Understanding Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Like many of you, I’ve also been trying to understand Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution by putting it in the larger context of Chinese history (from Confucius to 1989 and to the present).

I could not help but compare it with 1989.

I hope this is understandable; this year is its 25th anniversary. It seems that when one tries to understand the motivations of the students and intellectuals in 1989, one has to take into account their concern for the common good, their strong elitist sense of their responsibility for the fate of the nation. And even those who identified themselves as liberal anti-traditionalists in 1989 could still be said to have been influenced by a long Confucian tradition of what it means to be a literati (shi). I have given a label to this tradition; I call it the “Athenian sub-tradition of Chinese republicanism,” in which the ideal of the common good is a central concept. This seems to be what Yu Yingshi was talking about in his recent address, which Kai Marchal mentioned in his post “Where are all the Confucians in Hong Kong tonight” a few days ago. Obviously I cannot do justice to such a complicated story here. For example, the 1989 generation very likely might have learned about this Athenian sub-tradition partly through the government’s patriotic education program.

Some of my friends have claimed that the same cannot be said about the motivations of Hong Kong students. I do not have a view on this for a variety of reasons (e.g., I was there in Beijing in 1989, and I am not in Hong Kong now; I know the generation of 1989 because I was one of them, and I confess that I do not know any Hong Kong high school students or college students). My guess is that perhaps the difference is just a matter of degree.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the two movements share one thing in common: they both firmly belong to another sub-tradition of Chinese republicanism, the “Roman sub-tradition,” in which the central concept is that being free means to be a citizen in a republic as opposed to being dominated in a non-republic, whose paradigm is a slave. Here I’ll just give two pieces of anecdotal evidence. The first is a line from a poem posted in Beijing University in 1989:

“A slave with a full belly is still a slave.”

The second is a quote from Joshua Wong, the 17-year old high school student, a leader of Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution, in the New York Times article about him:

“When I heard the national anthem starting to play, I certainly did not feel moved so much as angry. When it tells you, ‘Arise! All those who refuse to be slaves!’ — why is our treatment today any different from the slaves?”

I think most of the students do not know much about the history of the terms they are using such as “slave” and “freedom”. Joshua Wong might not have been aware that the national anthem was inspired by a similar republicanist ideal of liberty (emphasizing the idea of a “free people” or a “free nation”). Around the turn of the twentieth century, republicanism took China by storm; through the popular print media, the republican ideas such as liberty (zi you), constitutionalism (xian zheng), people’s sovereignty (min quan), a republic (gong he), citizen (guo min), xin min (new people), and gong de (civic virtue) spread like wild fire. Some of these ideas are radically different from traditional Confucian political philosophy, but some are hybrids of ideas from Confucianism and ideas from Western republicanism. they were connected and unified by what I shall call the republican idea of liberty as non-domination, which is that the opposite of freedom or being free (zi you) is slavery (nu yu) or being a slave (nu li), and that people are free when they are citizens (guo min) in a constitutional monarchy (according to the Reformers) or a republic (according to the Revolutionaries). They are slaves when they are subjects in a tyranny or despotic country (zhuan zhi). Similarly, a nation is not free when it is dominated by other nations. This marked the beginning of the Roman tradition of Chinese republican tradition. You can find a lot of quotations from the pamphlets and magazine around the turn of the last century in this paper of mine:


One thought on “Understanding Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

  1. It seems too that the notion of freedom must to be to some extent relative to one’s experience, i.e. what is happening now as to what it was like before. In the case of the HK protesters, their definition of “freedom” may not agree entirely with the word’s roots, however, they are noting a difference between how they feel about their plight today versus the situation before the 1997 handover. As one person had noted, pre1997, there was not universal suffrage. However, many of those who grew up under the British system felt comfortable with it and felt that it served their welfare and interests enough.

    Today, under the PRC rule, they do not identify with the system nor its values, and have no confidence in this system to adequately represent or address their values or concerns.

    Therefore, they are anxious about living under conditions whereby they have less “freedom”. Granted, none of us lived in the period when the ancient Greeks first began using the word in their discourse, therefore, in a sense, we are all using the word relative to our own experience.

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