Anthony spreads the sheet of paper over the wall and begins to spray paint over the perforations. As a figure takes shape under the stencil, a group of black-clad masked protesters surrounds the graffiti artist and hides him from view behind their umbrellas. Shortly thereafter, the face of Edward Leung, a jailed activist who has been described as the spiritual leader of Hong Kong’s uprising, stands out from the white background. As Anthony moves on, the small crowd gathered around him swiftly disperses.
Drawing inspiration from a famous aphorism by martial arts legend Bruce Lee, Hong Kong protesters are committed to ‘be water’ – fluid and shape-shifting, disbanding as quickly as they regroup, always maintaining an element of surprise over their heavier, less mobile opponents. The ephemeral gathering of umbrella carriers around the activists involved in any illegal act exemplifies this momentary convergence of protesters, before their dispersion across urban space.
It also embodies the spirit of pooling and sharing that participants take so much pride in. If the struggle for the liberation of Hong Kong is the ‘Revolution of our times’, according to Leung’s battle cry adorning protesters’ T-shirts, posters and flags, the contemporaneity of this uprising has much to do with its propensity for crowdsourcing – its affinity with open-source models of upgrading and corporate solutions tapping into the so-called ‘human cloud‘.
This is consonant with the sociology of the movement, which has found some support in the city’s working class localities (such as Sham Shui Po, in the northwestern part of the Kowloon peninsula) but which is primarily being steered by tech-savvy students, young professionals and employees of the private sector.
Anthony himself has a well-paying job in a foreign company and, until recently, was primarily concerned about his career plans. Besides having little experience of political protests, he had never tried his hand at street art. It is only after the movement started picking up, last summer, that he felt the urge to play his part.
A few internet tutorials later, he was ready to go into action. From then on, every weekend, he traded his suit and tie for the unofficial black uniform of protesters, stuffed a backpack with spray-paint cans and spare clothing, and set out on his bombing mission.
Hong Kong’s on-going protests, better known as ‘anti-ELAB’ (for Extradition Law Amendment Bill), began in June against a controversial bill aiming to allow extradition to Mainland China. Critics of the bill feared that it would jeopardise the independence of the judiciary, facilitate the repression of dissidents, and compromise the special status granted to Hong Kong under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula that provided the constitutional framework for the island’s retrocession to China in 1997.
As the protests escalated and met with an ever-harsher response from the police, during the summer, participants got more organised. While pro-democracy political groups active in the 2014 ‘Occupy Central’ movement were at the forefront of the mass gatherings against the extradition bill in June 2019, this mobilisation has been much more decentralised than its predecessors. According to Anthony, ‘everything is organic. Everyone decides how he or she wants to contribute’.
The virtual command centre of this leaderless mobilisation is the local Internet forum LIHKG, a Reddit-like website whose trademark emoticon, known as Li-Pig, has become one of the mascots of the movement. Every community member can make suggestions for the next protest actions and their location. Each proposal then gets voted up or down by members and those garnering the largest number of votes will appear on the forum’s front page. On the basis of these results, graphic designers will prepare posters and flyers announcing the next protests.
The modus operandi of this secret design team, which has endowed the movement with a distinctive and highly creative visual culture, is also exemplary of its ability to pool resources and build ties among activists who often remain unknown to one another, under a general rule of anonymity. Ideas for new visuals are discussed among the 5,000 members of a secret channel of the Telegram messaging app, before being given shape by a group of 200 graphic designers.
The reactivity of these designers is astounding: after each new incident of police brutality, drawings inspired by the event will be circulating on Telegram channels within a short span of time. Along with calls for mobilisation, these posters and flyers will be printed and pasted by activists across the city, especially on so-called ‘Lennon Walls’ and ‘Lennon Tunnels’.
Drawing inspiration from the memorials dedicated to John Lennon in Prague, Hong Kongers started decorating walls with political posters and post-its during the 2014 ‘Occupy Central’ movement, also known as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. During anti-ELAB protests, virtually every bridge and tunnel around metro stations was transformed into a window for the movement. In the urban village of Tai Po, located in the Northern Territories close to the border with mainland China, several galleries were literally covered with drawings, graffiti, posters and post-its.
Lennon Walls soon became contentious sites and, on several occasions, were defaced by pro-government activists, which sometimes led to scuffles. In order to prevent further untoward incidents, volunteers committed themselves to defend the walls. One of these volunteers, simply identifying as Kay, said that she also meant to identify wandering youths displaying signs of acute depression, whose last wish before bidding farewell to the world is to visit these protest sites and memorials. She would try to comfort these wounded souls so that they did not follow the path of the dozen young men and women who have ended their own lives since the beginning of the movement.
These walls became even more controversial after some protesters used them for ‘doxxing’ – a practice associated with digital vigilantism and consisting in the illicit broadcasting of personal information about certain individuals or organisations for harassment purposes.
During Hong Kong’s summer of unrest, protesters used doxxing to expose police officers acting against them or operating undercover. Their photos, personal addresses, phone numbers or intimate Tinder conversations were leaked online via specific Telegram channels, such as Dadfindboy (which registers 136,000 members), and sometimes ended up on Lennon Walls across the city – which led the police to raid some of these locations on several occasions.
