How to Speak Out and Stay Hidden in Hong Kong
Protest veterans have developed new tactics—but so have the police.
It was a surprise to discover I worked for the CIA. As a large white man in the Hong Kong protests, I certainly stood out from the crowd, where the overwhelming majority of the million-plus participants were locals of Chinese descent who took to the streets against an extradition bill that could send dissidents into the maw of mainland power. But my presence was enough to get pro-Beijing operatives to distribute a picture of me labeled as “CIA spy.” That spirit of paranoia is now being echoed at the top, where Beijing officials are accusing the United States of being the “meddling foreign forces” behind the Hong Kong protests.
But the protests were driven by locals—including the odd American-born Hong Konger such as me, having become a veteran of protest on behalf of my adopted city. They were intentionally diversified, disunified, and, as much as possible, anonymized—an adaptive move against a government that seeks to criminalize dissent. Hong Kongers’ experience of resistance has made the protests sharply effective—but may not be enough in the teeth of a hostile state.
Reading American political scientist Charles Tilly’s work on contentious politics while taking part in the 2014 Umbrella Movement felt like striking an intellectual gold mine. Social movements, he argued, were derivative performance “repertoires.” Most protests are borrowing from a shared library of scripts that are localized and incessantly improvised. Hong Kongers didn’t invent the idea of “occupying” busy urban centers, but we created something fundamentally unique and infinitely adaptable.
The Umbrella Movement started in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district and was followed by occupations in several other locations, the most significant of which was Mong Kok. The two sites borrowed and learned from each other yet had very different styles and culture. Participants in both sites collectively learned the same tactics: how to shut down busy roads, how to resist police attempts to shut the occupations down, and how to evade arrest.
This shared collective knowledge was put to use again this June 12 in follow-up protests to the enormous march on June 9. With virtually no planning or organization to speak of, and word spreading primarily through memes and artwork jumping between open social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter) and private messaging app groups (Telegram and WhatsApp), Admiralty was occupied in less than an hour, and tens of thousands of people arrived to fill it. Umbrella Movement veterans knew what to do without instruction, and a new generation of college students learned by watching. Most knew that the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) would respond violently and prepared for their expected tactics: pepper spray, tear gas, and batons.
Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people showed up to an unlawful assembly, knowing that there were severe repercussions to getting arrested. Having experienced the protests in 2014, I knew the risk of arrest is both random and unevenly distributed. The risk is highest for those at the front line during “clashes,” but the front line can move to where you stand with little warning. Outside that context, the risk seems randomly distributed to anyone caught on camera, and personally identifiable, doing nearly anything aggressive or committing “incitement to incite public nuisance” with words.
Internalized lessons from experience guided my preparation for joining what we euphemistically called the “picnic” on Wednesday. The bag I brought contained a camera I hide behind, two shirts to change into later, and a face mask. The aim of joining a protest like Wednesday’s anti-extradition bill occupation is to be seen, and counted, without being easily identified.
Resisting easy categorization is an essential tool. As a veteran of Hong Kong street politics who has seen too many arrests and baton charges, I’ve had to learn the timing of when to slip on my camouflage. The mask needs to come on before you enter the occupied zones, but not so early that you stand out from the general public.
Once inside the occupation, my camera comes out to blur the distinction between “observer” and “activist.” Wide-angle and aerial shots of the occupation will capture my presence in a pixel or two as a protester, but I’m typically believed to be a journalist by people around me. This is intentional. I’ve left a trail of photos on my SD card and tweets simply giving situation updates to point to should I find myself in handcuffs.
As with other observer-activists, my key role was reconnaissance. Your camera is cover for taking high ground positions on bridges and flyovers next to media to gather spatial and temporal situational awareness of an environment that can radically change without notice. You try to understand the geographic contours of the protest: Where are fellow protesters gathered and in what density? Where are people moving to? Are more people arriving than leaving? Where are the barricades and are they being pushed further out?
More important, however, is answering the same questions about your counterparts in the Hong Kong Police Force. Protesters experience these illegal protests the same way soldiers often describe war—long periods of boredom punctuated by terrifying episodes of violence. The key is to determine when the police will move, where they’ll come from, and what tactics they’ll likely use. Most protesters have learned from experience the importance of knowing when to “fall back,” and not to get caught somewhere without a predetermined exit route.
That only about a dozen people were arrested on-site Wednesday is a testament that even those on the front lines know how and when to leave the scene and evade arrest. Remove the protective gear that obscured our faces and replace a sweat-drenched shirt and you’ll look nothing like what was caught in photographs or videos. Time it right and it would take hours to reconstruct a CCTV footage-based timeline that captures an image of your face, tracks you through the crowd going to the front line, and then catches you engaging in an action that could land a criminal charge. Of the tens of thousands of people there on Wednesday, the HKPF will likely only invest the time to identify a few dozen “worst offenders” for later arrest.
It’s impossible to count how many hours I’ve spent over the past five years thinking about how to stay firmly in the “gray zone” side of the law while participating in an unlawful assembly. Our form of protest, occupation of major roads in busy districts, pushes the frontiers of the gray zone because it intentionally attracts curious onlookers. Protesters are safest when tourists, families, and people in business suits are walking amongst them. The gray zone is broad, but knowing where and when it transforms to sharp edges is crucial if you want to get home safely that night and avoid a knock at your door in following days.
There are moments on these streets where you feel a degree of sympathy for the HKPF. Less than an hour before their most violent assault in Hong Kong’s living memory, other protest veterans thought the police were outmanned. Their only options were curfews or something akin to martial law, which would functionally amount to the general strike many of us hoped for. Just after 4 p.m. they declared the occupation a riot and attacked with 150 rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, airsoft “pepper balls,” and beanbags fired from shotguns. Harcourt Road, occupied for 79 days in 2014, was cleared within an hour. As Tilly would have reminded us: Regimes borrow and improvise repertoires too.
Later that night, the HKPF arrested four protesters seeking treatment for injuries at local hospitals. The following night they reportedly appeared at Hong Kong University dormitories. The purpose and intent were unclear, but the fear and panic they caused were palpable.
As they did in the wake of the Umbrella Movement, they’ll be sifting through gigabytes of multimedia, social media, and other digital records to collect evidence to charge people who were there in the coming weeks, months, even years. I suspect that the police response to our numbers and tactics will be to instill a latent fear that nobody got home as safely as we supposed.