The Dangerous Romance of Hong Kong Protests

The focus on drama risks ignoring the hard slog of resistance.

Protesters rest on a road divide outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong after a flag raising ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China on July 1, 2019.
Protesters rest on a road divide outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong after a flag raising ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China on July 1, 2019. Vivek Prakash/AFP/Getty Images

An older woman, addressed by those around her as “granny” (popo), slouches underneath the unforgiving summer sun, pushing a cart for support alongside thousands of others trudging through the streets of Hong Kong on a Sunday afternoon. Draped across her back is a banner: “You motherfucking reporter,” a mocking reference to an insult a police officer hurled at a journalist covering a protest earlier that week. It’s already become an inside joke, part of the brand of foul language-laced dark humor Hong Kongers are so good at, particularly in the worst of times. It’s how they cope.

Hong Kong’s government has been trying to push through a law that would allow the extradition of people in the city to an uncertain fate in a mainland court system entirely controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But regardless of whether the law is passed or not, there’s a ticking clock for the rights Hong Kongers are used to: 2047, when the 50-year arrangement of “one country, two systems” set up in the 1997 handover of the city from the British to China comes to an end. That’s well within the lifetime of the majority of the protesters. They may even see the same man in power in China, since Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has lifted the limits on his own terms. It will more than likely be the same party as it is now.

Despite repeated calls from businesses, consulates, legal experts, and ordinary citizens raising concerns and suggesting alternative proposals, the Hong Kong government has refused to withdraw the bill. On June 12, hordes of protesters went on strike and occupied the streets near the government offices in the Admiralty neighborhood—scenes not seen since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when Hong Kongers camped on the streets for 79 days—and the government’s response was to drop 150 canisters of tear gas, arrest protesters receiving treatment in public hospitals, and afterward solemnly condemn it as riot.

To be clear: No property was damaged on that day, and the little violence I witnessed on the part of the protesters had always been in direct response to brutal attempts from the police to clear the scene. Officers fired rubber bullets and hosed down journalists with pepper spray. I was a fairly useless presence that day—away from the front lines, standing on a bridge overlooking Harcourt Road in Admiralty and trying to capture photographs and videos of the movement. I was still choking on tear gas, looking over my shoulder every two seconds at the riot police advancing forward from Tamar Park. Within minutes, masks and bottles of water materialized out of nowhere, and loud calls urging those with asthma to leave the scene echoed through the crowd. Some of the protesters looked no older than 15. These images of young, peaceful protesters have since been widely circulated, hailed as the faces of the David and Goliath struggle against China.

But romanticizing the movement is dangerous for Hong Kong. While mythmaking around protests has generally worked to Hong Kongers’ benefit—international media outlets splashing crowds on the front pages of their papers, foreign governments rushing to release statements declaring solidarity, and a general morale boost as a result—it also means that when the protests eventually and inevitably die down, they’re left with a gaping hole in both coverage and support, wondering what to do. Yet Hong Kong does not cease to exist in between the events when it makes the headlines, and the focus on the romance of the protests inevitably neglects smaller incidents that have equally alarming consequences on Hong Kongers’ freedoms—as well as the everyday acts of resistance that are rarely recorded in the media.

This is not to discredit the integral part protests have played in the development of Hong Kong. The city has long had a history of protest unlike any other: the people have never lived under a democracy where they could elect their own government, but simultaneously enjoyed freedoms largely unknown in authoritarian states – such as the right to speak, and to protest.

That made street politics a vital tool for voicing public desire. And so off to the streets Hong Kongers have gone on a regular basis: the march in 2003 against legislating Article 23, which would have criminalized sedition and treason, opening up opportunities by the government to persecute those who speak out against China; demonstrations in 2006 calling for the preservation of a “collective memory” when the colonial Queen’s Pier and Star Ferry clock tower were to be torn down; the dramatic “prostrating walk” protests in 2009 and 2010 against the construction of a railway that eventually destroyed a village in New Territories; the 2012 movement against so-called national education in Hong Kong, led by the then-teenager Joshua Wong; and, of course, the more recent Umbrella Movement and the Mong Kok unrest.