Government loyalists, for their part, have been sharing private information on pro-democracy activists and journalists, as well as on their family members, through websites such as HKLeaks. Rather than exposing dissenters and their relatives to vigilante justice, however, pro-government websites and Telegram channels are primarily encouraging their users to report to Chinese security services through China’s Ministry of State Security Reporting Platform, 12339.gov.cn – a platform meant for submitting information on any behaviour endangering national security, from espionage to peaceful demonstrations.
As the government refused to give in to the demands of protesters, even after massive non-violent demonstrations that gathered nearly two million people (out of a total population of 7 million), the movement began to take an increasingly militant dimension, while extending its agenda to five major demands: complete withdrawal of the extradition bill from the legislative process, retraction of the characterisation of protesters as ‘rioters’, release and exoneration of arrested protesters, establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests, and implementation of universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections.
Online forums and encrypted Telegram channels yet again played a critical role during this new phase of the movement. It is through online discussions that the movement adopted a highly elaborate division of protest work, where the so-called ‘air conditioned units’ composed of activists monitoring police movements and broadcasting updates on various protests act in unison with bands of street fighters known as ‘front-liners’ (protesters protecting less militant demonstrators and spearheading clashes with the police, who include various groups of ‘shielders’, ‘magicians’, ‘firemen’, and ‘warning flag bearers’).
Various protest tactics – such as the ever more creative means used by ‘firemen’ to put out tear gas rounds – are intensively discussed and in the process constantly updated through online exchanges. Online forums such as LIHKG have also provided activists with tips to acquire protective equipment while serving to pool resources for specific protest actions. At every major demonstration, one can also see young activists distributing protecting gear (gas masks, goggles, helmets, plastic sheets to cover the arms), as well as water and snacks – all of which are financed through crowd-funding efforts.
Internet forums also help young protesters, always at a risk of being arrested by the police, to find an escape route after demonstrations. A dedicated channel offers free taxi services for those in need of a quick way out. And for those who do not make it in time and end up in hospital and/or in custody, crowd-funding initiatives such as the 612 Fund can help with medical and legal fees, while a mental health hotline specifically targets distressed students.
Efforts to internationalise the movement, for instance through an advertising campaign in the American press before the G20 meeting in Biarritz, have also been funded by private donations collected online. Similarly, the Lady Liberty statue – to date, the most iconic artefact to have emerged from the movement – was designed, assembled and erected through a massive crowd-sourcing effort. Various designs were suggested and discussed on LIHKG before forum members opted for a young woman in full ‘front-liner’ gear. 200,000 Hong Kong dollars were then collected online and were used for erecting a four-metre statue through 3-D printing technology.
After being paraded on several occasions during protest actions, the statue was reassembled on the hilltop of Lion Rock, Hong Kong’s most iconic ridge in October (where she was soon vandalised). By suggesting that everything is possible in this city of migrants and exiles, the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’ epitomises Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial spirit.
During the 1960s, when the city became a refuge for thousands of refugees fleeing the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China, this peculiar ethos became synonymous with rapid upward social mobility. Half a century later, as Hong Kongers struggled to defend their autonomy and so-called ‘core values’ against the threat of Chinese political and cultural hegemony, the ‘Lion Rock spirit’ was infused with a new meaning, now emphasising the creative spirit of resistance of protesters.
Far from contributing to a univocal process of radicalisation, discussions on social media and Internet forums sometimes had a de-escalation effect. During the 15-hour siege of the police headquarters in Wan Chai on June 21, for instance, there were heated arguments over the soundness of storming into the station. The rifts that developed within the ‘Umbrella’ movement in 2014 and that greatly weakened it have been a major source of concern among the participants of anti-ELAB protests.
As a result, the less violence-prone activists will refrain from questioning publicly the legitimacy of radical tactics – a position summarised in the self-consciously over-the-top statement that, ‘I won’t excommunicate anybody from the struggle even if they decide to detonate a nuclear bomb.’ In the more confined environment of LIHKG and encrypted Telegram channels, however, many supporters of the movement will argue that excessive violence against the police, public equipment or private property runs the risk of alienating the larger population.
It is from these debates that emerged the movement’s peculiar economy of violence – its theory and nomenclature of disruptive, self-defensive or retaliatory action considered legitimate under certain circumstances and against specified targets. Protesters have thus endorsed a system of graduated sanctions against business interests perceived to be hostile to their movement. Those working hand in glove with the Chinese government or the Triads can be legitimately vandalised.
The shops and branches of those taking a public stand in support of the HK government and against the movement can be ‘decorated’, i.e. painted with graffiti. Finally, the smaller entrepreneurs or shopkeepers criticising the movement, for instance on social media, should be boycotted. As the movement drags on and no further concession from the government seems to be in sight after the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill in early September, this tensile equilibrium of violence is coming under threat from less consensual violent outbursts, however, as exemplified by the multiplication of vigilante-style attacks against recent immigrants from mainland China suspected of working against the movement.
Besides the controversial issue of xenophobia against recent Chinese immigrants from the mainland, the movement will have to confront the evermore-pressing question of social inequalities and rising discontent about Hong Kong’s capitalist model. To date, these issues have been muted by the consensual, liberal language of rights. But some voices within the movement, while remaining marginal, have been arguing all along that its obsession for consensus has been distracting participants from a larger, and necessarily conflictive, agenda of social reform.
All photos by Laurent Gayer.
Laurent Gayer is a research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI), Sciences Po, Paris