Umbrella Movement Campaigns: Power and Discourse
Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs

Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs
Open Access

ISSN: 2332-0761

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Research Article - (2017) Volume 5, Issue 4

Umbrella Movement Campaigns: Power and Discourse

Cameron L*
The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong
*Corresponding Author: Cameron L, Lecturer, Paradise Valley Unified School District, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, Tel: +852 2859 2111 Email:


Language and politics are interrelated. Flowerdew [1] in Critical Discourse Analysis in Historiography: The Case of Hong Kong’s Evolving Political Identity contends that language is loaded with different cultural and ideological semantics that can directly influence political identity (7). In other words, understanding rhetoric, the strategic use of language advancing one or more aspects of a political agenda is vital to making sense of the political identity of a publicinterest group (30). In line with Flowerdew’s work, we note that political identity has sometimes derived in large part from the existing power relations between stakeholders, particularly that of a government and political activists in political settings, and the attendant hegemonic structure and apparatus that serve to maintain their relative power and influence to each other. To what extent, then, we questioned, had political rhetoric served to engender the precarious relationship between the Hong Kong government and the local student activists as we observed in the Umbrella Movement in 2014? What kind of rhetorical tropes were the most prevalent in that relationship?

Based upon the actions of student activists, represented by groups like Scholarism and The Hong Kong Federation of Students, during the Umbrella Movement, this research studied how language has moved beyond its semantic functions and took on a pivotal role in shifting the city’s political landscape to an ever-more precarious position. With an emphasis on student activists, who took to the social media for campaigning, we looked at the forms and the social functions of language used in their campaigns with the aid of critical discourse analysis. By choosing to focus on the campaign’s rhetoric, we seek to present a case for how one student activist group has contributed to the discourse of civil disobedience. Before delving into that discussion, however, we shall first outline the theoretical and political backgrounds of our research, as well as our research methods.

Theoretical Background

Critical discourse analysts [2-4] accredit their theoretical framework to Norman Fairclough, founder of the model of critical discourse analysis. Their rationale is that analyzing discourse based on its sentence-level features is inadequate to understand its full significance to the producer and receiver of the text and the message being transmitted. Since humans are political animals [5], there is more to a discourse than what a literary interpretation of texts usually suggests [6]. Thus, discourse analysts note that a content analysis also needs to factor in the wider socio-political and cultural contexts within which a text is interpreted. Only when a text is interpreted and considered in that manner will the use of language reveal another side – the complex system of knowledge, assumed beliefs and thoughts that serve to include or exclude the receivers, create tensions or negate differences between them, and forge or reshape their discourse identities [7]. That essentially suggests that language is a powerful ideological instrument.

Fairclough’s model provides a toolkit to make sense of that complex system of human relations. In his work Analyzing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research, he observed that a text can produce different consequences and effects, depending on the decoder’s interpretation [8]. Thus, he proposes critical discourse analysis to examine a text beyond what is known literally. His approach is ‘critical’ in the sense that he questions critically the role of such political terms as power in a text. His model begins on the textual level where rhetorical and linguistic devices are coded for their semantic, lexical, and grammatical relations [8]. The next level looks at those coded strands with respect to the current events and sociopolitical debates and considers any inter textual elements. The third, and final, level considers the ideology of the studied group, connecting the coded strands from the previous level to the wider social events, and studying them with respect to the societal structures and practices happening at the time the text was made.

Critical discourse analysis is particularly useful for examining political activists’ campaigns as it helps to make sense of the political language, as well as to help understand the decision-making process of public-interest groups. When rhetoric is examined following the steps of this analytical model, much of its literary, sociopolitical, and ideological significance can be revealed.

Political Background

Throughout the Umbrella Movement, The Hong Kong Federation of Students was front and center in the limelight. Not only were they a coorganizer, but they were also representing students and the pandemocrats to hold a televised roundtable with government delegates on October 21, 2014. In light of their active participation throughout the movement, we marshaled six media campaigns (Table 1) across three different genres to examine the political register.

Label Name Genre Publication Date
O1 “When lies Are Turned Truth, Resistance Will Be Justified - A response from The Hong Kong Federation of Students on the second round public consultation on constitutional development” Online proposal Jan 9, 2015
O2 “Refuse a Regressive Constitutional Development, Regret be the Proposal Passed” Online proposal Jan 18, 2015
P1 “Statement Regarding the Temporary Suspension of the Polling in the Occupying Areas” Press statement Oct 27, 2014
P2 “A Response from The Hong Kong Federation of Students on the Issuing of Injunction Order” Press statement Nov 12, 2014
L1 “HKFS Letter of Reply to Ms. Carrie Lam” Letter to a government official Oct 29, 2014
L2 “A Letter to Former Chief Executive Tung Chee-Wah” Letter to a government official Nov 9, 2014

Table 1: Campaigns chosen for this research.

