June 2019, Hong Kong: the Future Is Reopened



As the ongoing protests in Hong Kong gather millions of people against a government receiving its orders from the Chinese state, Sampson Wong reflects on the five years of activism that separates this movement from the 2014 Umbrella Revolution.

At the time of my writing, the ongoing mass protests in Hong Kong persists. It is understood as an ‘anti-extradition’ movement that opposes the proposed amendment to relevant laws in Hong Kong that would make extradition of suspects from the city (a ‘special administrative region’) to China possible. The movement is thus narrated as a movement against “the extradition to China” (送中) in written Chinese and Cantonese. While the protests have a sharp and monolithic focus, the sense of anger and fear that has successfully mobilized the most populous march in Hong Kong history and engendered fierce confrontation between the police and the people should also be contextualized within the “post-Umbrella Movement” (傘後) context.

Sense of Hopelessness ///

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Tear gas shot by the police against protesters outside the Central Government Office on June 12, 2019. / Photo by Dave Coulson.

The discussion and political affect that dominated post-2014 Hong Kong at first mainly concerned despair, defeat, and powerlessness. The over three-decade long struggle for democratization in the city, spanning from the colonial era to postcolonial times was seen as reaching an end. It is believed that Hong Kong’s fate is largely determined: that it will eventually become “just another Chinese city” that embraces capitalism and authoritarianism by the year of 2047, when the ideas of “one country, two systems” and “Hong Kong remains unchanged for 50 years” expire. Mourning that “there is no future” has become a popular sentiment among the youth, resistance has been seen as Sisyphean actions that barely slow down the course. Regional infrastructures and policies, including the “Great Bay Area” plan for cities in the Pearl River Delta and the opening of high speed railway connecting Hong Kong to mainland China, only further reinforced the perception that Hong Kong would no longer be culturally and politically distinctive, it is just a matter of time before it turns into a Chinese city completely.

Apart from the discourses and visible changes leading to a countdown to the year of 2047, civil liberties and political rights have been deteriorating rapidly since the end of the occupy movement — often seen as the effects of a counter-movement as Beijing and the Hong Kong government sought to tighten its grip on the city. Pro-democratic legislators were elected but disqualified due to their political orientation, a pro-Hong Kong independence political party was declared illegal, book sellers from Hong Kong publishing and selling books that criticize the Chinese Communist Party were abducted to mainland China, leaders and participants of the Umbrella Movement were prosecuted and imprisoned. Threats to freedom of expression and trenchant censorship has become the new normal, for example, dissident writer Ma Jian was once forbidden to give a talk at the high profile art space Tai Kwun while cartoonist Badiucao’s solo exhibition of political artworks was cancelled. Even in the realm of higher education, directors of universities in Hong Kong have once collectively issued an open letter to condemn discussion on Hong Kong independence, claiming that it is violating the basic law of Hong Kong in 2018. Before the June movement, it has been repeatedly predicted that large-scale social movement would not be possible in the short run. 

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Protesters retreat after tear gas was shot at them on June 12, 2019. / Photo by Lewis Tse Pui Lung.

A Divided Civil Society ///

The 2014 Umbrella Movement has also brought about a deeply divided civil society. Progressive and democratic forces grew into a widespread disunity as blame games were prevalent among the participants, upon reflecting and interpreting the “failure” of the occupy interventions. Although Hong Kong has long been characterized as the “capital of marches,” participants of mass movements are often extremely peaceful and passive. As the concept of civil disobedience in the form of obstructing streets and disrupting the city’s routine functioning was introduced to wider Hong Kong society through the 2014 occupy movement, and local protesters have since developed their understanding of how a “radical action” should be. Since then, there were arguably two paradigm shifts. Firstly, fundamental deliberations on legitimate forms of civil disobedience and direct actions emerged in the occupied zones in 2014 and continued to transform the political culture of Hong Kong ever since. The repertoire of social movements, involving more centralized forms of leadership are challenged, and they were deemed to be too conservative as protesters started branding them the camp of “peaceful, rational and non-violent” (和理非) protesters. The deliberation has gone mainstream and “peaceful, rational and non-violent” protests were heavily criticized by a new generation of participants, who saw it as the source of failure in previous decades’ movements. Advocates of more militant forms of actions, branded themselves as the camp of the “brave and forceful” (勇武) protesters that are willing to “charge,” based on the idea that charging at police defense lines is essential.

