Political Protests and New Forms of Citizenship Miniseries #1
Experiences of solidarity during the 2019 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong created a new sense of local belonging. How have the government’s efforts to clamp down on its dissident population affected this novel sense of community?
Chiara Pecorari holds an MA in Social Anthropology from the University of Bergen. Her thesis examined the socio-legal and political effects following the 2019 pro-democracy protests on Hong Kong youth. Her area of interest lies at the intersection between security studies and law. She is currently a pursuing a law degree at the School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London.
This text is part of GRIP´s miniseries on Political Protests and New Forms of Citizenship Project. Political inequalities in volatile environments are shaping the forms of citizenship i.e., citizen practices such as protests in response to government actions. This miniseries opens up a discussion and analysis of political protests and their aftermath.
On the 17th of June 2021, the offices of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily, were raided by police for suspected breaches of the National Security Law (NSL). Executives of the paper and its mother company Next Digital were arrested, both companies’ assets were frozen, and journalistic material along with computers and phones were seized (Reuters, 2021). Consequently, the paper closed, and its last edition was published on the 24th of June 2021. The event sparked a large show of support, with crowds gathering outside of the company’s offices in its last hours of operation, and queues forming in the early hours of the morning as people hoped to buy copies of the paper’s last edition.
As I sat at lunch with Violet, a young journalist, a few weeks later, we came onto the topic of the paper’s closure and the impact it had on her. “I really don’t know what will happen in the future,” she told me. Given her line of work, the event had hit close to home. She recounted her experiences witnessing the paper’s last hours. “About 1000 people go to stand outside of the Apple Daily office to shout slogans like ‘Hong Kong people, add oil’.” The gathering had taken place spontaneously, with news of it only coming out later the same evening on Telegram channels. As more people showed up, she explained, they sang protest songs and helped Apple Daily employees carry out the last stacks of the newspaper to the delivery trucks. “It’s a very important history, “although the government wants to take physical things, they cannot take away the spirit inside Hong Kong people.” She added that it had been a long time since this sort of collective resistance against the government (common during the second half of 2019) had been seen.
I think it [is] quite a big change after 2019 because after the NSL, people cannot always speak out on the streets. But I saw a lot of people there connecting together to protect their rights… So we use their last moment to give each other support. … I think singing some song and speak[ing] out a slogan can give each other support and tell the people that we have not forgot[ten] what happened in 2019.
In Hong Kong, it was rare for such an occasion not to immediately attract the presence of the police who would consistently disperse the crowds. Following the anti-establishment protests of 2019 and 2020, the government had set in motion a process of regaining societal control and establishing a new social order of security. In practice, this was achieved through an instrumentalised use of the legal system to put an end to dissident protests. Pandemic regulations banned public gatherings of more than four people from early 2020, with penalties reaching fines of HKD 25 000 and up to six months in prison (Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation, 2020). The implementation of the National Security Law (NSL) in mid-2020, which prohibits acts of secession, sedition, and subversion of state powers in vague terms had brought dissident and government-critical protests to a halt.
although the government wants to take physical things, they cannot take away the spirit inside Hong Kong people
The daily news was filled with reports of significant legal and political events relating to a crackdown on the pro-democracy camp. With the Hong Kong government’s historically lenient treatment of dissidents, these changes marked a shift in the deployment of the state’s power. The risk associated with public protests increased quickly, which decapitated the displays of resistance witnessed in 2019. Citizens rightly feared legal repercussions. Coupled with the implementation of national education days and electoral reforms that sought to strengthen patriotism to China, the government set a clear path for how it intended to foster its populations’ identification and citizenship. As the events of 2019 were brought on by citizens’ rejection of such close ties to the mainland—both in terms of identity and administrative integration—these subsequent political maneuvers posed a direct challenge to protesters ability to assert and practice a self-determined political identity. What does the spontaneous gathering outside the Apple Daily offices tell us about conceptions of citizenship and resistance in the pro-democratic community? Bearing in mind that the gathering occurred despite the potential risk that participation bore with it.
