Emily Chow-Quesada reflects on the ongoing social unrest in Hong Kong.
“From Umbrella to Anti-Extradition: The Inconvenient Truth of Hong Kong”
The summer of 2019 promises to be another unforgettable period for many Hongkongers. At the time of writing, social unrest over the extradition bill has been fermenting for months. The entire city is charged with anxiety and agitation. To many, the current protests directly recall the controversy, polarisation, disruption and violence of the Umbrella Movement in 2014. That said, the scale and intensity of both the resistance and the acts of attempted suppression on the part of the police are unprecedented. According to various sources, 2379 people have been arrested (as of 10/10/2019, Now.com), more than 1800 tear gas cannisters have been fired into public areas (as of 22/8/2019, HK01), at least 300 rubber bullets have been shot, 167 40mm react rounds have been released and 6 bean bag rounds have been deployed (as of 14/8/2019, CitizenNews). While many local commentators have focused on the genealogy of the protests and their intimate connection to the Umbrella Movement, few have looked in detail at the different manifestations of violence at play, in order to analyse where the city might be heading.
Since 2014, Hongkongers have been politically divided between the blue ribbon (pro-government) and yellow ribbon (anti-government) camps. Violence has complicated this simple binary however. Of course, the movement started with peaceful demonstrations, but as Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and her government continued to be dismissive of the demonstrators’ concerns, while suppressing protests with the employ of a heavy-handed police force, some chose to elevate the physical dimension of the protests. If a watershed moment could be discerned it was probably when protestors stormed the Legislative Council on 1 July. Subsequent protests were characterised by an increasing use of physical force. It was at this point that the blue ribbon side of Hong Kong, along with Lam and the mainland Chinese Government, used the outbreaks of violence to construct a narrative about events in an attempt to win support from the general public in which the protestors were characterised as “rioters” damaging the very fabric of society.
This scenario recapitulates the events of the summer of 2014. As the Occupy Central movement progressed, the general public, who had initially remained largely neutral to the protests, began to align with the Hong Kong government. The public seemed to agree that violence and civil disobedience had no place in Hong Kong. After all, the Umbrella Movement was a product of the “Occupy Central” initiative, which had acted under the slogan “occupy central with love and peace.”
Today, however, what differentiates the anti-extradition bill protests from the Umbrella Movement is that those in the yellow ribbon camp are now stressing the importance of unconditionally standing alongside those in the same camp – regardless of the tactics used. The recurrent slogan of the protestors on social media makes the point crystal clear: “We stand together even if someone ignites a nuclear bomb” (核爆都唔割蓆).
Given this change, why has there been a higher tolerance for more aggressive forms of protest, and will that tolerance will be the root of a successful outcome for the movement?
To respond to the first question, it is useful to take a look at Slavoj Žižek’s theorisation of violence. In Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (2008) Žižek proposes various ways of understanding violence. Other than the obvious physical altercation, he also draws attention to the existence of systemic violence. While the former triggers more immediate and noticeable effects, the latter is often embedded in systems and operates in a more subtle way. Although not all protesters will be aware of Žižek’s work, they are able to identify this systemic violence of the Legislative Council and the Chinese government.
Some of the excessive violence used by the police force in suppressing protests over recent weeks is beyond question, but it rings a further note of caution that critics have also been unable to officially question such violations. In the existing structure of the Hong Kong police force, the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) is the only official body to which the public can file complaints regarding police conduct. Nonetheless, the IPCC has long been criticised for only having members with a pro-government and pro-Beijing background. Indeed, even if investigations are carried out and suggestions proposed to the police force, the general sense in the local community is that few such suggestions have ever been fully adopted.
What this means is that there is a lack of an effective monitoring system for the police force. As such, when a pro-government gang (identified by their white T-shirts) stormed the Yuen Long MTR station on 21 July in an attempt to attack protestors returning home from a peaceful demonstration hours earlier, that the police took over an hour to attend and made no arrests was met with knowing dismay.
Many international media outlets have reported on the details of what the governments of the HKSAR and China have been doing to suppress the protest movement, but the recognition of the existence and power of these invisible forms of violence is the exact reason why the people in the yellow ribbon camp have remained united. Ironically, as the slogan “there are no rioters but tyranny” (沒有暴徒只有暴政) goes, the physical violence identified by the HKSAR government is also elicited by the government itself.
As mentioned, such solidarity in the anti-government camp is unprecedented. Yet the problem is that the rest of Hong Kong condemns any form of violence in the demonstrations and protests, while turning a blind eye to the injustices of the government. The inconvenient truth is that many Hongkongers regard prosperity and stability as the most important thing. As in the Umbrella Movement, as the current protest movement develops, more disruptions are being inflicted on the general public, especially with the increase in civil disobedience. Carrie Lam has leveraged this situation to win the support of the remainder in society. In a press conference on 9 August, Lam responded to a reporter’s question regarding the development of the movement:
They [the protesters] did not mind destroying Hong Kong’s economy, they have no stake in the society which so many people have helped to build, and that’s why they resort to all this violence and obstructions causing huge damage to the economy and to the daily life of the people. I don’t think we should just make concessions in order to silence the violence protesters; we should do what is right for Hong Kong.
