The Protests in Hong Kong

What’s been happening here is hard for even the most oblivious tourist to ignore. People try—I’ve seen a guy in jogging gear and earbuds plowing through a mass of protestors—but even the shopping malls and financial centers are regularly teargassed. I hadn’t been to Hong Kong before, and I’ve learned to navigate the city by checking a crowd-sourced map that displays icons representing the locations of protest actions and police presence.

“How will it end” is not the right question

South Ho Siu Nam, The Umbrella Salad VI. 2014. Courtesy of Blindspot Gallery.

I’ve never spent more time on my phone per day than I have since arriving in Hong Kong. Every morning for the past six weeks—sometimes in the middle of the night—I’ve rolled over in bed and started pawing the screen before my eyes are open. Mostly Telegram chats, but also Twitter, Instagram, and a few news sites that seem to at least get the facts straight. This morning, November 6, I had 1,286 unread messages in one Telegram thread where users post real-time English-language updates on every development across the city: details about where protesters are gathering; updates on police presence and whether the subway lines are running; memes and songs; testimony and photos and footage. So much footage.

From the moment I arrived, my sense of time, daily rhythms, and knowledge of the cityscape have all been determined by these constant updates. I landed on September 24, a few days before a particularly climactic week for the protest movement that has dominated the city for over six months. October 1 is Chinese National Day, a day of mandatory nationalist celebration across the mainland and territories—and this year also happens to be the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Given that Hong Kong’s degree of self-governance is at the heart of the current struggle, protesters turned out in the hundreds of thousands that day. The proposal of an extradition bill, which would give China major new power over the territory, was what sparked the first million-person protest on June 9, but Hong Kongers have been constantly negotiating the issue of self-governance since the 1997 handover from Britain and the inception of the “one country, two systems” policy.

To familiarize myself with the city, the day before the big protest, I walked alongside Hennessy Road, one of Hong Kong Island’s main east-west arteries, where many of the most visible demonstrations have taken place. That day it took me an hour to walk a mile. I was endlessly traipsing up and down stairs, over walkways and through malls, forced to take long detours around movable barriers arranged to block sidewalk access in favor of traffic. There was nothing pedestrian-friendly about the city center; it was entirely disinterested in anything my size.

On October 1, I met friends in the neighborhood of Wan Chai and walked the same route with several thousands of other protesters. The same barriers that had kept me from being able to cross the street in a logical place were now being carried by protesters toward the front lines to form barricades against the police. Black-clad citizens were quite literally dismantling and reassembling the city to suit their bodies, the resistant architectural shell rearranged into a protective covering. No cars, no buses. The tram tracks had become the guidelines for a human chain formed to pass water and umbrellas and masks and saline solution to the front. The overhead walkways were now coveted tactical vantage points that cops and protesters were vying for. An animated Chinese flag flickered across a building-high LCD screen; at eye level, the walls and sidewalks were dense with graffiti. Stand with Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.

By that point, and even now, what’s been happening here is hard for even the most oblivious tourist to ignore. People try—I’ve seen a guy in jogging gear and earbuds plowing through a mass of protesters—but even the shopping malls and financial centers are regularly teargassed. I hadn’t been to Hong Kong before, and I’ve learned to navigate the city by checking a crowd-sourced map that displays icons representing the locations of protest actions and police presence. (On October 10, Apple controversially removed the HKmap.live app from the Apple store, after Chinese officials insisted it was aiding criminal activity, but anyone who had already downloaded it can still use it.) I didn’t find out where the “best” bars are, but I have gotten to know a few bars with sympathetic owners willing to protect protesters from the cops. I didn’t do much sightseeing, but I ended up in a lovely guidebook-mentioned church on October 1, sheltered safely along with three hundred others escaping the plumes of teargas coming in from the street. 

