Securitizing the Umbrella Movement: Audience Acceptance and Defiance


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date12 Jan 2018


The present dissertation is a theoretically driven case study of the Umbrella Movement, a massive sit-in that paralyzed key business and retail districts for 79 days in Hong Kong in 2014. I propose a framework of “security appeal” to analyze how securitizing actors tailored their threat claims to the audience and audience responses to the claims. The securitization theory suggests that to legitimize its suppression, the Hong Kong government needed to convince the general public that the sit-in was an imminent threat to the prosperity of Hong Kong, i.e. securitize the Umbrella Movement. Drawing from the fear appeal literature and reactance theory, I argue that the same persuasive attempt could elicit polarized responses. The intended effect of any securitizing moves is message acceptance and audience compliance, yet the same move could also backfire and provoke audience defiance. I therefore propose that the Umbrella Movement is a case of “split securitization.” I propose that those who perceived the securitizing move as a threat to freedom (e.g. democratic values) defied the moves, resulting in the spontaneous Umbrella Movement. The Hong Kong government continued to securitize the movement using fear appeal, and those who perceived a threat to the referent object (e.g. the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong) accepted the government’s claim and opposed the Movement. The eventual reversal of public opinion prompted protesters to end the movement largely peacefully.

To test the framework, I conducted a content analysis of news reports (Chapter 6), two surveys during the Umbrella Movement (Chapter 7) and a qualitative study (Chapter 8). The results from the content analysis showed that the government and protesters both used the media as a channel to compete and campaign for public support. Pro-government media emphasized the sweeping public harm caused by the movement, from a sluggish economy to disruptions in everyday life, whereas pro-democracy media focused on debunking the alleged harms and bringing the discussion back to politics. The results from the two surveys suggested audience acceptance of the government’s securitizing moves. Opponents of the Umbrella Movement were more likely to value the “Chinese identity,” minimize democracy, support the 8.31 decision, find the police to be procedurally fair and support triad weiwen. The results from in-depth interviews of suggested that the opposite worldviews between supporters and opponents stemmed from how they saw the relationship between the people and the government. Opponents saw Hongkongers as subjects of an authoritarian regime, and democracy had to be granted. Supporters saw Hongkongers as citizens that were entitled to have a voice, and democracy had to be demanded. Lastly, drawing from the results obtained, I propose the emergence of a “patriotocratic system” since the outbreak of the Umbrella Movement in which power and opportunities are vested in people based on professed patriotism.