Protests in the city of fear: Hong Kong’s anti-government movement under the COVID-19 pandemic

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:

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!’.

Technologies in Hong Kong’s anti-government movement

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.

About the author

Victor Cheng

Victor Cheng is a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change of Australian National University. His research focuses on peace negotiations, the diffusion of military technology and military decision making in modern Chinese history. Victor can be reached at victor.cheng@anu.edu.au.

More articles by Victor Cheng

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Comments

the democratic movement of real HK people just pause and stop,but it won’t end. Support from the other countries is so important, or HK will become Myanmar one day.

Thanks you, Jayson, for your comments. The experiences of Hong Kong protesters during the pandemic highlighted the importance of those small acts of resistance in the face of the authorities’ relentless crackdown. This is the major theme of my article. Hong Kong protesters’ story needs to be told because the regime would normally choose to suppress the protests by force, as you rightly mentioned on the streets of Myanmar. Protesters’ efforts in seeking creative ways to sustain the movement interested me as a scholar. My research on this topic won’t end too.

Hong Kong is no longer the place we know well pre-2019 Summer. The Extradiction Law enactment marked the prelude of what CCP eager to do on Hong Kong for long after handover of sovereignty in 1997 but was being “delayed” for whatever reasons. Sadly, Hongkongers believe the worst is yet to come. Nonetheless, I sincerely urge people with faith in freedom and democracy will continue to stand with Hongkongers to face the headwinds.

Hi William, thanks for your pointed summary of the checkered history of Hong Kong since summer 2019. Australians have been very concerned about the development in Hong Kong, despite huge problems the local communities are forced to face. ‘What happened to Hong Kong?’ has been the question asked by almost all the people here who knows me since the mass street protests began in 2019. I published this short piece partly because I need to answer their questions. People here are standing with Hong Kong and that’s why a short comment like yours is so valuable. So, please keep doing it because we’re listening. Our awareness on Hong Kong issues will be projected in our votes deciding policy making in this country.

With the emerging pressure from the authority and the intimidating security law, HK people had lost the right to protest or express criticisms against the ruler. The distorted legal system can no longer act as the force to safeguard HK people. The ‘illegitimacy of the security law’, contradicting yet true, should ring a bell to the international world of the brutal act that China is imposing on HK. For sure, the form of social movements in HK has to transform under the pressing threat. With respect to many who are fighting outside the territory for attention, for support, for bringing hope to the people within.
The mob NYE protest mentioned at the beginning of the article reflects that such sense of ‘anti-govt; fighting for freedom; unity as strength’ has been embedded in the real Hong Kong people’s mind! Faith, instead of fear, is what we HONG KONG people are beholding and what pulls ourselves together at this very moment.

Hi Cath, You’ve left a number of quotable quotes, along with an update of the current situation in the city. You raises the significance of faith in social movements. It’s a view that I couldn’t agree more. A young Hong Kong protester confides that he tried to use his suffering to strengthen his fighting spirit, but in the end, he realizes that it’s his faith that sustains his determination to fight on. Wouldn’t it be nice if you can further gather your thoughts into a punchy article and submitted it for publication? I look forward to it.

“Patriotism means to stand with the country. It does not mean to stand with the president.”
And,
“One swallow does not make a summer.”
“When you give up,
That’s
When the game is over”

Hi Jessica, thanks for an insightful sequence of quotes. The Hong Kong protesters have asked the question of what patriotism really mean for the 1.4 billion Chinese population. For some Hongkongers, an independent political entity could have been the answer. Beijing’s tight grip on the city shows that the authorities don’t want sporadic protests developed into a trend. But the protesters would keep surprising them: ‘It’s not over until it’s over.’

Thanks Victor for the informative article. It’s good to hear an update on the state of the protest movement which has been all but forgotten here in Australia along with many other important matters due to the pandemic.
I’d like to think that all authoritative regimes are eventually doomed to fail but it’s hard to imagine how and when that will happen in HK. The Chinese Government’s grip on HK seems as tight as any regimes in history.

Hi Shane, Thanks for your comment. Beijing’s authoritarian rulers’ attempt to stifle the dissenting voices in HK, in part, stem from an insecurity complex. Hong Kong had been a fault line between Western liberalism and China’s absolutism since the British forces landed at Hong Kong Island in 1841. British Hong Kong educated Sun Yat-sen became the founding father of Republican China after overthrowing the last absolute monarchy of China. The British-ruled Hong Kong also, in some aspects, inspired Japan’s westernization that started in 1868. So, what if Hong Kong’s quest for democracy spreads to mainland China? That would be a concern for the rulers in Beijing.

As a teacher in HK I am quite proud of the younger generations. Many of them may be quiet just to stay out of unnecessary trouble, but being with them I can feel they are not scared and when you spend enough time with them you can see even if they are not talking about it, it doesn’t mean they have no feelings at all.

Thanks John for your comment. I’m amazed by their mental toughness and improvisation too. The qualities you mentioned about these youths may be equipped them with the ability to create more ‘layers’ in a social movement. The present studies have just scratched the surface of this subject.

It is real that Hong Kong has turned to a city of fear as it has lost the freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of democracy. One country two systems is dead. HongKongers are hopeless about the future. We have to spread those important message to the world, how the Hong Kong government treat the citizens unfairly!!! Bring back human rights and hopes to the people.