I wasn’t sure I should come to Hong Kong in the first place. I’d been invited to take part in a six-week writing residency long before the protests began, but as my departure date loomed and the news grew increasingly alarming, I started to have doubts about the trip. It seemed cavalier at best to show up as a cultural producer (or tourist) in the midst of revolution. I joked with friends that I was going to “write the decisive essay” or “curate the monumental art show” on Hong Kong the day I got here. This was my way of saying I didn’t know whether I could parachute in and try to participate without co-opting, aestheticizing, romanticizing, or just getting in the way. I’m still not sure it’s possible—a popular protest slogan can be translated as “only Hong Kongers can save Hong Kong”—and I know that in trying, I risk becoming an even worse breed of tourist than the oblivious kind: the disaster tourist taking selfies at the front line, or the activism tourist explaining to local protesters why Marx would disagree with their tactics. The best I can do, I think, is to try to coexist in this rare and prolonged state of exception. 

For one, that means giving up on making plans in advance. You never know what news item will prompt a surge of action, or what area the cops will turn up in next. Each day demands a juggling of priorities: will you go to the Halloween party, or the Halloween protest? Will you take the subway to get to work on time, or will you boycott the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) because it serves the cops? Will you avoid a teargassed street for safety or head towards it in support? In one interview, an anonymous anarchist collective describes this feeling of daily logistical precarity: “the future, as a horizon of foreseeable advancement, an itinerary of fulfillable and forestalled plans and projections, has collapsed, and we are left consulting, moment by moment, the live maps drawn in real time by volunteer cartographers. . . . Daily life itself becomes a series of tactical maneuvers.”1 This ongoing state makes it very hard to reflect in real time upon what’s happening, to think or write without feeling intense pressure and urgency (although many on the ground are managing to do this). My privileged remove from the stakes of the struggle—that is, my ability to leave at any time—feels like the only reason I’ve been able to collect my thoughts.

One Friday evening, I was planning to join friends at an art opening. A few hours before the event was scheduled, reviled Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the mask ban (“the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation”), prohibiting anyone from wearing a face covering in public, whether participating in an unlawful assembly or not. That meant no more anonymity for the highly surveilled protesters, no more respirators to protect against the copious amounts of teargas (or even surgical masks to protect against the flu), and a ridiculously low bar of justification for mass arrests. Upon the announcement, enraged Hong Kongers started leaving work and school—simply exiting the buildings and heading into the street. Without fanfare, without announcement, without any lead time, thousands of people of all ages, in business suits and school uniforms, simply gathered outside and stayed there late into the night, chanting familiar slogans, dispersing and regrouping. Deadlines, dinner plans—automatically postponed. This could only be the reaction of a population that had by then internalized the habit of continuous political activity. But I hadn’t internalized anything yet. I was confused—was the art opening still happening? 

The time scales of the dinner, the opening, my inbox, are the ones I’m familiar with. In Hong Kong, other temporal rhythms have disrupted them. The slow violence of an ever-encroaching police state. The drop-everything-when-needed daily vigilance of the protesters. The water canon moving toward the front line. The constant anticipation of what’s to come, the news cycle constantly declaring this to be the decisive moment, after which—what? 

There have been countless decisive moments since I got here. September 29, when the Indonesian journalist was shot in the eye. October 4, when the MTR began instituting a de facto curfew by closing early without warning. October 10, when the secondary school student testified that she had been sexually assaulted while in police custody. Each time, news outlets across the political spectrum declare this moment a turning point—and that it finally signals the inevitable, looming grand finale. The New York Times: “Hong Kong’s Protests Could Be Another Social Media Revolution That Ends in Failure.” The Economist: “How Will This End?” The Atlantic: “The End of Hong Kong’s Postcard Era.” Before I got here, most of my conversations went this same way: “What’s going on in Hong Kong is amazing, but I hate to think of what’s next,” or, “It can’t last much longer, can it?” Nobody, including me, seemed capable of grasping the story without reaching for its terminus

Lots of things infuriate me about the news headlines, now that I have some limited experiences to measure them against (of course, they should have infuriated me before). The repeated comparisons to the “failed” Arab spring. The references to “violent protesters,when, by all accounts, protester violence has been defensive behavior against an offensive, preemptive, and consistently violent police force. The refusal to differentiate between property damage and human injury. The description of civil disobedience as inconvenient transit disruption. But the language that seems most irresponsible to me is this always-already-over sort, the “how will it end,” which means “it will end badly for the protesters. This reads like an insisting with desperation, almost with desire, that the end is nigh, then nigher still. The desire to identify the climax, after which it’s all over, seems inseparable from the wish to accelerate the end and get this messy business over with. We visitors, news readers, outsiders, and onlookers expect to see the revolution end in flames because we need it to enter the past tense and put a lid on it. 

