HONG KONG — Exactly five years ago, the Umbrella Movement broke out to demand respect for Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms. After it ended, having obtained no concessions from the local government or the Chinese authorities, political time accelerated in the city.

Two years later, social unrest erupted after a scuffle between the police and street hawkers and their supporters, who came to the sellers’ defense in the name of protecting Hong Kong traditions. Pro-democracy candidates were prevented from running in legislative elections or disqualified after winning seats on grounds that they hadn’t displayed enough loyalty toward the state or the notion that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. A political party advocating independence for Hong Kong was formed, then disbanded by the government. Feelings toward mainland China hardened. Hong Kong had long had a pro-democracy camp before 2014, but, in a way, the Umbrella Movement was the beginning of everything.

That’s because — want it or not, know it or not — the Umbrella Movement planted the seed of separatism in the city. I don’t mean that the idea was entirely new: There had been some proponents of localism, at the margins. And I don’t mean that separatism is now the order of the day: Most Hong Kongers who fight for democracy today would probably say that they simply want the proper implementation of our Basic Law, or mini-Constitution, and the “One Country, Two Systems” principle that is supposed to protect the city’s semi-autonomy from the mainland. I mean that the Umbrella Movement was, in fact, an independence movement — but an independence movement that didn’t know itself.

On Aug. 31, 2014 — the date, instantly infamous, lives on as “8/31” — Beijing issued a white paper setting out its vision of how to apply “One Country, Two Systems” to elections in Hong Kong. The document stated that the city’s next leader, or chief executive, would be elected by the public — but only after Beijing preselected the candidates through a nominating committee. The goal of such vetting seemed plain: to prevent the rise to power of a chief executive who might oppose or resist Beijing’s will.

Some scholars ridiculed this proposal as an “Iranian-style rigged system.” Many Hong Kongers opposed it, denouncing it as “fake democracy,” and instead started calling for “true democracy” and “real universal suffrage.” Five years later, “true democracy” is again a prominent slogan of the pro-democracy protesters, one of their five core demands. And though by now it may seem familiar, it is no less radical today than it was then.

Many Hong Kongers don’t seem to realize this, but we have been building a distinct Hong Kong nation — we have been nation-building — since the Umbrella Revolution.

Calls for real democracy aren’t just calls for general elections and universal suffrage; they are calls for general elections and universal suffrage without any intervention from Beijing. But for the Chinese authorities, the “One Country, Two Systems” principle isn’t some version of federalism; Hong Kong has no sovereignty of its own.

For them, never mind this principle or the Basic Law: China has the right to intervene in Hong Kong’s political affairs; in fact, that right is built into the system.

Some Chinese officials might even say that the mainland’s approach to the city is no different than a mother’s toward her child. There seems to be a consensus about all this in Beijing, as well as an expectation that Hong Kongers must share this understanding, too. Except that they don’t, or fewer and fewer of them do.

And so from Beijing’s perspective, when pro-democracy protesters and their supporters reject what it perceives as its right to intervene here, they are challenging its very sovereignty. In this, at least, Beijing is correct. It knows what many Hong Kongers don’t seem to have fully appreciated: Admit it or not, we are actually rejecting Chinese sovereignty — we are already an independence movement in disguise. And it all started with the Umbrella Movement.

In their notorious 8/31 white paper, the Chinese authorities in Beijing put forward that they had 全面管治權 over Hong Kong, roughly: the “all-inclusive power to govern, no holds barred.” The autonomy enjoyed by the special administrative region is not a given; it is given, or granted, by Beijing. Being told this angered many Hong Kongers, especially those longing for universal suffrage and those who had expected China to act as a responsible ruler and keep the promises it made, including in the Basic Law, for years to come. They saw Beijing’s declaration as an undue attempt to expand its power over Hong Kong, and they made a counter-declaration, in effect, setting out an entirely different vision for the city’s future.

Sep. 28, 2014 is now seen as the day that officially marks the beginning of the Umbrella Movement, and what happened on that day is that a bunch of people who opposed Beijing’s plans for Hong Kong, many of them students, rushed out the city’s main roads, bypassing the adults’ and elites’ own plans, and began occupying the streets in protest. Although they weren’t calling for Hong Kong’s independence then, they already were, perhaps without realizing it, rejecting the Beijing Consensus.

The Umbrella Movement also contained the political DNA of today’s next-generation protesters. It, too, had factions, internal struggles and disagreements over tactics. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an academic who had been advocating a kind of Occupy operation in Central, a business district, was forced to accept a modified version of his own idea after supporters of the student leader Joshua Wong scaled the gates of the Legislative Council in Admiralty, triggering the police crackdown that really kick-started the movement.

In the course of the 79-day occupation that followed, the sit-in in Admiralty turned into something like a village of mostly young people and adults acting as chaperones of sorts. (A tented library was set up so that students could cram for exams.) But there was a second power center: the camps in Mong Kok, a working-class area, which gathered an older and more mixed crowd. Already back then, the protests’ metabolism ran on decentralization.

The Umbrella Movement was also the initial stage of the “do not split” ethos that binds protesters together today: If you disagree with a proposed action, sit it out, but don’t get in its way. Protesters got used to there being different modes of action in 2014, and that paved the way for an even more flexible, pragmatic approach that people follow now.

There were divergences of views between, say, Benny Tai and Joshua Wong and between the protesters in Admiralty and those in Mong Kok, but everyone was in the same fight together, on the side of democracy. Five years later, the notion that this cohesion, built around our aspirations and identity, extends beyond our differences has only grown stronger. And so has our hunger for self-determination. Even the people who aren’t calling for outright independence are part of an independence movement. The Umbrella Movement was the first battle in the clash of Chinese civilization.

Lewis Lau Yiu-man is a contributor to Stand News in Hong Kong and Up Media in Taiwan.

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