The umbrella is a perfect icon for Hong Kong’s uprising: inclusive, aloof, a bit Anglophile and pragmatically defiant of the elements (and according to cinematic lore, readily convertible to a lethal kung fu weapon). It embodies the central plea of the protesters amassed in “Democracy Square”: a civilized demand for self-determination. Yet the biggest worry in Beijing right now isn’t the threat of universal suffrage, but what comes afterward—the struggle for social justice that Hong Kongers face they pivot between post-colonial limbo and authoritarian capitalism.
That’s what the labor movement is taking to the streets with young protesters. The Equal Times reports that as of Wednesday—China’s National Day—“According to the latest HKCTU [Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions] figures, some 10,000 workers across all sectors have downed tools.” As unions representing industrial, service and professional workforces rallied alongside the youth and condemned police suppression of the demonstrators, Hong Kong labor echoed the former colony’s long legacy of worker militancy. In a call for mass strikes, the HKCTU declared, “Workers must stand up against the unjust government and violent suppression…. To defend democracy and justice, we cannot let the students fight the suppression alone.”
The immediate spark for the protests was the controversy over the electoral process. Activists were incensed that following Beijing’s decree via the proxy authority National People’s Congress, candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 executive election would be pre-approved by the mainland authorities.
But even prior to the electoral betrayal, students revolted against the imposition of Beijing-controlled nationalist curricula on public schools. Longtime residents chafed at mainlanders’ perceived aggressive economic encroachment on local neighborhoods and businesses. And even the symbols of the protest express a yearning for a change in the social and cultural reality, rather than just liberalizing political mechanics. Like the “Hands Up” iconography of the Ferguson protests, the sea of umbrellas exude both civility and defiance in the face of brutality, not looking for trouble, just demanding dignity.