My aversion to end-speak is not an aversion to sensationalism or alarmism—by all accounts this is a sensational moment! Ring the alarm! Nor am I making a plea for some kind of general optimism. There is not much reason to be optimistic. The most easily foreseeable negative outcomes are indeed the most likely ones: further encroachment of martial law, the arrival of the PLA,2 an official curfew, longer detention terms for the arrested, more injuries and deaths. And yet I wonder whether it’s possible for a writer in my position to acknowledge these likelihoods without describing them as inevitable, and without relying on the narrative crutch of apocalypse. 

Impending apocalypse is titillating, at least from the outside. It’s the easiest story for people like me to tell. But the dogged and determined activity of the protesters—not in spite of but irrespective of the likely outcomes—demands that witnesses challenge ourselves to imagine a different way to tell the story, both now and later. A story with a different arc than “they put up a good fight but it’s doomed.” A story that gives important events their due but does not describe any moment as the turning point after which all will be lost. No news hook can explain this daily insurrection—its constancy and its lack of heroes and martyrs are the reasons it’s remarkable—and admittedly, it’s hard to tell a story about a leaderless, decentralized revolution. But the ability to stick with indeterminacy is exactly what revolution, and the revolutionary imaginary, requires. In Tom McCarthy’s words: “What’s truly revolutionary (in all senses of the word) is not the putative end goal, the murder of the Emperor or overthrow of state; it is the interim itself. Then is the time where insurrection lurks: then . . . the interim.” The accumulation of action without end in the interim time is the story that needs to be told. How to suspend the very idea of endings? How to maintain the space of exception without blind optimism? How to prolong the inhale of collective breath for as long as possible? How to tell a story while holding your breath?

To imagine a different story we might have to stop imagining one side comprehensively “winning the battle. In a story of winners and losers there are only two possible endings, both of them final and decisive and totalizing—and one of them much easier to picture than the other. It is categorically easier to imagine a “win” on the side of power than the side of the people. And what would that “win” look like? A win for Beijing would, in this scenario, comprise the end of visible political resistance against its authority by Hong Kong citizens. This win would be achieved with as little internationally visible violence so as to minimize negative response, but as much violence as necessary to scare protesters into stopping “for good.” 

But picturing a dramatic end obscures the fact that “what’s coming at the end” is already here and has been since the beginning: violent police crackdown, increasing political pressure from the mainland, lies and gaslighting by the authorities. The repression of the uprising has been happening since the uprising became visible in the international public eye. In fact, repression has been happening since long before the uprising. It’s been happening all along. The violent exercise of power is a historical constant. 

On November 2, I saw riot cops charge toward a group of teenagers holding umbrellas for protection. They tackled one girl to the ground, held her there and hit her neck with batons, before arresting her and dragging her off into a van. If the end is here, I wondered, what will become of this teenager after the end? Calling a win on the side of power “the end” of a particular struggle is to give up on not only the concept of struggle against injustice, but to give up on those who are struggling. If this is the end, the end for whom?

To sketch out the counterpart in the faulty double-sided winner-take-all scenario, one might ask what the cleanest “win” for the protesters would supposedly look like. On the surface this is clear; they shout it clearly at every gathering: “Five Demands, Not One Less.” The five demands are: full withdrawal of the extradition bill that initially sparked the movement3, universal voting rights for Hong Kongers to elect their own government officials, an independent inquiry into police brutality, declassification of protesters as rioters, and amnesty for arrested protesters (a sixth demand, the disbanding of the entire police force, has been proposed by many; as writer Jun Pang puts it, this shows that an “abolitionist politic for Hong Kong is not only possible; it is already in the making”4). Simply put, the desires behind these demands are the ability of Hong Kongers to elect their own governing body, and rectification for the harm that has been caused in response to their asking for it. That means that the protest contains a meta-level, having become as much a reaction against the way the mainland-directed police force has responded as the events that led people to enter the streets in the first place. At this point these are part and parcel of the same issue. The uprising is inseparable from its repression, and the repression from the uprising, especially in this case, where police overreaction now constitutes a cause for revolt in itself. 