The select array of campaigns all tie in to the debate of reversing the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress’ August decision from the previous year, which stipulated that a Chief-Executive nominee be someone who loves China and Hong Kong and who does not confront Beijing, and that he or she be nominated by means of universal suffrage. However, in fact, the government and students had different assumptions as to the extent universal suffrage can be applied, at least in the legal sense of those words. For the government, it means that nominating a candidate must be made “by a broadlyrepresentative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures” [9]. On the surface, it suggests that people have the right to vote and to stand for election as enshrined in the Basic Law. But only “those [favored] by the nominating committee” throughout the electoral process can actually run for office [9,10]. Thus, students believing the government’s interpretation of universal suffrage was not only vague but also debatable demanded that the One-Country-Two- Systems model be interpreted in its original manner [11], i.e. a legal system characterized by judicial independence, due process, and the rule of law under an autonomous, self-sustaining governance. While student leaders showed their tenacity to push for change in their campaigns and mass sit-ins as shown on the television, the government was cautious in its handling, calling for the public to “pocket” the reform proposal first and seek for amendments to it in a “(sic) gradual and orderly” manner [12,13]. This background provides a paper with a political basis on which to analyze the student activists’ standpoint throughout the protest and the agenda they sought to realize.


To gather data, we devised the following table (Table 2):

Step Discourse Level Procedure
1 Textual Check grammar
2   Pay attention to the tone, length, sentence structure, literary devices, rhetorical troupes, perspectives, and speech pattern of each text specimen
3 Discursive practice Work out the theme for each paragraph
4   Look for any implicit knowledge of another subject matter
5   Think about the theme in relations to current events
6   3W + 1H
    Who created the material?
    What is their position?
    Whom might benefit from the discourse?
    How do their arguments contribute to the existing knowledge of the topic and the place where the argument was made?
7 Social practice Think of the producer’s message and how the campaigns advance their message
    Think of their goals and desires and how they leverage their position to achieve those goals and desires

Table 2: 7 steps taken to conduct a critical discourse analysis.

For analytical purposes, only specific rhetorical devices are discussed; they are in turn grouped and presented according to the three dimensions of Fairclough’s model: the textual level, the discursive-practice level, and the social-practice level.

Findings and Discussion

Textual level

On the textual level, Fairclough suggests that a close read of the syntax can reveal the ‘internal relations’ between ‘what is actually present’ and ‘what might have been present but is not’ (37), or, in other words, between textual elements and the hidden assumptions and ideologies. There are two important textual elements that weave the proposals, press releases, and letters to government officials into the discourse of civil disobedience. The first element is the first-person wefamily.

The first-person we-family: The first-person we-family (i.e., we, our, and us) serves to establish relationships between power-holders and their subjects. Fairclough proposes two types of we-pronouns, namely the inclusive-we, which refers to a broad audience including the addressee and the speaker, and the exclusive-we, which refers to an addressee and the speaker only (150). In the proposals, the use of wefamily is directed towards the general public, creating an inclusive-we community.

Towards the end of O1, students wrote: We endured the anguished 79 days and did not surrender, because we have to the state to the authority: we do not compromise; we do not accept any trick turning lies into truth. We will not let the authority to destroy our destiny! The occupation may come to a temporary end, there will be massive prosecution, but we will continue our resistance to our last moment! [14].

And in O2, a similar thread runs through: Our insistence on resistance was motivated by the conviction for the right to seize our future and the persistence in progressing from the governance since the colonial days…We urge the Legislative Council to veto the fake universal suffrage proposal by Beijing…We insist on refusing to give in any room for true democracy and autonomy to the Beijing Communist regime. We never surrender to an unjust political regime or a regressive political reform proposal [15].

Along those lines, The Hong Kong Federation of Students forges a common ground with the general public by alluding to what the citizenry experienced in the Umbrella Movement. They also leverage it to unify the audience members as one belonging to their causes and press the government, the self-ascribed antagonist in this discourse, to hear them out.

In their press releases, however, The Hong Kong Federation of Students maintain their power and influence by speaking only to their supporters, forming an exclusive-we community. For example, in P1:

We wish that our government as well as Beijing Government can have the same breath of mind to listen to the voices of the citizens and withdraw decisions made on 31 August. We urge them to abolish Functional Constituency and include civic nomination as their political reform goals [16].

