Politics of belonging under the Umbrella, Part 1

Guest blog by Beatrice Lam, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong

A reflection on the role of mainland Chinese in the Umbrella movement, and the tensions exposed between mainlanders and Hong Kong people in the process


Figure 1: Democracy Wall, University of Hong Kong

I do not often come across undergraduate students from mainland China when teaching in Hong Kong. Perhaps just as I saw during my time in the U.K., social sciences is not where you would find many mainland Chinese students. I made friends with the small number that were there; despite this, for all the yum-chas and hotpots, hardly can I recall a dialogue among us about China-Hong Kong relations and politics. I went with friends from Hong Kong to watch the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony live on TV in the university library, the year the imprisoned political dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Peace Prize. Not for one minute had I thought of asking my mainland schoolmates about this, let alone inviting them to come along. And neither did my friends from Hong Kong – it was just the intuitive thing (not) to do. My Heunggongyahn (Hongkonger) identity did not interfere with my friendship with the mainland schoolmates, or our identity work as Chinese in the diasporic space of the UK, but our bond was certainly not based on any political dimensions of our shared Chineseness.

As a result, I am not privy to the thoughts of people from mainland China about Hong Kong, or the more contentious question about Hongkongers’ alleged recalcitrance towards China. I have, however, addressed this issue in classrooms with mainland students. What bothers me is that I have no clue how they receive my teaching. Somehow, I feel that it is unthinking of me not to initiate a conversation outside the classroom if they do not ask or remain silent on the subject. In contrast, local Hong Kong students, at least some of them, have no qualms with criticizing national education as brainwashing, or opining that mainlanders are cultural dupes in tutorial discussion or in their assignments.

It was therefore a surprise that, on September the 29th, the day after the teargas bombing, I was approached by a mainland student who sought my advice about the role of a responsible social sciences student in the Umbrella Movement. She was vague about what happened that led her to ask this question, but I understood that she had engaged in some unfriendly exchanges with others after her posting of information about the teargas on social media platforms popular in mainland China. We have talked to each other more often since then; from her sharing I began to learn more about perspectives from the mainland. At the same time I heard a lot from local protesters, who had a lot to say about their encounters with mainlanders both inside and outside of the movement. Below I share my observations and thoughts.

First, before concern could be shown and an opinion could be given, mainlanders needed to make sure that nobody would know it was them who was doing the talking. It was unwise to talk to outsiders – such as me, or any average Hongkongers. Some mainland students were eager to circumvent internet censorship so as to get the information about the movement across, even if their messages would only make a fleeting presence online. A greater concern, however, was that when one’s information and view got circulated, one risked being misinterpreted for, say, having politically-incorrect motives in the mere act of transmitting information; particularly as the movement was often constructed and understood in the PRC as a riot. This also explains why another mainland student in my class, otherwise quiet in tutorial discussions regarding the subject matter of the Umbrella Movement, described the protests as riots at one point. With these issues in mind, it makes sense why a mainlander would rather not talk about the movement, or to talk in equivocal terms, for example suggesting that one was neutral about it.

Second, some mainland students suggested that democracy is ultimately geared towards access to economic resources and social welfare. With the information I gathered from students, it is hard to deduce further from this seemingly more utilitarian framing of the movement and democracy itself. Having said that, I am tempted to suggest that from mainland students’ perspective, issues of (political) citizenship, self-governance and identity – the terms in which the movement was framed among local protesters – are irrelevant to (the struggle for) democracy. Letting the people speak? Demonstrating how we make public space ‘public’? Exhibiting why we are ready to make decisions about our city? This is the spirit inherited from past social movements in Hong Kong that sought to protect urban and rural neighbourhoods from demolishment under the pretext of China-Hong Kong integration, and citizens from indoctrination by national education, etc. For mainland students, however, it does not strike them immediately that such visions are part and parcel of the Umbrella Movement. Not only is information of social movements in Hong Kong accessible to few in mainland China, but PRC also has notorious record of silencing political dissidents (via criminalization or house arrests), including those whose democratic ideals are expressed in the mildest manner (e.g., the aforementioned Liu Xiaobo.

Lastly, the utilitarian view of democracy was expressed in another way, but with a strong dose of cynicism. Some mainland students believed that democracy is a smokescreen that helps the state justify its rule. Whether it is genuine democracy or not does not matter; as long as people are convinced of the democratic nature of the state, challenges to the latter’s authority can be minimized; this is precisely what the state is looking for. Another view that became increasingly popular among mainland students as the movement entered into a stalemate was one that democracy is a device with which politicians manipulate the people. The common saying is that protesters were ‘pure’ – i.e., ‘genuine’ – in their initial struggles, but as the movement dragged on they became embroiled in politicking. The movement became corrupted, and was thus no longer worth the support of these mainland students. In Part 2, I will talk about some of the views of mainland students who sided with the protesters.

Dr Beatrice Lam is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong, with research interests in education, social stratification, gender studies, and Hong Kong society. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester. Further information available here: http://www.sociodep.hku.hk/html/ppl_teach_beatice.html


For information of the controversy surrounding the kind of ‘universal suffrage’ stipulated by Beijing, the bone of contention in the Umbrella Movement, please refer to:



One thought on “Politics of belonging under the Umbrella, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Politics of belonging under the Umbrella, Part 2 | (Re)Imagining Youth

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