In June 2019, protests were erupting in Hong Kong due to a new bill being passed that would allow for the extradition of criminals (or potential criminals) to mainland China. This would mean that Hong Kong citizens could be subject to the dubious, authoritarian legal system of China, thus undermining the "One country, two systems" constitutional principle set to remain in place until 2047.
The protests — although not the first of their kind in Hong Kong — were certainly the biggest, with hundreds of thousands of citizens demonstrating and an eventual conflict with the police including the kettling of protesters; attracting international attention and outcry in the process.
The ensuing protests worked, and the bill was suspended on June 15 last year (and formally removed on September 4). However, protests and demonstrations continued, with number reaching as high as two million as other demands — such as the release and exoneration of arrested protesters and a formal inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests — were ignored.
So here we are, just over 12 months later, and after a full year of demonstrations, China has gained the upper hand. This past week, the superpower succeeded in passing a national security bill that gives them the power to make arrests on any citizen espousing pro-democracy views. Hundreds have already been arrested under this law, and protesters have been forced to go underground, facing insurmountable persecution.
But this is not to say the movement was a failure — quite the contrary. What happened in Hong Kong in 2019 and throughout 2020 can be thought of as a blueprint for modern protests. We live in the age of information, and navigating how this information spreads — and to whom — was critical to the successful outcome. Indeed, American protesters fighting for racial justice and the growing protest movements around the world have a lot to learn from the models that allowed Hong Kong to orchestrate such long-lasting, effective civil disobedience.
Here, we speak to protesters from Hong Kong, who — under the conditions of anonymity — spoke to us about their experiences and what others may glean from their efforts. There are hereafter identified as 'D' and 'J.'
Can you describe your experience of protesting in June 2019?
D: Last year, I remember we were very angry and disappointed with our government. We believed the extradition bill proposed by the government was a trap that has no return. Hong Kong would be no different from any other cities in China, and their government could extradite any one of us into their territory if the law would have passed. We clearly did not want that.
We took to the street with basic supplies, like bottles of water, umbrellas, and snacks. We left home with no fear, but only anger and courage. It was the 9th of June; one million people marched on the main streets in Hong Kong Island. It was a peaceful protest, the prelude of the movement. On June 12th, thousands of people rallied to the government HQ; Me and my friends were chanting slogans and sweating a lot on that rainy day. The government ignored our voices and decided to deploy the police force to disperse our peaceful protesters with tear gas.
A few days later, two million people — a quarter of the whole population of Hong Kong — took to the street with more anger and resentfulness. I felt the solidarity within the crowds. I felt the power of people chanting for the same demands. I felt love for our people when the ambulance truck drove through our crowd and we spread out like Moses crossing the red sea. I felt how civilized our people were when we cleaned up our own trash after peaceful rallies. I felt mad about the government using the media and police force to suppress our voices. I felt sad about the political view in our society becoming so bipolar.
What tactics do you feel were effective in protesting safely and effectively? What did you learn that you think people in the US should also know?
D: After being dispersed by the police despite all peaceful protests, we learned that, “It was you who told us peaceful marches did not work.” We started to wear reusable gas masks to protect ourselves from tear gas. We all wore black as that protects our identity. Umbrellas are for defending pepper spray or water cannons, as well as covering up protesters' identity when they are building roadblocks. Frontline protesters started demolishing fences and picking up bricks to block the police’s way to buy time for the protesters to escape in the back. Some of them used traffic cones to cover the tear gas bullets and pour water from the hole on top to extinguish the gas.
Lennon Wall is something important, too; We built that starting with sticky notes with our hope and prayers. We slowly developed it with different kinds of art and posters loaded with our messages and demands. This definitely can grab the attention of other citizens and lets them know more about our thoughts.
Be skeptical. Do not believe in one single governor, one single media source, or one single person. Always read more news and listen to more voices. Media penetration is an important issue that everyone on earth should be aware of. Crowds can be easily instigated by corrupted media companies. Follow your conscience and do the right thing with adequate judgement. We saved our lives from Covid-19 by wearing masks in the early stage, because we didn’t trust the government or any health organizations. We kept the numbers low, with only a few cases of death.
"Be water." Run and come back again if you see armed police marching towards you. Stay alive and strong to fight back. We have lost many younger fighters in the past year. They were either being arrested or being tortured in a very inhuman way. Hong Kong has become a police state, as not one single cop got charged or fired in the past year. Say NO to police brutality.