And in P2:

The Federation of Students reiterate hereby that we respect every decision made by supporters of the movement and will stay until the very end [17].

The High Court judgment triggered by the Umbrella Movement is not just a legal issue, but a political issue showing that our society can no longer protect people’s right. It is an issue that the ruling class, as well as the citizens shall no longer ignore [17].

By showing how a defunct political system no longer protects the citizens, The Hong Kong Federation of Students emerges as a harbinger of democracy, showing their wills and spirits are with the protesters and for the protesters. By holding themselves accountable, they were able to leverage their supporters’ sentimentality to maintain their power and influence.

Similarly, in the letters the use of we-family is limited to exclusively mean The Hong Kong Federation of Students. In the first letter, traces of the exclusive-we community can already be found in the opening: 1. “We are delighted to have the opportunity to meet with you [18];” 2. “We agree that the government’s submission of a report the State Council is an attempt to bring a step forward to solve the current conflict;” and 3. “We highly anticipate the government’s response and elaboration in relation to this concern.” These declarative opening lines suggest that The Hong Kong Federation of Students then attempt to create a power distance between them and the government, a we-they relationship aimed at cementing their goals. Immediately afterwards, suggestions that internalize their motives appear:

We strongly demand that a broadly authorized representative be involved in the platform and thereupon, they could discuss the societal and political affairs of Hong Kong.

We urge the government to response timely so as to demonstrate her capacity and willingness in tackling the current situation [18].

As students, we would hold full accountability of our speeches; we would reflect the accurate and the pluralistic voices of the crowd, striking for “One Country, Two Systems” and genuine universal suffrage [18].

These suggestions demonstrate that one end of the political spectrum (i.e., The Hong Kong Federation of Students) is in a process of conciliating with another (i.e., the government), which also implicates that a political tug-of-war is being played out on the textual level.

Further along those lines are appeals to moral imperative, a rhetorical strategy that calls for the readers’ attention to an ethical ground known to both parties in a negotiation and that one party hopes to strike a chord with the other via that ground as to seek the other’s concession. For instance:

The crux of the problem lies in the poor governance of the Liaisons Office of the Central People’s Government and the monopoly of the industrial and business sector in Hong Kong’s economy. We believe that only through dialogues with Hong Kong people and affirming a fair and just democratic system [18].

We have the humblest wish for social change and advocate for democracy. When Mr. Tung could lead businessmen to Beijing, we hope you have the same breadth of mind in politics to arrange a meeting between students and officials from the Central Government, in Hong Kong or Beijing, so that we could convey directly the situation in Hong Kong and urge Beijing to face up to the requests of people in Hong Kong to reconsider the decision of the NPC [18].

The first quote explicitly references a fair and just democratic system as a shared moral imperative, which has evidently been privileged by only the industrial and business sectors in Hong Kong. The second quote, on the other hand, reveals that social changes and democracy are both moral imperatives. In first and second quotes, the moral imperatives work in tandem to elicit a call for action from the recipient’s (the government) end.

Similar to the textual attributes of the first letter, the second letter opens in this way: “We are writing with plea in regards to the crisis of Hong Kong,” and closes with: “if you are concerned about Hong Kong’s future, corresponding resolution shall not be extraneous but to help reconstruct the long-lost credibility.” Together, they echo with the first letter in arousing moral imperatives and the emotions of the recipient. Additionally, the second letter also alludes to the Rule of Law, Universal Suffrage, and the citizens’ rights to autonomy, all of which serve to underscore the fact that the current political system is defunct and needs immediate changes. Again, these text structures serve to create opposition with the recipient.

Apart from the first-person we, The Hong Kong Federation of Students also employ another equally important textual element to construct their public discourse: the lexical repetition of the theme ‘resistance.’

The lexical repetition of the theme ‘resistance’

Lexical repetition can create cohesion in a text whereby readers are aided in establishing meanings from the lexical items in the sentences [19]. In the campaigns, lexical repetition is found to be conveyed across genres. In the proposals, lexical repetition is implied through another rhetorical device known as the rule of three. Specifically, in P1, it reads: “anti-intellectual society, anti-intellectual discourse, antiintellectual officials” and “anti-colonialism and anti-screening.” All of which insinuates the grotesque nature of the current political system that stymies an average person’s intelligence. This is in turn echoed by the rhetorical questions that follow. For example: “Is it not the Hong Kong government which deprives of the equal rights of nomination with law, destroys the political rights of the public, and takes the initiative to harm the rule of law?” And another, “why can the criminals (the government officials) themselves be freed from criminal liabilities (of these social movements)?” In P2, the amplification of a “seizing-the-future-together” ethos is utilized. For example, “to seize our future as outlined under the (Sino-British Joint) Declaration.” Second, “our insistence on resistance was motivated by the conviction for the right to seize our future.” And finally, “we…insist on safeguarding the last field for Hong Kong people to seize our future under the One-Country-Two-Systems policy.” Through these statements, The Hong Kong Federation of Students channels their passive-aggressive resistance against the government.

