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Umbrella Man: a unique threat to China or symbol of wider change?

Amid clouds of teargas, the Hong Kong ‘Umbrella Man’ defies police attempts to end the protest. Wikimedia Commons/Pasu Au Yeung, CC BY-SA

The haunting image of a masked protester defiantly hoisting two black umbrellas amid a cloud of tear gas flickered across global social media platforms in the seconds and minutes after the Umbrella uprising began. In real time, the image became an iconic meme of the events taking place in Hong Kong. The “Umbrella Man” immediately drew comparisons in western media with another image from an earlier uprising – that of Beijing’s “Tank Man”.

Seen around the world in the days and weeks after the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, that photo is still a symbol of defiance in the face of undemocratic power 25 years on. In the weeks since the Umbrella Uprising began, attempts have been made to connect the events in Hong Kong to those of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yet this comparison must be considered outdated. In the past 25 years, China and the world – their political and economic structures, communication flows and notions of territorial sovereignty – have been altered by globalisation, media and an increasingly dense labyrinth of transnational corporations.

The near-instantaneous adoption of the umbrella as a viral symbol of the protests illustrates the new global communication space the movement is taking place in. As a result, we must view the uprising in the cross-border context of other recent protest movements, such as Occupy, that have erupted around the world.

Since the 1970s, democratic countries have often viewed China as a monolithic entity with a security apparatus capable of enforcing strict control on its citizens. Scholars like Minxin Pei have bolstered this idea, arguing that regimes like China maintain their control because they are:

… ready, willing and able to use the coercive power necessary to suppress any societal challenge.

However, we should question such standard assumptions. Instead, as John Keane puts it, contemporary China should be seen as “a cauldron of contradictions, a kaleidoscope of confusing and conflicting trends”.

China faces growing challenges, such as a slowing economy, corruption scandals, poor relations with other regional players and unrest in outlying areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet. As a result, China is more fragmented than it appears on the outside.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), still basing its conception of power on traditional notions of state and territorial sovereignty, may be at a critical juncture in its history. It is thus uniquely vulnerable to movements such as this.

Why? Because the top-down, cumbersome political structure of the party is no match for an uprising marked by agility, global roots and, crucially, a powerful mediatised resonance.

Finding ways to exploit the cracks in power

At this point it is useful to ask if the transnational context of this movement constitutes a game-changing challenge to the CCP as it seeks to quash domestic claims for democracy.

The distinctive characteristics of the Umbrella movement ought not be overlooked. It is the first open challenge to the Communist Party from a globalised and networked citizenry. This citizenry also continues to resist Chinese identity – surveys indicate repeatedly that they identify themselves as Hong Kong people, not Chinese.

Remarkably, the uprising has stayed open and relatively leaderless, not allowing for any grappling for power. Its transnational quality – Hong Kong has a large international diaspora – supersedes older conceptions of the nation-state. Protesters are not aiming to topple the state.

Hong Kong’s role in global finance guarantees attention for the protests, however much Beijing might wish they were ignored. EPA/Jerome Favre

Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre has also ensured an unusually attentive and invested international media audience.

The uprising has been marked by its meshed quality as it relies heavily on savvy use of social media platforms and mobile phones to spread information, organise and circumvent the authorities. China, ever fearful of a colour revolution or Arab Spring-style uprising, has made great efforts to suppress information “bleed” to the mainland. Recent party rhetoric has openly pointed to foreign “external forces” as the source of the discontent.

Yet, in a heavily mediatised age, attempts to curtail such democratic aspirations have the potential for a ripple effect across the nation.

So what are the implications? Can we see Hong Kong’s uprising as a surprising eruption with the potential to transform a China facing numerous domestic political threats? While the movement has temporarily upset the political order, it remains to be seen if things will restabilise to existing norms or if unseen democratic possibilities will emerge.

As we watch events unfold, I am reminded of the political activist David Graeber’s words:

Power is not completely monolithic: there are always temporary cracks and fissures, ephemeral spaces in which self-organised communities can and do continually emerge like eruptions.

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