Be united. As we are fighting against the powerful Chinese Communist Party of China, we do more than only protesting. We boycott restaurants or stores who are pro-Beijing or pro-government. This city has become very bipolar in terms of political views; yellow represents pro-democracy people, blue represents pro-government people. Therefore, the “yellow economic circle” has formed to classify businesses who support the protests. The effect is significant. The opposite side has businesses closing down and is losing a lot of money. Businesses in our circle are doing great and did not close down amid the pandemic. Our circle is strong, supportive, and only getting bigger.
We use better privacy messaging apps to communicate and get first-hand news from the community. We also read LIHKG [a forum website similar to Reddit] for more protest ideas and stories. Each big or independent media company has a very important role in the year-long protest; [LIHKG] always held live reporting on Facebook or YouTube with different angles so that we could always be updated with first-hand information. They also had Instagram accounts for us to keep track on news and be able to share.
J: HK protest tactics are all based on Bruce Lee's "be water" philosophy. Especially the disparity of force is vast. From black bloc hiding identities, to carrying an umbrella as a shield and protecting ourselves from physical attacks. We'll use higher security communication apps to prevent police tracking.
At the front line, there are plenty of protesters being attacked with police brutality. The disparity of force between protesters and the police — the government — is enormous. Therefore, we also try out some other tactics like the yellow economic circle. It may have taken reference from the CCP as the Chinese government have blocked the opposition, but of course, that is controlled by tyranny — yellow economy is based on free will. The aim is to boycott the brands, labels, media, companies, and organizations who kiss the government's ass. Standing for the tyranny is fighting against the people.
Apart from the yellow economy, we also have encouraged the arts and cultural movement. Plenty of artworks and propaganda are on display on Lennon Wall throughout the year. Hongkongers have rebuilt the recognition of our own identity — neither Chinese nor British, but Hongkonger — since then. The brands repositioning in Hong Kong's market should be more considerate about morality and humanity. Unfortunately, cash is still evil. It is not a 'must' to stand on the moral high ground, but still, consider it.
We criticize ourselves often! Protesters are not always correct; therefore, a review and discussions are so important. Because no one will tell you what is best, they will only blame us for creating chaos. Justice doesn't always win, but please believe it will come.
WoliPay, Wolieat, Whatsgap, and SoYellow are the apps to strengthen the yellow economy. We manage social media pages and groups to boycott China and align with international awareness. It has become a lifestyle. The app HKlivemap lets us know how the police is arming themselves. Also, volunteers report police's tracking in Telegram groups. It is all about defending and protecting ourselves from police brutality and invasion of privacy.
LIHKG is a significant forum; the platform was used for discussing the strategies for the leaderless anti-extradition bill protests in 2019. Registration of membership is restricted to people with a Hong Kong ISP or an institution of higher education email address located in Hong Kong. The audience is the group of HKers who curate tactics. However, the police have now infiltrated the platform.
How does it feel seeing the US protests compared to those in Hong Kong? Do you feel any sense of kinship, even though the reasons behind the protests were entirely different?
D: I feel sad about how our government deals with protesters, compared to the US. None of our cops got charged, sued, arrested, or defunded for all the brutal behaviors they have shown towards the protesters throughout the year. They even got an overtime salary and weapons upgraded when many of us were injured. We are furious, yet we are unarmed and helpless. We took to the streets many times but things only got worse.
We are fighting against a tyranny regime, and I know people in the US are fighting against a systematic problem and the human rights that everyone deserves to have. We are both fighting for a better future. I stand with the US protesters and I hope they appreciate and protect the good systems they already established, protest against the corrupted system, and reform it with the power of people.
J: It is a tough year for humankind. We have experienced a decade of stable, safe, and free lives. Our world has changed in 2020; we no longer live in our comfort zone. We have got to be smarter than ever! Police brutality is a superficial characteristic. A bigger picture has to be seen, not only in the US but also in the whole world.
When the system's corrupted, regimes, politicians, and business sectors are looking for interest and profit; they fool us by controlling and conquering. I think humanity and justice would be the essential belief that we are all after. We trust every single soul can do a bit more.
Allow me to say the tyranny is one evil to resist! Hong Kong's today, the world's tomorrow.
You can sign Amnesty International's petition to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam demanding protection of the rights of protestors right here.