Your comment is a form of resistance already, Iris. And the world is listening. It’s always darkest before dawn. So, what would you do? Hong Kong politician and activist Edward T. K. Leung reportedly has a very personal way to live through these moments: ‘I’d have a cigarette,’ he said.

It seems that protesters are now quite hopeless n helpless in areas under the totalitarian regime or military dictatorship. The authorities are too stiff-necked to listen to the grievances of the public n to carry out any political reforms. 🙁

Thanks Tom for your comment. I think the current situation for the Hong Kong protesters is somewhat not unexpected. It’s a David-vs-Goliath game and there’s no quick and decisive victory for the underdog, like those in South Korea, Chile and Thailand. An article in Financial Times, ‘2020: A Year in Protests’ has offered a good account of the challenges faced by protesters around the world last year. But as Cath Chan notes in this comment section, social movements are all about faith.

The rule of law in HK was totally replaced by the rule by law since the social movement. HK right now is no longer a free and just city, but a city governed by FEAR. The worst strategy used by all the totalitarian regimes. Yet even though the HKers are denied of any right to express their views, they still fight with showing their stands by action. From the yellow economy to leaving their homeland to other countries. Action speaks louder than words. A regime can leverage their power to suppress their people, but they can never control the minds and hearts. Sooner or later, when the fear induced is replaced by anger, they will see the power of angry people. Time will tell. We will witness the change.

Thanks Peggy for the comment. Given that current studies have recorded nearly 200 ways of protest, Hong Kong protesters are likely to adapt, transform and survive.

Thanks for recording the scene in HK. What we have experienced in these two years were just like a hundred year ago in Europe and Asia. The history told us that the victory was on people’s side. Darkness could not overshadow the light. Trust Hongkongers from different places will keep on doing what we should do to find our values back.

Thank you for your comment, Wing. Hong Kong’s anti-government movement is my on-going studies. I’ll keep observing its development. For many Hongkongers, there’re many ways to reconfirm the Hong Kong value, most lately via buying Taiwanese Pineapples from the city’s local stores. What will they do next?

Trying to set a pragmatic tone.

Hong Kong has been a base of subversion in the history, a fact which will keep lurking at back of the leaders’ mind sitting in Beijing for many generations to come. You may be even more amazed how successful Beijing is in steering, if not manipulating, public opinion via the new media toward the patriotic end and how lacking in the popular support it is in the Chinese society, be it the upper class or the grassroots, for the movement initiated by a “minority” of people in Hong Kong. You can see that by education, online surveillance or something more, 1.3 billion’s thoughts can be largely predictable whenever an issue is escalated to the sovereignty level.

Hong Kong is positioned as a financial city which exists solely to cash US dollar for Chinese businesses, and nothing more. This strategic regime can still last for decades until the fall of the US dollar, the linked exchange rate system or the rise of a cross-national cryptocurrency as a medium of exchange among the East Asian countries (as a super national group, led by Beijing) which in fact challenges, if not replaces, the status of US dollar. Until then, Hong Kong still thrive, but in a sense many people may dispute.

With that in mind, political movement is an obstacle to its development and its efficiency. As long as the resources of the opposition force are largely contained, by recent political surgery on the election stripping anyone “naughty” of their right to be elected in the public office or by implementing NSL which will cause a chilling effect to the general public, the evolution you will expect in the protesters will be nothing more than cultural acts, lacking in support financially and openly, but only, as you agreed, faithfully. The cultural acts may still feed your studies, but will no longer be anything substantial or influential.

Thanks Jac for you informative comment. You rightly raised the question of pragmatism, as issues over practicality have been the subject of strategic debates among social movement organizers and military leaders, including the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party in the pre-1949 period. Just imagine if you were someone like You Xi, in the communist 1927 Guangzhou uprising. While facing an enemy of overwhelming superiority, your squad exhausted all bullets. Your sustained fighting ‘will no longer be anything substantial or influential’. What would you do? If you’re George Washington in the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge. Your army is stricken by shortage of supplies, low morale and the lack of support from the local population. Would you rather surrender to the strong British forces or say a prayer in the snowy forest and then fight on?

Thanks for Victors’ article to encapsulate the difficult situation HongKonger are now facing in the course of fighting for freedom and democracy. The special status of Hong Kong is not simply as an all along subversive base and financial hub, but an intersection of various levels of strategic consideration. HongKonger have been told and experiencing of the nature and characteristic of the China rule. They are in the crossroad of keeping their way of life or succumbing to the rule by law. The world is evolving. Keep faith, Hongkonger!

Thank you Samuel for your comment and thanks for thinking Hong Kong’s position from a strategic viewpoint. I think your view is backed by the recent UK government’s policy paper on security, defence and foreign policy titled ‘Global Britain’.

Thanks for recording the scene that we were fighting for our future. We won’t forget this page of Hong Kong history.

Thanks Catherine for sharing your thoughts with us. You’re welcome. I’m just keeping records for academic researches of a very interesting topic.

Hong Kong is no longer a safe place to live with freedom. But it is still the home of Hongkongers. We love Hong Kong so we need to fight for our freedom and the future of our young generations.

Thanks Raymond for your comment. I think the mini protests discussed in my article, along with comments posted by all of you, have reminded me of a famous quote from French thinker Michel Foucault, ‘Where there is power, there is resistance’. The Beijing-Hong Kong authority have exercised its power as tools of coercion, but protesters keep finding ways to resist. Your succinct comment explains the protesters’ source of power: The love of Hong Kong, freedom and future.

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