In a piece written during the social movement of 2019-2020, Mathews (2020) addresses the novelty and surprise surrounding the widespread engagement of the protests to how Hong Kongers historically have not had a strong sense of a national identity—not with China or with a local regional identity. In this respect, Hong Kong, in the fifty years of being a semi-autonomous administrative region, has become what Comaroff (1998) aptly formulates as a “state sans nation”. While previous protest movements such as the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 sedimented the existence of a community willing to engage in political issues, the numbers seen in 2019 was unprecedented. The protest movements of the past decade, and especially those of 2019 turned the stereotype of the apolitical Hong Konger (Lam-Knott, 2018a) on its head. According to Mathews, the issue of a weak local identity is central to understanding the protests. This is because protests in Hong Kong demonstrate (at least symbolically) distancing from mainland China and movement towards the creation of a cohesive sense of solidarity as well as belonging. Protest action in Hong Kong is reflective of a distinctive identity that is based on civic values as well as political engagement. Importantly, the significance of this sense of community is not to be understated: as Huang (2020) argues, the support and care that strangers showed one another during the 2019 protests became a defining feature for how protesters came to see themselves and their community. Set against the backdrop of what Huang terms a “structural deprivation of care” that resulted from the city’s hyper-capitalism, everyday life in Hong Kong has been characterized by accumulating pressures to perform. Long working days and a strong emphasis on productivity consequently created a sense of alienation from a larger local community. Henry, another of my interlocutors, described his experiences in the city in the years prior to the outbreak of the 2019 protests as such:
In the [subway] stations, on busy streets, people have no time and no mental capacity to care about others. So, everyone were just faceless individuals that move from point A to point B, and who had nothing to do with me. And if you try to block my way, I will move through you. And that was all there was, all the interactions that we had in previous years.
In this respect, while a generalization, one’s standing in society qua citizen was disconnected from wider society. The pro-democracy movement of 2019-2020, however, offered a remedy for this alienation because it created an intense togetherness in the communitas of the collective mobilization. It was not only that the protests revealed a high degree of physical participation; it was also the presence of unseen strangers—the imagined community (Anderson, 2016)—that took shape through Lennon Walls, online discussions, coins left at underground ticket machines for escaping protesters, and more. The demonstrations of solidarity that strangers showed each other ranged from buying protest-related goods to providing protesters with legal aid, psychologist appointments, and even housing for those kicked out of their family homes. All this grounded the imagined community in a physical potentiality; a person giving you a bottle of water was also the person that left the coins on the subway ticket machine and the person using the money to buy the ticket. In helping you, they were simultaneously Other and you. Through these practices of protest, there emerged a community of solidarity that had not been seen before. Indeed, the community was not only one of shared action, but a shared conception of justice, and what being a good citizen—a Hong Konger—meant. Participation entailed entering the same moral subjectivity (Lam-Knott 2018; 2019) based on shared view of events, and thus a trustful solidarity; these were Others who shared the very same fundamental values and acted on them. Accordingly, participation in the movement allowed for enactment, ways of doing citizenship, based on civic values. In so doing, engagement, moreover, offered both community and belonging.
From shared action to uncertainty and insecurity
By the summer of 2021, the political and legal changes described above created a lasting atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity that came to permeate the everyday. From constant news reports of protest-related arrests and court cases, announcements of pro-democracy groups disbanding, to policy changes as well as statements from politicians. Sympathizers of the pro-democracy movement were acutely aware of a shift in the boundary defining what the government saw as acceptable political comportment. Consequently, the space for public political engagement for the pro-democracy camp dramatically diminished. As one interlocutor explained to me,
it’s really a big challenge for the Hong Kong society as a whole to adopt to the NSL and also to get used to it because you cannot. You can never know [where] the [red] line is, where not to cross.
My interlocutors increasingly found that their political affiliations and views put them at risk of becoming criminalized. But the government’s offence was not limited to the legal realm: from describing protesters as “cockroaches” (Cheng, 2019) and “unruly children” (Sham-Shackleton, 2019) during the unrest, to justifying the implementation of national education as a matter of “rectifying the values of young people,” (Lee, 2022). The government expressed attitudes regarding the pro-democratic youth were dismissive and invalidating. Through this discourse, the government clearly indicated what political comportment it deemed as acceptable for the citizenry it wanted to foster. Furthering this through the instrumentalization of the legal system seconded the new demarcation lines, with the added dimension of the risk of legal repercussions for those who crossed the boundaries. In essence, the effect of these politico-legal changes was to redefine the conditions of the inclusion/exclusion divide that so defines individuals’ belonging to a nation-state.
