HKU poll results align well with the results from Mee-ling Lai’s 2005 survey of 1,048 Hong Kong secondary school students regarding language attitudes. Her findings can be summarized as follows: Students overwhelmingly favored Cantonese, their mother tongue, as their language of instruction; they also ranked English highly in terms of its usefulness and the career benefits that come along with fluency/ [6] (Lai, 2005). By far, the least popular language among the first postcolonial generation was surprisingly Mandarin, the language associated to their motherland and new citizenship. [7] Perhaps one can trace the correlation between language attitude and political stance.

The Umbrella Movement, strengthened by pro-democratic student leaders—Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow—and secondary school and university activist groups such as Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, signified the opening of an era in which Hong Kong youth would likely play a momentous role in the postcolonial dynamic. [8] It also highlighted the critical influence that amicable colonizer-colonized relations, a Westernized education system, and the wide use of English had upon Hong Kong’s new age.

Policy Implications

Considering historical and more recent political developments, “postcolonial” may be the wrong term to define present-day Hong Kong. The British colonial impact on the region’s education system has compounded over almost 150 years. Not only did English become the prominent language of instruction in Hong Kong secondary schools and higher education institutions, but a Western political culture was carefully cultivated through classroom curriculum, for six generations of Hong Kongers. Even at the approach of 1997, the historic handover year, the education system was slow to acclimate students to a renewed “Chineseness.”

Currently, a majority of Hong Kongers may very well identify with Chinese culture, abidance by ancient Chinese philosophical tradition, Western democratic values, and free markets. While these seem to create tension among each other, the many contradictions simply describe the present-day Hong Kong and the uniqueness of its colonial situation. Educational modifications that were enacted throughout British rule cannot be labeled the sole factor in creating the current climate of Hong Kong-China. The colony’s booming economy and immense modernization; earlier Hong Konger generations’ apathy regarding politics; and the numerous Chinese Communist Party policy debacles—the Cultural Revolution and its spillover 1967 Riots, the numerous failures of megaprojects during the Great Leap Forward, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, to list a few—caused a number of Hong Kongers to lose trust in their motherland.

The Umbrella Movement leaves the world with a bleak vision of Hong Kong-China relations. While the Chinese government can reverse or mend its policies to improve ties with Hong Kong, the likeliness of such a decision to be made under President Xi Jinping is slim at best, considering the lack of compromise in the wake of the 2014 protests and the aggressive stance taken towards cross-Strait relations just this year. Future CCP-backed Hong Kong leaders will experience active opposition from the educated Hong Kong population, particularly from young people. If the Chinese government continues to choose hardline policymaking strategies, the twenty-first century may very well see a further deterioration in the existing political rift between the government and growing number of protesters that could potentially descend into violence. At the very least, further suppression of Hong Kongers’ political freedoms will bode badly for economic and cultural development in both Hong Kong and the Mainland.

Rachel Lietzow is a senior at the University of Kentucky, where she is studying Chinese, International Economics, and International Studies.

Works Cited:

 [1] Tsai, J. (2008). History and Identity in Hong Kong: Resisting China's Political Control; Embracing China as the Motherland. China Review International, 15(1), 78-93. Retrieved from

[2] ABC News. (2014, October 28). Tracing the history of Hong Kong's umbrella movement. Retrieved October 28, 2018, from’s-umbrella-movement/5848312

[3] Chalkley, B. (1997). Hong Kong: Colony at the Crossroads. Geography, 82(2), 139-147. Retrieved from

 [4] Lam, J. (2018, June 26). ²More Hongkongers Proud of Their Identity as a Chinese Citizen. South China Morning Post. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from

[5] Lam, 2018.

[6] Lai, M. (2005). Language Attitudes of the First Postcolonial Generation in Hong Kong Secondary Schools. Language in Society, 34(3), 363-388. Retrieved from

[7] Lai, 2005.

 [8] Iyengar, R. (2014, October 05). 6 Questions You Might Have About Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. Retrieved November 23, 2018, from

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