HONG KONG (Reuters) - Benny Tai, a leading Hong Kong activist who was jailed for his role in the 2014 pro-democracy “Umbrella” movement, says that campaign “revolutionized” youngsters and set the stage for the current protests on the streets of the China-ruled territory.
Speaking to Reuters ahead of the fifth anniversary of the start of the Umbrella, or “Occupy” movement, Tai said he watched from jail in disbelief as one million people thronged the streets of Hong Kong on June 9 to launch the latest bout of pro-democracy protests.
“The young people, in some ways, they have been changed by the Umbrella movement,” said Tai, a law professor.
“We have revolutionized, in some ways, the hearts of Hong Kong people in preparing them for fighting for democracy in a more persistent way.”
To mark the anniversary on Saturday, thousands of people are expected to rally at Tamar Park near government headquarters.
Tai, who was released on bail in August, said while leaders of the Umbrella movement were in some ways unprepared for the massive response at the start of the rallies that paralysed parts of the financial hub for 79 days, they helped to sow the seeds for future protests.
The Umbrella sit-in protests, also known as the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign, were first suggested by Tai in 2013 and were later led by a core group, some of who remain in prison. It became known as the Umbrella movement after activists used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and pepper spray.
Hong Kong returned to China from British rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland but many activists accuse Beijing of tightening its grip on the city and eroding those freedoms.
The Umbrella protests blocked major roads in the Asian financial hub for more than two months in a push for full democracy, although they failed to wrest concessions from Beijing.
Colourful tents, art installations and music created an almost carnival atmosphere at times, in stark contrast to the current anti-government protests that have increasingly degenerated into running battles between activists and police.
“I think the tension now is how far we should go, especially the more radical protesters, how far they should go,” said Tai.
Tai said he doesn’t think the current movement will last forever, although that won’t mean people have given up.
“Maybe after a few months the streets will become more quiet ... and when another triggering point (comes), you will rise again and the scale will be even bigger than the ‘Water Revolution’,” he said. In the current campaign, activists are using what they call a “Be Water” strategy that encourages them to be flexible or formless.
The current protests have no discernible leaders or structure, which Tai believes is a better strategy than the “top down” order of the Umbrella movement.
“It’s a more decentralised network way of co-ordinating action and it seems to be much more effective than the Umbrella movement,” Tai said.
The softly-spoken professor, who said he read around 20 books during his three months in prison, said he was hopeful about the future, although he expects more suppression from the government.
“Some protesters, they think this is the last battle but I would say this may not be the last battle because we have a long war to fight and no matter what happens to this particular battle, if we could not have democracy, the war will continue.”
Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by James Pomfret