The clock had ticked just past midnight at the waterfront of Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. A crowd of mostly young, masked people—many with glittery headbands worn to celebrate New Year’s Eve (NYE)—had started to head home after flocking into the city’s major tourist hub for a self-initiated celebration to bid farewell to 2020, a year they would rather forget.
The revellers in this moving crowd risked being fined or arrested for breaching coronavirus-related restrictions enforced by the now notorious Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF). No official NYE countdown had been organised; instead, a two-person cap had been placed on gatherings in the name of combating the COVID-19 pandemic. These new prohibitions, imposed by the Hong Kong government, further increased the already expanded power of police officers.
Protesters had tried to mobilise support for Christmas Eve rallies on social media, but that plan had been foiled by HKPF’s high-profile patrols, stop-and-search operations and the internet surveillance that would decimate activists’ use of new technologies in street protests. On NYE, HKPF’s quasi-military Tactical Unit troopers were keeping a close eye on the crowd from behind their cordon. The people who had begun to drift to a nearby metro station might have anticipated that their night would end peacefully.
But what happened next confounded HKPF’s expectations. When the crowd, complying with the police-directed route, headed towards a narrow pathway cutting through the Museum of Art (where fewer police officers were located), a girl’s voice called out from within the crowd. In Cantonese, she cried ‘Liberate Hong Kong’. Her chant echoed from the building walls and amplified her voice. The crowd responded swiftly, chanting in unison: ‘Revolution of Our Time’. This call-and-response chant had been an iconic slogan of the city’s protest movement against the Beijing-Hong Kong authority. It had virtually disappeared from Hong Kong’s streets since the government banned it in mid-2020 as ‘subversive’.
Once the crowd found power in unity, the NYE partygoers transformed themselves into protesters in the blink of an eye. They began chanting all the key slogans of the anti-government movement, including the most resonant English-language one—‘Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong’—that had gone viral in mid-2019.
A group of policemen sprinted towards the crowd, hand torches on, asking ‘What are you screaming for?’ The police lit up a section of the promenade, but the crowd jeered and booed at them. While those close to the police stopped chanting and snaked through, making their way across the promenade, others were agitated and chanted passionately, ‘Corrupted Cops Die with Family!’
A group of police detained a young man from the crowd. They pushed him into a building wall inside the barricades and blocked reporters from viewing the arrest. The crowd continued to head home peacefully. The crowd’s calmness made it seem as if the protests had never happened. An online media reporter videoed the protests, but mainstream media ignored the story.
Currently, the Beijing-Hong Kong authority has virtually crushed all massive street protests akin to those that stunned the world in 2019. Many protesters had been forced from the streets (at least temporarily), facing the full force of riot police after previous demonstrations against Beijing’s mid-2020 draconian National Security Law. Since that time, the city’s news headlines have been dominated by the sweeping arrests of prominent pro-democracy figures, politicians and activists, as well as reports of activists fleeing into exile. The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program sums up the situation in this way: Hong Kong has turned from a city of protest into a city of fear.
The late-2019 outbreak in Wuhan, China, of what quickly became a pandemic and global health crisis provided the Beijing-Hong Kong authority with more liberty to stifle the dissenting voices clamouring against the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The key policies that have defined China’s ‘pandemic management’ strategy include:
- postponing the general election of Hong Kong’s legislature (originally scheduled for September 2020) for one year, citing the need to control the spread of the virus. This decision was made without consensus by the government’s pandemic advisers, voters, or the pro-democratic opposition parties. The opposition parties had been favoured to win the election, had it been held.
- restricting gatherings to no more than two and four people. These regulations resulted in a virtual ban on all protests and rallies.
- a new pandemic countermeasure that began on 23 January 2021 (with the exception of the Lunar New Year holiday). This instituted a series of daily ambush-style compulsory lockdowns aimed at sealing up targeted residential apartment buildings—located mostly in working-class neighbourhoods—without warning. The authority claims that this radical measure is necessary, despite its limited effect on identifying coronavirus cases. The measure has greatly offended the general public.
For some commentators, the future of Hong Kong’s democratic movement looks bleak, without much promise of providing ‘clear political victories’. For many Hongkongers who vowed to fight on, however, protesting is a way of expressing their beliefs, rather than a calculated attempt at political gain or media exposure. Protesters featured in every headline on 16 June 2019, when a record-breaking two million people rallied in Hong Kong’s streets to support democracy. These numbers are no longer feasible. Instead, protesters have taken a more creative approach, what we might call small acts of resistance. They kicked off 2021 in many ways, including the car parade protest described below.
The Civil Human Rights Front, a major Hong Kong political group, held a small protest on New Year’s Day, in the form of a ‘car’ parade. Three activists used a stationary truck, mounted with side banners and loudspeakers, to call for freedom for all political prisoners. The protest began with activists chanting slogans and making speeches from the truck’s roof. They were parked near a detention centre where a number of high-profile pro-democratic figures were detained on remand, facing charges under the new national-security law.
This protest bypassed the ban on public gatherings, as it occurred within a confined and privately registered vehicle. But, given that the protest was held in a quiet part of the city, it attracted few bystanders or participants, and no media interest. Once the police became involved, their intervention instigated a more public act of defiance. Police convinced the protestors to leave the truck, and at this point a war of words began with the activists over alleged breaches of public-gathering restrictions. By this time, the protest had gathered some media attention. When the protesters addressed the media to discuss police abuses of power, the police remained close by, but they issued no penalty notices to the protestors. The police intervention encouraged protesters to engage in a more visible act of defiance. After speaking to the media, the protestors returned to the truck. They then drove around while chanting slogans via loudspeakers from inside the truck.
HKPF vehicles dogged protesters’ heels during the parade. When the protesters’ truck arrived at the predetermined destination (the Central Government Office and the Legislative Council Complex), a police contingent was already there on standby. A protester took out a balloon attached to a banner bearing the phrase ‘release political prisoners’ in Chinese calligraphy. This sparked more wrangling between police and protesters over alleged public safety risks from the balloon. An officer tried to snatch the balloon out of the protester’s hand with partial success: he tore off a small section of the banner, but this action released the balloon into the sky. The protest ended on a high note, with ‘help’ from the HKPF.
What will these protesters do next in the face of the Beijing-Hong Kong authority’s heavy-handed crackdown? I raised this difficult question with a Hongkonger who prefers to be known as ‘Jacaranda’. Jacaranda put me on the spot instantly: ‘Firstly, I need to be convinced that you’re not a communist spy’. ‘This is Beijing-style presumption of innocence. Read the national security law!’, Jacaranda teased. At the end of our conversation, Jacaranda told me to find my answer in a popular Canto-pop song, ‘Say I love you with hands over my mouth’. Some of the lyrics may hold the answer I was looking for: ‘I’ll shout loudly, even with hands over my mouth!’.
Victor Cheng; 9 Jun 2020
…proficiency in using technology, along with the ability to improvise, will remain a key tactic in protestors’ fights against the police and their superior resources.