Published in Upping the Anti and Lausan
Even in a city like Hong Kong, where mass protests are commonplace, it is undeniable that the current resistance sparked by the government’s introduction of legislation to allow extradition to China is historic in scale and substance. For the past few months, there have been protests with attendances in the millions, almost daily confrontations with riot police, “non-cooperation movement” involving acts of civil disobedience targeting Hong Kong’s infrastructure, a general strike, and even multiple suicides as political acts, with no end in sight. The protest movement has coalesced around five demands: withdrawal of the extradition bill, retraction of the riot designation for the June 12 protests, amnesty for arrested protesters, inquiry into police conduct, and implementation of universal suffrage.
Unfortunately, the coverage of these struggles both in the West and in China have been marred by oversimplification. There have been ongoing attempts by people to impose narratives on to an amorphous and divergent protest movement. For example, Western media and Chinese state media have been inundated with images of Hong Kong protesters flying colonial and American flags, despite flag bearers representing a small segment of the crowds. For Western far-right activists, it shows that the Hong Kong protest movement is serving as a flashpoint for the defeat of communism, “[a]s Berlin was to the Cold War.” For the Chinese state and its supporters, these flags are evidence that the protests are symptomatic of a colonial mindset instilled by British colonizers and mobilized by Western forces.
Lost in the coverage is the fact that the waving of these flags have not gone unopposed. During a protest at the Wan Chai police headquarters on June 21, protesters chanted “take back the flag” at a colonial Hong Kong flag bearer who had climbed up a fence. Posters on LIHKG, a message board that has served as the main organizing platform for the protests, have also consistently criticized Western flag bearers. Conversely, the British colonial regime and its political framework is perpetuated in Hong Kong’s current governance model—not in opposition to but intertwined with the Chinese state. Many of Hong Kong’s Chief Executives and high ranking police officers have been inherited from the colonial government, as have police tactics and technology.
The imposition of narratives by outside forces, including various regimes and capitalists, has been a consistent feature of Hong Kong’s existence, with Hong Kong’s raison d’etre limited to that of an interface between China and global capital, or a pawn for geopolitical conflict. But Hong Kongers are fighting back and staking a claim for self-definition. One of the more prominent slogans of these protests has been Bruce Lee’s “be water,’’ a call for protesters to be adaptive to changing conditions. But Bruce Lee also reminds us that water does not just flow, it “can crash.” Just as water crashes against the shore, slowly eroding cliff faces, imposed narratives are being eroded away by the tenacity, organicity, and participatory nature of the protest movement, creating challenges and opportunities for the imagination of a new politics in Hong Kong and beyond.