What France’s ‘yellow vests’ can teach Hong Kong activists about political protests and the use of violence

  • Jason Y. Ng says the French president’s concessions to the violent protesters have reignited debate in Hong Kong about whether peaceful resistance is an effective route towards political change
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 8:30pm

Shots of tear gas ring out on a major thoroughfare. Protesters roar as they disperse from a phalanx of riot police. Waves of yellow ripple from the front lines. A city is under siege. 

For the fourth weekend, angry protesters have overrun Paris and other parts of France, demanding a proposed fuel tax be scrapped and other complaints – high taxes, stagnant wages and a yawning wealth gap – be heard.

Demonstrators wear a yellow reflective vest, safety gear that all motorists in France are required to put on after getting out of their vehicle in an emergency. The brightly coloured vest has become a symbol of despair and a defiant call for change.

The similarities between Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy movement in Hong Kong and the “yellow vest” protests in France are striking, not only because their insignia share a colour, but also because of how and why they happened.

Like Occupy, the French protests have been spontaneous, leaderless and self-organised via social media. Neither was tied to a political party, although the threat of it being “hijacked” by politicians was ever-present.

Four years after Occupy, whether violence is a necessary evil in protest movements remains one of the most divisive questions facing activists in Hong Kong

But the most poignant common thread is what engendered both uprisings in the first place. Both Hong Kong and France had been a political tinderbox before social and economic frustrations finally bubbled to the surface.

In Hong Kong, skyrocketing property prices and gaping income equality had fuelled widespread discontent, made worse by government policies that favoured the business elite. The controversial electoral reform bill, tabled by Leung Chun-ying’s government and subsequently narrowed by a Beijing interpretation, was merely the spark that set off an explosion years in the making.

In France, the fuel tax was the tipping point, but beneath the surface are more deep-rooted economic woes, including the widening rift between big cities and poor rural areas where working families have been left behind by globalisation and the urban elite who benefit from it.

These similarities notwithstanding, the two movements are also marked by stark differences. For starters, Occupy was largely nonviolent. Hong Kong protesters earned praise for exercising restraint and discipline, fending off police offensives with little more than umbrellas, cling wrap and eye goggles.

By contrast, the yellow vests responded to tear gas and water cannons with bricks and metal barricades. Hundreds have been arrested for looting, arson and vandalism, which resulted in four deaths. Some in Hong Kong believe that it was this violent escalation that compelled President Emmanuel Macron to temporarily suspend the fuel tax and offer to raise the minimum wage, among other concessions.

Indeed, four years after Occupy, whether violence is a necessary evil in protest movements remains one of the most divisive questions facing activists in Hong Kong.

Ever since Occupy ended on a sour note, those committed to the principle of peaceful resistance have been harshly criticised for missed opportunities. Radical splinter groups argue that only violence can bring political change.

That Macron backed down only after protesters stepped up their fight has reignited a bruising debate in Hong Kong and given radical groups a live example of “why violence works”.

400 arrested in Brussels copycat ‘yellow vest’ protest

But to subscribe to that argument is to ignore several key cultural and political differences that shaped the two uprisings.

France has a centuries-old history of political and even regime change brought about by civil unrest. The credo guiding the country – liberty, equality and fraternity – is deeply entrenched in the national psyche.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, has always been an economic city where prosperity trumps ideology, and stability is valued over principles. Until Occupy, not many in Hong Kong had heard of the concept of civil disobedience as a means to address social injustices. Throughout the movement, the biggest complaints from citizens were the daily inconveniences caused by street blockages.

Polls conducted during the Occupy movement put public support for protesters somewhere between 8 and 25 per cent, whereas over three-quarters of the French population rally behind the yellow vests. It is this difference in public support and societal priorities that contributed to the disparate results in Occupy and the French protests.

There is also the difference in government accountability. In France and other modern democracies, politicians have an eye on their poll numbers and the next election. If Macron and his government appear unsympathetic to the yellow vests’ demands or inept in handling the crisis, they will face a political reckoning. Genuine universal suffrage provides the necessary checks and balances to hold tone-deaf politicians and poor policy decisions to account.

The same cannot be said of Hong Kong. Not only are the city’s chief executive and nearly half the lawmakers not elected by the general electorate, public opinion had lost much of its potency by the time Occupy erupted in 2014.

As Occupy fades, what next for Hong Kong’s deflated democracy camp?

The leadership changes in Hong Kong and Beijing in 2012 had much to do with the sudden shift in the authorities’ attitude towards public polls and protest turnouts. Under President Xi Jinping’s strongman leadership and Leung’s hard-nosed management style, it became imperative to implement the national agenda in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, Beijing feared that any concessions made to the Occupy protesters would embolden them, weaken the credibility of the central government and worse, might even encourage similar anti-government insurgencies on the mainland, especially in troubled spots like Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Occupy movement was preceded by popular uprisings in Ukraine, the Arab states, and Taiwan. What followed has been a string of similar revolts in Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, Italy, and now France – the birthplace of revolution. The cycle of rebellion and new order is certain to play out over and again in the age of self-organised protest movements made possible by social media.

As the key actors in Occupy are only now tried in court and old wounds are reopened, how Hong Kong’s protest politics resembles and differs from that overseas is instructive not only in the way we assess the movement’s own legacy, but also in charting a viable path in the political struggle ahead.

Jason Y. Ng is the author of Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered