Hong Kong’s new lex­i­con of re­sis­tance

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Ching Kwan Lee is a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at UCLA and co-ed­i­tor of the forth­com­ing book, “Take Back Our Fu­ture: An Event­ful So­ci­ol­ogy of the Hong Kong Um­brella Move­ment.”

For many of my fel­low cit­i­zens in Hong Kong, June 2019 has bro­ken new ground in the city’s po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. With mass street ral­lies against the ex­tra­di­tion of crim­i­nal sus­pects to China, vi­o­lent po­lice crack­downs and the storm­ing of the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil Com­plex, we’ve en­tered a time of liv­ing dan­ger­ously and truth­fully — in op­po­si­tion to an au­to­cratic, in­tran­si­gent gov­ern­ment and in sol­i­dar­ity with youth on the front line and their moral clar­ity.

Hong Kongers are first and fore­most quick-wit­ted prag­ma­tists. They don’t typ­i­cally em­brace the­o­ries or ide­olo­gies about con­scious­ness lib­er­a­tion. But that is what’s hap­pen­ing to­day, and in the pro­cess, they have added new key­words to the city’s po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con. This must be rec­og­nized as a vic­tory, re­gard­less of the fate of the ex­tra­di­tion bill and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Car­rie Lam and her gov­ern­ment.

Never in my life­time has ex­is­ten­tial “des­per­a­tion” been the talk of the town. Hong Kongers, who built a world-class city, like to speak of hope, as­pi­ra­tion and dili­gence, even in the face of grotesque in­equal­ity. Des­per­a­tion in public dis­course is new to the city’s emo­tional land­scape. For young and old, there is a com­mon be­lief that our fu­ture is all but doomed by the ex­tra­di­tion bill, the last straw in a long list of leg­is­la­tion and poli­cies chip­ping away Hong Kong’s free­dom, civil liberty and rule of law, and with th­ese, its iden­tity and essence.

For the younger gen­er­a­tions, the dark­ness seems to­tal. On LIHKG, the on­line plat­form that has be­come the head­quar­ters of protests, young peo­ple lament hope­less and dream­less lives of poorly paid dead-end jobs in the world’s most ex­pen­sive hous­ing mar­ket. Their par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion echoes with a sense of guilt that it did not fight hard enough for democ­racy when it might have been more pos­si­ble. It was this deep emo­tional con­nec­tion across gen­er­a­tions,

united by a sense that “we have noth­ing more to lose,” that sent mil­lions of peo­ple to the streets in June.

The ap­pear­ance of “mar­tyrs” this June was also a first in the city’s po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. At first, the term was used to de­mand the re­lease of those who were ar­rested dur­ing the June 12 con­fronta­tions with the riot po­lice who fired more than 150 can­is­ters of tear gas, 20 rounds of bean bags and a hand­ful of rub­ber bul­lets. Then on June 15, tele­vi­sions and so­cial me­dia broad­cast live the fa­tal fall of a 35year-old man in yel­low rain­coat from the lux­ury mall Pa­cific Place after un­furl­ing a protest ban­ner de­mand­ing the with­drawal of the “evil bill.” The next day, 2 mil­lion peo­ple came out to mourn his death, leav­ing be­hind miles of flow­ers. Days later, a univer­sity stu­dent and a young woman jumped to their deaths, leav­ing sui­cide notes de­mand­ing the bill’s with­drawal. An­other sui­cide re­lated to the protests was con­firmed in re­cent days. So­cial me­dia com­men­ta­tors drew par­al­lels from th­ese deaths with democ­racy strug­gles in South Korea and Taiwan.

In 2014, the Um­brella Move­ment and the jail­ing of the Oc­cupy Cen­tral lead­ers pop­u­lar­ized civil dis­obe­di­ence in Hong Kong. Now, with ever more bla­tant abuses by the gov­ern­ment, the term “in­sti­tu­tional vi­o­lence” has en­tered ev­ery­day par­lance. In the wake of the gov­ern­ment’s con­dem­na­tion of physical vi­o­lence, public opin­ion largely swayed in pro­test­ers’ fa­vor, as peo­ple asked, “Is the de­struc­tion of some glass doors more vi­o­lent than the de­struc­tion of young lives?”

“Be wa­ter,” and other ver­nac­u­lar phrases such as “climb­ing moun­tains to­gether, mak­ing your own effort” and “let flow­ers bloom ev­ery­where” have taken on new mean­ing. They now in­vite cit­i­zens to open up new modes of de­cen­tral­ized ac­tion: school­girls post­ing fly­ers they created, mass vis­its to the tax head­quar­ters, ral­lies ini­ti­ated by housewives and mothers, com­mu­nity-fo­cused marches. Sub­vert­ing the play­book of move­ments em­pha­siz­ing lead­er­ship and or­ga­ni­za­tion, pro­test­ers are cre­at­ing a broader, or­ganic sense of own­er­ship of the move­ment.

Ev­ery­where, the spirit of sol­i­dar­ity is strong. Min­utes be­fore armed po­lice were to re­gain con­trol of the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil build­ing, a dozen pro­test­ers who had al­ready fled to safety risked their own lives to re­turn to ex­tract the four peo­ple who had de­clared their de­ter­mi­na­tion to stay and face death. Live tele­vi­sion featured a young woman’s trem­bling voice ex­plain­ing their ac­tion: “We are all very, very scared, but we are even more scared by the thought of not seeing th­ese four to­mor­row.” Never mind that they didn’t know one an­other.

This par­tic­u­lar mo­ment has shown Hong Kongers what binds us to­gether. We have al­ways imag­ined our­selves to be global cit­i­zens, but only as homo eco­nomi­cus boast­ing a free port, a global fi­nan­cial mar­ket, top-notch in­ter­na­tional culi­nary choices, glit­ter­ing marble-lined malls, and vo­ra­cious con­sump­tion of all things for­eign. Now, we show we also be­long to the world as free­dom fight­ers.

As with the Um­brella Move­ment, Bei­jing so far has shown re­straint in avoiding blood­shed in this up­ris­ing, per­haps cog­nizant of Hong Kong’s unique role in ac­quir­ing strate­gic tech­nol­ogy, in­ter­na­tion­al­iza­tion of the ren­minbi, and uni­fi­ca­tion with Taiwan. Pro­test­ers have vowed to dig in, brac­ing for a long bat­tle. June 2019 will go down in his­tory as a turn­ing point, be­cause the ac­tions of Hong Kong’s peo­ple have opened up new ter­ri­to­ries in their hearts and minds, some­thing Bei­jing has tried in vain to cap­ture for 22 years.

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