A re-emerging solidarity
Against this backdrop, impromptu gatherings such as that at the Apple Daily stand out as rare moments of collective and public resistance, despite entailing high insecurity. Yet, in Violet’s retelling, it was not the insecurity which stood out. With a slight smile and a soft voice, she emphasized the connection, support, and affinity that she experienced. It had not only been an opportunity to take farewell of a key institution in the pro-democracy camp, but also to experience once again a sense of community with fellow Hong Kongers which she had experienced two years earlier, and deeply missed since then. Set against the context of a targeted exclusion by the state, such happenings offered the chance for affective connections and remnants of solidarity to be regenerated (Navaro, 2017), allowing a sense of momentary security to emerge. This comment reflects in part the fact that while the view that the government had treated protesters unjustly could no longer be voiced aloud, people had not become indifferent to the actions of the government. It also highlights the memory of the community that had formed during the protests—of the care, support, and engagement that strangers had shown each other (Huang, 2020). As the crackdown continued, and the visibility of the pro-democracy community rapidly disappeared from the public sphere, many of the opportunities for sharing moments of care and affinity also vanished. Therefore, going to stand outside of the offices of the Apple Daily had let her take part in, and witness, the imagined community reform momentarily. Resultingly, an affective community (Zink, 2019) based on this remnant of solidarity formed, thus, framing the scene of social relations between strangers—those unknown Others—gathered in mutual support.
The Apple Daily Gathering
If a sense of security arose from the moment, it resulted in part from the way in which the gathering had taken place. As Huang (2020) notes, the extension of practices of resistance into the everyday was a central part of the 2019 movement. While many indeed participated through classical methods such as marching on streets, fighting with police, voting, and engaging in formal and public forms of protest, the movement developed a myriad more mundane tactics such as the Lennon Wall messages and coins left at ticket machines, which extended beyond these traditional formats. In this way, these forms of resistance offered paths to participation that were less confrontational and entailed less risk, and which, significantly became part of a repertoire of practices through which protesters enacted conceptions of citizenship in their everyday life.
These forms of resistance gave the movement longevity even as physical protests abated. Attending protesters’ trials or consuming in the “Yellow Economic Circle” (pro-democratic businesses, see Kwok 2021) offered citizens the opportunity to act on their civic values while showing their support to the cause. Notably, because the community had formed through the social movement, continuing practices of resistance both strengthened one’s connection to the broader imagined community and were constitutive for the very reproduction of the community’s existence. As the risks of public engagement escalated throughout 2020, these became crucial pathways to continue resistance. Yet, the foundation of these safer forms of resistance lay in their invisibility (cf. Scott, 1985). The resulting reduction in visibility of the pro-democracy community had placed a very real emphasis on the imagined component of the community. Thus, Violet’s sense of assurance outside of the Apple Daily offices had not been limited to the missed solidarity and togetherness. It was also of the continued existence and security of the wider imagined pro-democratic community. Witnessing the spontaneous gathering reiterated that the community was still there. Despite the hopelessness, insecurity, fear, and uncertainty that many experienced, such seemingly innocuous acts of resistance offered a space for inclusion in a context where they were otherwise excluded. In this respect, then, protests like these become spaces that allow citizens to act on their civic values, and in so doing, their conceptions of a dutiful political citizenship.
A wave of emigration has subsequently gripped Hong Kong following the implementation of the NSL in 2020 as people evade the political insecurity and uncertainty. Among many of my interlocutors, there was, nonetheless, a widespread regret over missing out on their home and not being able to participate in everyday life (leaving [Hong Kong] they removed themselves from the risk, but then what could they do for their community from abroad? “Nothing”). Therein lies the issue: Hong Kong attempting to integrate itself into another nation-state and struggling to bring along the left side of the hyphen. The role that protests have come to play in Hong Kong is of creating a community significantly more cohesive and affectively profound than the region had seen before.
And as the political crackdown and repression on political dissidence is only set to continue, Hong Kong will very likely proceed to operate as a “state sans nation”—or at least not avec a nation that its government will accept. For, while it might have made public displays of dissident political views in effect illegal, the pro-democratic community is unlikely to disappear. Recent protests on the mainland against the government’s strict pandemic regulations have further demonstrated the weakness of autocratic rule. It goes to show then, that even under more restrictive political conditions, solidarity and demonstrations can still give rise to challenges against the state. What remains to be seen in Hong Kong is how the government’s attempts to corral, especially the younger section of the population into a desired nationhood and citizenship will go, and what forms of lived citizenship will emerge from such efforts.
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Prevention and Control of Disease (Prohibition on Gathering) Regulation, (2020) Cap 599G (H.K.)
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A common slogan heard during the social movement of 2019-2020. The meaning of which is to encourage perseverance, add fuel to a fire.
 Comaroff employs the distinction in his discussion regarding the nature of the colonial state. While being a projection of the “home” nation-state, the colonial state excluded its indigenous population from status as full rights bearing citizens. In so doing it fundamentally lacked the citizenry that is constitutive of a nation (1992, p. 343).
 These were surfaces, frequently on the street, or on the walls of restaurants, where posters and post-it notes that read supporting messages and slogans were hung for the pro-democratic camp/protesters.
 The “red line” is an expression used to refer to the boundary between legality and illegality. It is usually used with regards to what the government will accept by way of political dissidence.