Why the Umbrella Revolution Is the Most Important Story of 2014

The top news story of 2014 feels a lot like 1989.

They haven't gotten their demands met, but the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong was no less than extraordinary -- protesters led by kids not necessarily old enough to vote, battling for the right to freely choose their leaders after China weaseled as expected on a commitment to give the Special Administrative Region universal suffrage.

Joshua Wong began fighting Chinese rule when he was just 15 years old, organizing protests and foiling the PRC's plans to force "patriotic education" classes at his Christian school and other campuses. This year, at age 17, the leader of the Scholarism movement, along with college-student leaders Alex Chow, Lester Shum and other youths, rallied hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. With the looming threat of the Chinese overlords and their sordid history of confronting democratic protests, the youths were in hot water the minute they stepped out onto the pavement.

But they stayed there from the end of September until the last of their camps were forcibly dismantled by police before Christmas. Hundreds were arrested over the course of the protests. Hong Kong authorities have yanked some teen protesters from their parents, putting them under the care of the state -- including a 14-year-old girl detained and separated from her father for drawing chalk flowers on a protest wall. The student leaders know that the Chinese government is not finished with them: they've been banned from entering China, they're spied upon and subject to arbitrary arrest, and they'll never know what punishment awaits next.

Yet they're not giving up. These are the 21st century incarnations of the Tank Man, that anonymous legend who single-handedly halted an advancing column in Tiananmen. They popped open their umbrellas to shield their bodies from the tear gas and pepper spray, and made a rainy-day instrument a symbol of a brighter tomorrow.

"If you have the mentality that striving for democracy is a long, drawn-out war and you take it slowly, you will never achieve it," Wong told CNN. "You have to see every battle as possibly the final battle — only then will you have the determination to fight."

The battle that played out in the streets of Hong Kong will have legs not only for their region. China, naturally, fears that fervor will be reignited in their people, sick of repression of speech, religion, the press and every other fundamental right. Tibetans and Uighurs are already restless, and Beijing views basically every move by Taiwan as separatist.

"If China remains a dictatorship it could be even more bloody than the 20th century," a Tiananmen student leader who landed on China's most wanted list warned at a House subcommittee hearing in May.

The Umbrella Revolution groundswell gives hope for an Asian Spring, in which basic human freedoms would trump trade deals and western governments would come face to face with their own shortcomings in wanting to avoid those awkward conversations with China, Vietnam and, yes, Cuba.

Since there is strength in numbers, particularly in the global square of social media, the people-power effect of movements such as the Umbrella Revolution can have a trickle-down effect -- or, as we saw during the Arab Spring, a waterfall effect.

And movements for freedom across the globe, whether from dictators or Islamic extremists, could use any extra boost.

Take Turkey, which has been stirred by occasional protests yet is poised to see pro-democratic forces grow even stronger in opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule. The latest outrage was last week's arrest of a 16-year-old boy who faces up to four years behind bars for calling Erdogan a "thief."

This week, the hashtag #IWantMyCountryBack has been trending among Libyans sick of their country being co-opted by terrorists after finally getting rid of the dictator. The social media campaign came the same week that ISIS posted a beheading video from Benghazi, underscoring the literal turf war between good and evil there.

"I don't want my only choice in life to be between wasting my best years here, or leaving my friends & family," tweeted Nada Elfeituri, the founder of Benghazi Writers.

Syria's revolution began with peaceful protests in 2011, with students to elders filling streets in Damascus and lifting only their voices against Bashar Assad. Government snipers began picking off demonstrators from their rooftop perches, eventually forcing them to fight or be slaughtered. Early predictions of chaos and mass slaughter in the face of global inaction have come to fruition, taking shape in a way even worse than imagined with the Islamic State swallowing half of the country.

Despite the persistent threat to their lives and their quiet, olive-producing town west of the highway that links Homs and Aleppo -- cities reduced to ruin thanks to Assad's fury -- Kafranbel residents have continued protesting via English-language signs tweeted out to a world that would have completely forgotten about Syria had ISIS not set up shop on the other end of the country.