In a recent op-ed published in the South China Morning Post, renowned blogger Jason Ng draws an instructive parallel between the on-going Yellow Vests Movement in France and Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Movement, also identified as the Umbrella Movement.
Interestingly enough, Jason’s piece can be read under two separate titles. On Jason’s blog, the emphasis is on the balanced examination of the differences and similarities, and the conclusion clearly leans towards aporia: “Same Color, Different Path”. In the Post however, the editor obviously chose to put the stress on the argument that a more “violent” path could have yielded greater results in the case of Hong Kong: “What France’s ‘yellow vests’ can teach Hong Kong activists about political protests and the use of violence”. Is it an over-interpretation? There is only one certainty: Jason, who happens to be a lawyer, is no violence apologist, quite the contrary!
On the side of similarities, he stresses the identical yellow color (on the umbrella and the safety vests); the key role played by social media in organizing the demos; the lack of a clearly established leadership and thus the “self-organized” attribute of the movements; the same exasperation felt by demonstrators towards traditional elites overly inclined to design pro-(big)business policies; gaping and growing social inequalities, seen, in both cases, as the “deep-rooted economic woes” fueling the movements “beneath the surface”; and of course the unexpected character of the whole unravelling, because of the setting, the magnitude and the impact these occurrences are having or have had on their respective communities and far beyond.
On the side of differences, Jason firstly points to violence and rioting in France vs. peaceful resistance and civic disobedience in Hong Kong—politically grounded creative destruction vs. moral high ground; then there is the divide in political culture, with France being credited for being the birthplace of “revolution” and having a long record of regime change brought about by popular uprisings whereas Hong Kong is described as a community primarily concerned by prosperity and stability—hence the difference in popular support; and finally, of course, the dissimilitude of political regimes and accountability, with French decision-makers having to factor popular support if they wish to be (re-)elected whereas Hong Kong governing bodies primarily answer to Beijing and Xi Jinping’s strongman leadership does not seem to encourage constructive responses to pressure coming from the streets.
In this very balanced depiction, the critical difference has more to do with the political setting and who the leaders have to answer to rather than the use of violence and its hypothetical superior “benefits” in terms of results. Popular sovereignty is the key and indeed the whole Occupy Movement was triggered by the extreme frustration at the political reform package backed by the central authorities.
Actually there is an equal feeling of “unfairness” in both cases, something that Jason Ng does not emphasize enough, especially in relation to the “high hope” people had for the reforms that were supposed to be carried out. It is precisely the discrepancy between the expectations and the bitter reality that allowed deep-rooted resentments to surface, in turn further fueling this acute feeling of unfairness.
In Hong Kong, the betrayal originated in the broken promise of universal suffrage. In France, the exasperation is arising from the perceived treachery of a young and untainted president who had pledged after his election to replace the “old world,” the one in which political elites had lost the sense of common good: he is now the “president of the rich”! Indeed, the Yellow Vests map of protests does not correspond to any traditional form of contestation, and beyond the apparent concessions made by the government to restore “social harmony,” it is the temptation of authoritarian populism that is becoming pressing, even more so now that representative bodies, trade unions and political parties alike, have been declared irrelevant by both the sitting government and the protesters. Similar symptoms in different settings, pointing to the same crisis of liberal values!