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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Umbrella Soldiers Fight On

Takuma Yoshioka

Dec. 4, 2015

The Hong Kong democracy activists who spearheaded last year's street protests are taking their fight to a new arena. They ran in recent district elections and some of them won their campaigns.

They've been dubbed the "umbrella soldiers" and they are determined to change Hong Kong's political landscape.

Donald Chow, who's 23, is one of the "umbrella soldiers." He and his friends took part in last year's protests.

"We'll say no to money worship," Chow said. "We in the younger generation are not motivated by money alone."

Chow says he became alarmed by Beijing's increasing influence over politics in Hong Kong.

"Everyone, consider whether the government is truly legitimate," Chow says.

The demonstrations that gripped Hong Kong for more than 2 months became known as the "Umbrella Movement." Authorities ultimately squashed the protests but Chow says they gave citizens a new sense of energy.

"They may lose their job, they may lose their post, and they come to the street and fight for the democracy," Chow said.

Chow is one of 50 first-time candidates who ran as independents for district council seats. Most of them had never been involved in politics before. They ran against pro-China candidates with more resources.

Politicians loyal to Beijing hold an overwhelming majority of seats. Their well-oiled campaign machine turned out ads critical of the umbrella soldiers.

"They illegally occupied the streets for 79 days. They twisted the rule of law and sparked hostility among citizens," one campaign ad said.

The umbrella soldiers relied on on-line donations for financing. And Chow made door-to-door visits to every household in his constituency.

"I'll make sure every resident can vote, so their voices are heard on all major issues," Chow said.

The umbrella soldiers also organized gatherings to hear directly from voters. Many who took part expressed dissatisfaction with existing political parties.

"I've been asking them to install a traffic signal for 12 years but they've done nothing," one voter said.

"We'll do what we promise to do," one candidate said. "And if we can't, we'll give a clear explanation."

"Our representatives have done nothing for us up to now," one citizen complained. "But I believe the new candidates will make our voices heard."

Voter turnout hit a record on election day.

"A pro-China representative has won in this constituency for years, so this time I voted for a first-time candidate," one voter said.

"I hope the 'umbrella soldiers' will stick to their original ideals and work for society," added another voter.

Chow lost to a pro-China candidate. But he still felt encouraged. More than 800 people cast votes for him. He's determined to run again in the next district election 4 years from now.

"Many people who never participated in an election before voted for me," Chow said. "I feel a new political power is taking shape."

The 8 umbrella soldiers who did win seats defied predictions that none of them would be elected.

They make up a tiny minority in the district councils. But they've ushered in a new phase in Hong Kong's politics.


Takuma Yoshioka discussed Hong Kong's political situation with Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya.

Beppu: Takuma, the so-called "umbrella soldiers" did better than most people expected in the election. Will it change the landscape of the district council?

Yoshioka: I'd say it will be mainly symbolic. The pro-Beijing parties remain dominant. They won 298 of the 431 seats. That's a drop of more than 5-percent but they're still comfortably in charge. The pro-democracy parties secured 106 seats -- up 2-percent. And voters elected eight "umbrella soldiers". But that's less than 2-percent of the council seats.

Shibuya: The anti-government protestors gradually lost the public's support last year as their campaign dragged on. Why do you think these "umbrella soldiers" managed to reignite people's enthusiasm?

Yoshioka: I think it's because they didn’t emphasize the significance of the “Umbrella Movement”. They tried to listen to the voters instead and called for more people to get involved in politics to solve problems. This grass-roots campaign won them support. The pro-Beijing camp, with its organizational strength, is said to have an overwhelming advantage. So, wins by 8 "umbrella soldiers", although that's a small number, surprised many people. Back in 2014, when the student-led protestors' demands couldn't be met even after 2 months of demonstrations, many of them probably started to wonder what they should do next. It was around that time that the "umbrella soldiers" stood up and filed their candidacy. Looking at what's happening right now in Hong Kong, I feel the hope voters' have toward democracy is not insignificant.

Beppu: So what do you see in Hong Kong's political future?

Yoshioka: While I've been covering the issue, I've noticed more people here becoming politically-conscious. They used to have an image of not caring much about politics. Hong Kong is becoming more economically dependent on mainland China and you can see the mainland's political influence growing. So people worry about the future. The changes seem to have made them more interested in politics. They'll have an election for the Legislative Council, which is like a parliament in Hong Kong, next year and they will also have an election for the chief executive in 2017. The possibility of Hong Kong's democratization seems to hinge on how many political leaders can address the problems people are facing and whether these leaders can let the voices of the public be heard.