Some of these were victories. Many more were defeats. For a while it felt like nothing could bring another victory, and so people stopped coming out. They stowed away battery packs, face masks, and other protest essentials. They didn’t discuss politics on Facebook anymore. They went back to everyday life. The young quarreled among themselves every year over whether to attend the Tiananmen massacre vigil, while the annual handover march went on half-heartedly in recent years as attendees dwindled. Journalists and academics nervously awaited official figures after each rally.

But the truth is that the world doesn’t really care about Hong Kong anymore, even if Hong Kongers don’t like to admit it. The tale of a city facing a slow and almost certain death, stretched over the span of 50 years, is pretty anticlimactic. And so, even though acts of injustice continue to plague the city with clockwork precision—booksellers kidnapped, elected legislators kicked out, protest leaders jailed, press freedom under siege—some may sound the alarm, even issue harsh warnings, yet Hong Kong seems to be incapable of moving the global masses the way they did when the Umbrella Movement shook the world. When pro-Beijing lawmakers moved to amend parliamentary rules, which would make it much harder for the pro-democracy camp to filibuster, there were few protests, and barely anyone outside of Hong Kong paid attention.

But when they show up on the streets in droves, as they have in the past month, the world turns its head and watches in awe.

The bill inadvertently united Hong Kongers—a group many previously thought had become too fractured to stand behind any cause. The past month saw multiple protests with unprecedented turnouts, with a march on June 15 drawing around 2 million protesters, according to the organizers’ estimates, making it the largest demonstration in Hong Kong’s history. Even though the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, announced the day before that the extradition bill would be suspended for now, crowds continued to clog the streets of Hong Kong island, from the shopping hotspot of Causeway Bay, past the government offices in Admiralty, through to the business district in Central.

This wasn’t the end: Sporadic, sometimes spontaneous acts of civil disobedience continued over the next two weeks, from egging police stations and surrounding government buildings to a mass rally at a plaza in Central ahead of the G-20 summit. Anonymous netizens produced animations reiterating the protesters’ demands, while others pulled all-nighters pitching front-page ads to international newspapers, calling on the world to stand with Hong Kong. They were acts of hope and acts of desperation—the kind that takes root after years and years of losing. For some, they were also a tribute to an anti-extradition bill demonstrator who fell to his death from the posh shopping mall of Pacific Place two weeks earlier. Scrawled on a banner he had brought with him that hung at the roof of the building were the words: “No extradition to China,” “Make love, no shoot,” and “Help Hong Kong.” Since then, another protester has lost her life falling from a building.

There are so many others making smaller sacrifices, so much taking place away from the cameras that will never be immortalized in tomorrow’s dailies. The girl who threw up next to me, blue in the face, after the first rounds of tear gas. The jailed protest leader sitting in his cell, thinking about the kids ready to sacrifice their own freedom for the city’s. Office workers taking extended lunch breaks to sneak out to the occupation site. The pragmatic demonstrators ready to do whatever it takes, knowing they may be condemned for it, knowing spectators only want more photos of protesters recycling. Parents weeping at dinner tables. These contributions are vital, yet when myths are built around individual heroes, meme-worthy placards, and photographs of crowds filling the streets, they are often left out of the narrative.

The protesters cleanly parting to make way for an ambulance, the mournful rounds of  “Sing hallelujah to the Lord,” plazas emblazoned with fields of bright lights from demonstrators’ flashes—these images will perhaps live on, and as long as the world keeps watching it may continue to be moved. But the global news cycle will soon give way to more pressing international crises, and the post-Occupy dip in international attention has taught Hong Kongers that they can only save the city themselves.

There is still a 30-year battle ahead of the city, and not every protest can be beautiful and huge: The encroaching tyranny behind these scenes can be easily forgotten. Only when oppression is fought on a day-to-day basis—with Hong Kongers exercising the few voting rights they are given, and teachers, lawyers, parents, journalists, and others all playing their part in educating the next generation—can the movement sustain itself.

If there is one scene from last month that will remain with me, it is this: how, when younger protesters around the grandmother told her to “add oil”—a Chinese exhortation that’s hard to capture in English but can be interpreted as “Go on!”—she simply replied, “Dai gaa gaa yau”: “Everyone add oil.” And with that, in an anxiety-ridden month that’s left so many people sleepless, other marchers and I were able to find the strength to carry on. For as long as it’ll take, even when the world stops watching.

Karen Cheung is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.

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