In the press releases, the resistance ethos is transmitted through a language that conveys a sense of camaraderie with the supporters. Writing with regards to the temporary ban of polling in the Occupy areas, The Hong Kong Federation of Students in their first press release promised their supporters that they would be “companions with all fellow supporters of the movement.” In their second press release, they continue that companionship through sincerity as in “We shall then make the following sincere explanation to supporters of this movement,” and respect as in “We respect every decision made by the supporters of the movement and will stay until the end.” Using modals, these sentences serve to unify the supporters with The Hong Kong Federation of Students.

Contrary to the proposals and press releases, the letters to government officials reveal a more subtle and nuanced way of resistance-transmission. Euphemism is found to be at work. In the first letter, it reads: “On the meeting, the government proposed submitting a report on people’s opinions to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office regarding the Decision on 31st August; we believe that it is an opportunity for the government to ratify her fault” (emphasis added in italics). And “hence, we urge the government to respond timely so as to demonstrate her capacity and willingness in tackling the current situation” (emphasis added). In the second letter, likewise, “it is our sincere and deepest hope that your honor could offer a helping hand to resolve the deadlock” (emphasis added). Having a sincere and humble tone in their letters, The Hong Kong Federation of Students continues to build on their goodwill.

Through the first-person we and the lexical repetition of the theme ‘resistance,’ The Hong Kong Federation of Students continue to distance themselves from other power-holders in the public sphere, evolving into a juggernaut as we have observed in the media. They continually appeal to people through various rhetorical strategies (Table 3) as to gain support. Aside from what they include in their texts – a defunct political system and citizens’ frustration – what they strategically exclude (i.e., a weaving of colonial legacy and a postcolonial administrative hiccup) from their public discourse also propels their agenda forward. The latter of which is what we shall discuss next.

  Proposals Press Releases Open Letters to Government Officials
Tone Expressive Informative;
Length (in total) 1677 words(4 pages; single-spaced) 804 words (2 pages; single-spaced) 1882 words(4 pages; single-spaced)
Sentence Structure Simple, complex, and compound sentences
Literary DevicesA1** Direct quotes;
Relative pronouns;
Adjectival/adverbial modifiers
Direct quotes;
Relative pronouns;
Subordinating conjunctions;
Dummy pronouns;
Adjectival/adverbial modifiers
Direct quotes;
Adverbial modifiers;
Relative/Dummy pronouns
Rhetorical TroupesA2** Metaphors;
The Rule of three;
Rhetorical questions
/ Metaphors
Perspective Third-person ‘it’ First-person ‘we’
Speech Pattern Direct speech

* Details of each category are appended at the end of the paper.
**A1/2 denotes Appendix Table 1/2.

Table 3: A cross-examination table of rhetorical strategies*.

Discursive-Practice Level

Intertextuality is defined as “a set of other texts and a set of voices which are potentially relevant, and potentially incorporated into the text” [8]. Through intertextuality, the voice of another is reframed and embedded in a new text and context, transforming the social relations between the sender and the receiver that is contingent upon the interpretation of the reframing. We have noted that the discourse of civil disobedience is framed by strategically-employed rhetorical devices. Arguing that these devices are internalized to advance Students’ agenda, we want to suggest that they are in fact consistently legitimized by the weaving of the city’s colonial legacy and the post-‘97 colonial misadventure, both of which are strategically left out in the discourse.

Colonial legacy

Across the three genres of campaigns, the Basic Law and the Sino- British Joint Declaration are consistently reframed to convey colonial legacy. For example, ‘genuine’ universal suffrage, the rule of law, and the One-Country-Two-Systems model. Genuine universal suffrage is supported by repeatedly questioning the government’s notion of fair election. The Hong Kong Federation of Students write: “2-3 candidates, 50% endorsement, a nominating committee composed of 1,200 persons who are elected by some two hundred thousand people, while the rights of five million voters are deprived of, this cannot be fair election” (O1).