Make no mistake: the five demands are what is on the table right now, and these are the goals of the protesters. Having tangible goals is essential, otherwise it would be even easier for the news to dismiss protesters as malcontent hooligans who have nothing better to do than wreak havoc. That these demands also explicitly contain a meta-level allows for the extrapolation of much larger, much less tangible desires. Any struggle against specific injustices remains specific, yet it can also be read as a struggle against injustice as such. The more impossible-seeming the continuance of the Hong Kong protests becomes, the more the struggle operates on both registers: the struggle for democracy, and also the conviction that a more just way of life by way of democracy is possible. The fact that Hong Kong has become the site for this protracted struggle on both specific and general registers can’t be a coincidence. It may have to do with the peculiar bookended fifty-year historical period the college-age generation of Hong Kongers were born into: a 1997 handover with a 2047 deadline. Much of their lives will take place in an artificially defined interim time of political exception, one with an invented “start” and a looming “end.”

Political struggle comes in cycles (a revolution is a turn of the wheel) and certain issues take precedence at different times. And yet resistance to injustice as such does not start when the first mass protest starts, nor does it stop after the last. The resistance may be less cohesive or visible or countable, but we have to assume it doesn’t stop. After all, many cite the roots of the current uprising in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a democracy-focused occupation that was itself an evolution of a student movement against a Chinese nationalist education program. Last month tacked up around the city I saw several posters and banners bearing images of umbrellas and text reading We’re back. They’re only back now because they never went away, and they’ll be back again. A friend from Hong Kong told me something to this effect when I asked about foreseeable outcomes. Let’s say all five demands are met—will that mean the police will never behave this way again? Will that mean the Apple store doesn’t still have the power to delete apps the Chinese government deems threatening? The problem is not any single instance of violence, it’s the violent structures that allow them. 

If I had to propose a different, less determinate form for the story of my time in Hong Kong, it might be a love story. A love story that starts in the middle. A love story that does not romanticize what love is actually like (painful). A love story narrated from the perspective of someone watching it unfold, who recognizes the stakes but does not truly share in the risk. Most love stories, like most loves, must come to an end—but the act of loving requires one to forget this. No one in love really believes love will end. Love, like revolution, requires a mutual, intentional suspension of disbelief. This is not exactly optimism, but rather a determined and creative dedication to a state of exception. Byung-Chul Han writes: “Political action is mutual desire for another way of living—a more just world aligned with eros on every register . . . the revolutionary yearning for an entirely different way of loving and another kind of society. Thereby, it remains faithful to what is yet to come.”

  1. “Three Months of the Insurrection,” Crimethinc, September 20, 2019. https://de.crimethinc.com/2019/09/20/three-months-of-insurrection-an-anarchist-collective-in-hong-kong-appraises-the-achievements-and-limits-of-the-revolt

  2. On the weekend of November 16 the PLA indeed appeared to help “clean up” the post-protest streets. See: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/11/18/chinas-military-defends-pla-clean-hong-kong-protest-debris/

  3. On October 23 Carrie Lam finally officially withdrew the bill, but at that point most protesters saw the move as a concession that was far too little and too late. 

  4. Jun Pang, “Hong Kong Protests: Imagining the end of the police, Popula, August 13, 2019. https://popula.com/2019/08/13/hong-kong-protests-imagining-the-end-of-the-police/. See also: Vincent Wong and Edward Hon-Sing Wong, “How to Abolish the Hong Kong Police,” Lausan, November 13, 2019. https://lausan.hk/2019/how-to-abolish-the-hong-kong-police/. 

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