Lam’s criticism is inaccurate in the sense that all protesters are stakeholders of the city. Nonetheless, this accusation does not come from a vacuum. In fact, a considerable number of people are on the same page with her, in the sense that they are primarily concerned with their livelihoods and regard the protesters, who are mostly students, as having “nothing [i.e. no economic power] to lose.” Lam has stated that there are signs of economic recession that are even worse than those during the SARS crisis in 2003 and the global financial crisis in 2009. Whether this claim is valid or not, rather than focusing on the ideological and political impacts brought by the extradition bill, those Hongkongers who side with Lam are simply being utilitarian. What they focus on is merely the economic impacts brought to them and nothing more.
The significance of such positioning relies on the extent to which invisible systemic violence is endorsed by supporters of the HKSAR government. Many insist that the people in the city should go beyond the pursuit of basic physical and biological needs and focus instead on universal values such as freedom and democracy. Yet the inconvenient truth is that the former outweighs the latter to many. While focusing on how the movement hampers the stability and prosperity of the city, they are (un)consciously turning a blind eye to the injustice found in the police force and the government: for instance, why was the “white T-shirt gang” only arrested (though not charged) in the name of illegal assembly, while most protesters are arrested and charged for taking part in riots? This capacity to normalise, endorse and even reinforce institutionalised violence begs a rather embarrassing question: are all Hongkongers ready for a democratic movement?
Of course, there are signs that the economic recession narrative employed by the HKSAR and Chinese governments exaggerate the impact of the protests by excluding other factors. However, the protesters need to face the fact that there are people who either regard that as true or are really having their lives affected by the movement. The further the movement develops, the less patience the public will have. The Umbrella Movement lasted less than three months and the anti-extradition movement has developed for two already. The clock is ticking. So, what should we do next to increase the slim chance of succeeding? Many acts of civil disobedience have been proposed on social media but it seems that a movement that synthesises all people in HK is also something that the protesters should consider. The solidarity between the PRN (和理非), who prefer demonstrating in a non-violent manner, and the Valour (勇武) protesters, who are more aggressive in initiating physical actions, is beyond question, but to learn from the Umbrella Movement, they should also connect with those who are concerned about the economic impact brought to the city. On 9 August, protesters occupied the Hung Hom Cross Harbour Tunnel for the second time in the month. Yet this time they did not simply block the tunnel but allowed cars to pass through without paying the toll. The action could be seen as heroic, almost a “Robin Hood” act. However, in the footage shared under the title, “The Hung Hom Cross Harbour Tunnel Toll Collector who defends her line” (守護自己條Line的紅隧收費員), the tunnel toll collector is very angry with the protesters and unveils the fact that she will be required to reimburse the company for those cars that passed through without paying. One could easily say that such structural deprivation is the exact reason why protesters yearn for a more democratic society, in which all stakeholders would make a change to the status quo, but how should protesters go beyond the criticism that the movement is a disruption of people’s everyday lives? In this aspect, an even higher degree of empathy should be employed. Rather than apologising for the inconvenience brought to the general public after or during those acts of civil disobedience, more empathy should be at displayed especially to those who have long been deprived by those in power. Understanding of the various challenges faced by the public especially during the movement is crucial to winning city-wide support from the general public.
Hong Kong is once again under the international spotlight. The August 2019 issue of The Economist writes, “How will this end? What’s at stake in Hong Kong?” This is certainly a question many in the city have. With the increasing effort of the Chinese government in colouring the movement as treasonous, enjoining the possibility of deploying the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong, the anxiety level of the general public has reached its zenith. Nonetheless, the city and the world should be confident that the protestors do not act on unthinking impulse but as a perfect example of the capability of learning, unlearning and relearning. Similar to the late stage of the Umbrella Movement, the protesters of the anti-extradition protests stress the importance of the keeping the movement leaderless (冇大台). With the help of the Telegram app and LIHKG Forum, every single protester has a voice in the movement. Rather than lending themselves to an individual leader or leadership body, the movement allows all participants to take part in the decision-making process. In that manner, the movement not only truly actualises the democratic values it embraces but also transforms itself into an organic whole – one that is capable of recognising its shortcomings, mistakes and miscalculations, and thus learn from those experiences.
As the movement develops and tension in society piles up perhaps it is also important to remind of ourselves of the importance of remaining hopeful. Ernst Bloch writes that hope is an essential element that allows human beings to truly live:
Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them, cannot know nearly enough of what it is that makes them inwardly aimed, of what may be allied to them outwardly.
Bloch reminds us of the fact that hope is limitless in nature because it always transgresses itself. Rather than being restrained in a fixed realm, hope is what allows us to transcend what we aim at continuously. That is to say, the presence of hope is the engine that drives human beings to venture beyond the present. Instead of being crystallised at the here and now, there is always a there and then beyond the reach of the human being. With this imagination in mind, all Hongkongers shall remain hopeful and overcome fear imposed on her in every single sense.
Dr. Emily CHOW-QUESADA researches on world literature, postcolonial literature, and representations of Africa in Hong Kong. She has published journal articles and book chapters on Anglophone African literature and representation of African cultures. Her current project looks into the representations of blackness in Hong Kong media. She has taught courses in world literature, postcolonial literature, African literature, representations of blackness, and cultural studies. She is also the editor of the “Hong Kong and Chinese Literature and Culture” section of The Hong Kong Review of Books.