In another context, the rule of law is referenced by alluding to a violation of human rights and social capital by the government. The Hong Kong Federation of Students write: “People of this city do not enjoy equal political rights, neither can they nominate their own Chief Executive nor have a genuine choice, whereas a small and privileged group of people have huge influence politically. The government was not held accountable to the citizens, while the interest of the policymaking inclined to the rich” (P2). Again, a reference to the Western notion of equality is made with a cross over to the government’s failed replica of Western values, like the freedom of choice and democracy, in the form of a democratic government serving its people.

Finally, the One-Country-Two-Systems model is conveyed through challenging the official definition: One Country, Two Systems. The model “states that within a country, two systems are separately applied. The HKSAR government should uphold the principles of ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ and ‘high degree of autonomy’ so as to ensure the rational and legal rights of Hong Kong citizens” (L1). Evidently, the single quotation marks denote official definitions and The Hong Kong Federation of Students challenge what’s inside to bring out the assumption that the One-Country-Two-Systems model has never been actually realized.

Post-colonial mishaps

Colonial legacy, a shared root between political activists and supporters, is further woven by a post-colonial misadventure characterized by defective bureaucracy and an unresponsive government. Propounding that the NPCSC decision further perpetuates the privilege of the ruling class and the business sector, The Hong Kong Federation of Students first call attention to the top-down approach of governance in Hong Kong. For example, “the government’s reiteration on strictly following Beijing’s framework does not reflect the public sentiments” (L1). The result of which is as we observed throughout the Umbrella Movement – intensified social problems and “the SAR government’s inability to resolve the problems, its lack of will to execute any resolutions, and its losing power of governance” (L2). Then, The Hong Kong Federation of Students trace multiple sources where defective bureaucracy is witnessed. They write:

The HKSAR government has been failing to protect our selfautonomy, while the Central government has never been grasping the situation of Hong Kong, which together led to continuous wrongful decisions. Local industries and businesses, only aiming to continue their special class privileges, lied to the public and government about their personal desire…[from the] anti-National Education Campaign (and the) granting of free TV license (to now) the government and Central officials have been failing to build a better Hong Kong [20].

Both strands together accentuate the function of the wecommunities from the textual level. They are manifested in the assumptions of a democratic and responsible government, in which power is vested in the people and exercised by same group of people through a fair electoral process. The frustration that arises from failing to see that in reality constitutes The Hong Kong Federation of Students’ agenda, and is reflected upon by their antagonistic stance towards any government policies.

From a broader perspective, the student’s frustration at the government is symptomatic of the existing social disruption fueled by the wider social relations, practices, and structures, an aspect that is examined next.

Social-Practice Level

To fully understand the socio-political implications of the Students’ campaigns, one must consider the texts with respect to the social relations, practices, and structures. In this regard, it is important to note the political ideologies that separate the students and the government. Since the founding of Scholarism in 2011, student activists have been gravitating towards a radical tangent in vocalizing their concerns, organizing mass rallies, sit-ins, and hunger strikes to present their views [21]. Their wishes and concerns were built upon “years of pent-up frustration in Hong Kong” where democracy has always been a topic left in empty rhetoric. The government was largely responsible, but it was often insensitive to the voice of the people. For example, in a media interview during the Umbrella Movement, a highpower official said, “If you look at the meaning of the words ‘broadly representative,’ it’s not numeric representation.” “If it is,” he continued, “then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month.” This statement further widened the schism between students and the government, with the former steadily gaining support from the middle-class and blue-collar residents since the interview [22].

The anti-government ethos that The Hong Kong Federation of Students channeled throughout the Umbrella Movement is arguably a cumulation of frustration grew out of that schism. The distance between the government and students has been succinctly captured in this line: “We shall tackle (the manifold problems underpinning our society) at source – via political reform” (P2). Which resonates with the ongoing calls for democracy in Hong Kong (“Denied free elections, Hong Kong’s democrats plan, reluctantly, for protest,” 2014). Their campaigns have radically contributed to the city’s political deadlock, but whether their actions and agenda have been hitherto effective, students’ radicalism in articulating their needs has defined, for the most part, their current political identity.


In this paper, a critical analysis of The Hong Kong Federation of Students’ discourse has shown that a radically-charged register, characterized by the first-person we and the lexical repetition of the theme resistance has shaped the power distance between the government and students as we observed in the protests of 2014. Students’ radicalism throughout the Umbrella Movement echoes with their campaigns forming their political identity. Before a conclusive answer to Hong Kong’s current political deadlock can be made, however, a corpus of research must be done to support and confirm the findings in this research. Given the mercurial nature of the city’s democratic development, a longitudinal research into campaign strategies, activist groups and media campaigns also needs to be undertaken.


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