In reality, the two camps may not be entirely mutually exclusive, but the discourse on forms of actions and disputes on tactics in street politics have transformed the political culture of Hong Kong forever. In early 2016, a police officer in Hong Kong attempted to shoot into the air to disperse a protest claiming the rights for street hawkers to sell food on the street during the Lunar New Year — which is mostly illegal in Hong Kong. The protest quickly turned into a testing ground for the pro-independence and the pro-”brave and forceful” camp activists. This particular protest was later declared to be a “riot” and participants were prosecuted with stringent laws established since the colonial era, laws used to discipline political assemblies. Young protesters including one of the well-known leaders Edward Leung were jailed due to the event and two other activists Ray Wong and Alan Li fled to Germany and were granted refugee status (only disclosed in 2019). Disputes have continued to resurface in the subsequent years, as activists were greatly divided by their opinions on appropriate and legitimate means of protest. Together with the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness discussed above, the disunity of civil society in Hong Kong has gradually led to inaction, and disillusion has grown among the mass supporters of democracy in Hong Kong. Until late May 2019, commentators have believed that Hong Kong was facing a downturn of morale in activism and its democracy movement, and no mass movement could be mobilized unless the society encounters unexpected breakthroughs.

The Future Is Reopened ///

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A fraction of the two millions of people who demonstrated on June 16, 2019. / Photo by Teddy Hung

The background to the ongoing June movement in Hong Kong is discussed above, with the developments in 2015 to Spring 2019, to illustrate how unexpected and surprising the current protests are. The dystopian film Ten Years (2015) (available globally through streaming platforms) made by four young filmmakers speculating upon a semi-authoritarian Hong Kong in 2015 has been seen as a prophetic vision. Similarly, a Hong Kong philosopher Wong Kwok Kui is about to publish a new book titled Dionysus’ Activism: Philosophical Way out for a Hong Kong in Despair (2019). Both illustrate how the foreclosure of Hong Kong’s future has come to be seen as a matter of fact. How should one explain the seeming impossibility of this recent wave of protests, imbued with tremendous solidarity, creativity and persistence? How have the two challenges outlined above been overcome? The answers to these questions are important not only to researchers on the city, but also to activists worldwide searching for routes towards a politics of hope in dire global conditions. Of course this text does not pretend that satisfactory answers already exist and, as a temporary conclusion, two potential lines of thought can be considered.

A relatively pessimistic explanation would focus on the distinctive and inherently defensive nature of the city’s civil society. Since 1997, when its sovereignty was transferred to China, the postcolonial city has managed to sustain a liberal community that excels at rejecting interventions, which might corrode citizen freedom. Such interpretation highlights how Hong Kong was historically a refugee city hosting a population that had strong fears of communist China. This interpretation, of course, also highlights the populist nature of the reemergence of mass street politics, and suggests that ultimately “the people” can only be constituted when it is clear that something threatening needs to be rejected. Nevertheless, the mode of mobilization faces difficulties when the goal is to establish ideals and to implement transformative policies.

However, within the current June movement in Hong Kong that involves marches gathering millions of people and guerilla-style occupy actions, one can also find optimistic signs that allow alternative interpretations. In particular, local discourses are emphasizing how at the core of it, a huge group of young (between 15 and 25 years old) anonymous protesters are formulating ideals for  their social movement repertoire almost without pragmatic calculation, and are leading civil society to focus on expressing causes through imaginative assemblies. They endorse the decentralization of the movement like other recent movements around the world, and mechanisms for communication and coordination were able to evolve overnight with the help of emerging forms of media. Although the current movement does not articulate clearly a way out for the city as it faces an increasingly powerful Chinese regime, it is interestingly suggested that the simple agency of young activists leading the movement has constructed a concrete sense of hope among Hong Kong citizens. In a way, it is widely perceived that ‘the future is reopening’ in Hong Kong through the movement, and perhaps this is a case for investigating how hopeful political affect is created by “action in itself” and not only by ideals, ideologies, discourses and political gains. All power to the imagination as actions!