In issue #24, Sampson Wong had written a text about Hong Kong protests’ motivations. In this new contribution, he discusses the Legislative Council’s occupation and how this event was a turning point of the revolt. Protesters developed new praxis widely accepted and even supported by the general public.
The Hong Kong Protest began in June 2019 and has since sustained for almost eight months. I deliberately call it “the Hong Kong Protest” (also referred to as “the movement” below) here because it has been named and renamed several times, and it is still unfolding while no one can fully predict its future direction and when it will really come to an end. It has since attracted massive global attention and there has been a tremendous amount of worldwide media coverage. As a coronavirus pandemic is looming China, Hong Kong, and the world in February 2020, one may argue that the movement has reached the end of its first phase, as mass protests are temporarily halted. As such, it might be an ideal timing to reflect on the shape of the first phase of the movement: what happened between June 2019 and January 2020 in the city, the eight months during which we have dreamed dangerously in the city?
As an active participant and as a Hong Konger emotionally attaching to the protests, I can imagine that my memory of the eight months will be dominated by a series of “major battles.” The “battles” refer to some of the days-long confrontations between the Hong Kong protesters and the police force. Although the movement unfolded in multiple ways, the citizens were protesting on various fronts and the forms and possibilities of protest were expanding rapidly, the clash with police and the storming and occupying of the street and other spaces were still arguably the most intense experiences for many. On the street today, one may easily hear protesters chanting slogans containing a specific date (for example, “8.31, they killed us!”, “10.1, they shot us!” are frequently heard in protests), pointing to a specific battle in the movement. In hindsight, many of these important “battle memories” were characterized by threats of mass arrest and (failed) collective retreat, they involved spatial memories of escapes. Also, they are shocking moments that changed the course of the movement as protesters often transform the major strategy and narrative after the events. Among all these battles that will be well remembered, the eventful July 1st, 2019 can be seen as an important turning point, as described below
The current Hong Kong Protest is usually understood to be formally starting on June 9, 2019, as a million citizens took to the streets to urge the authority to withdraw an amendment to an anti-extradition bill that would allow Hong Kongers to be extradited to China, it is thus widely understood to be the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement (Anti-ELAB movement). Towards the end of June, the movement had partially achieved its initial goal as the Hong Kong government was pressured to announce that the bill is dead. The public was not satisfied, on the one hand the authority refused to formally withdraw the bill, on the other hand it had already gradually evolved and escalated into a revolutionary movement — the public began to radicalize its demands, including the demands for full democratization, penalizing police brutality and redressing all forms of state injustices people experienced through the first weeks of the movement. Naturally, participants anticipate July 1st to be a historical day and the thought that ‘something serious would happen to transform the movement’ is in the air. July 1st is the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day,” which commemorates the end of the British colonial rule on July 1st, 1997. Due to its strong symbolic meaning concerning Hong Kong’s sovereignty and autonomy, activists have taken the day as a day for protests since 2003.
While a standard form of protest on July 1st would be a march towards the Central Government Offices (CGO), online deliberations pointed to two new possible forms of protest on that day, firstly the disruption of a flag raising ceremony early in the morning and secondly a confrontation with the police around the CGO after the march ended in that day’s evening. In the end, the action began at 6am aiming at disrupting the flag raising ceremony was futile, and the march in the afternoon was half-cancelled. A huge amount of protesters were gathering around the CGO after the morning protest attempts, thus the police was forcing the march’s organizer to stop the crowd from reaching it in the afternoon. While it seemed that nothing particularly transformative would be happening, rumors that protesters formulated a new goal of occupying the Legislative Council (LegCo) within the CGO building complex were being circulated. Not long after the rumors were spread, a scene was being broadcasted and it captured the crowd’s attention: a group of protesters in black-bloc were trying to break the glasses near the entrance of the LegCo, they failed even though they tried to use various tools. The scene quickly polarized the public as that group of protesters were seen by some as enforcing too much violence, and the goal of entering the building was seen as meaningless by some. However, the group intending to occupy the LegCo believed that after three weeks of confrontations, the government had lost its legitimacy completely and it was time to materialize the statement “taking back Hong Kong” through a symbolic intervention.
Yet, a discursive shift slowly emerged among the protesters surrounding the CGO, occupying the LegCo became a viable option and seemingly the only logical escalation for the protest on July 1st after a long negotiation among the core activists: they had idled outside the CGO and the LegCo for too long, and arguments for executing an unprecedented action on a symbolic date gradually convinced the protesters on the ground. The idea and imagination of breaking into and occupying the legislature, was in part loosely connected to the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in 2014, in which students occupied the Legislative Yuan in Taipei for 23 days and won their struggle demanding the authority to withdraw a trade agreement bill with China. In Hong Kong’s context, although the CGO complex’s public spaces have been regularly used for political rallies, the public’s imagination of an “occupation” had never been associated with the architectures themselves.
As a group of protesters expressed their determination to break into the LegCo, they were warned that the action’s consequence could be up to 10 years in jail. They responded publicly through the media that they are prepared for that, their moving response decisively prompted a wave of mobilization and occupying the LegCo became the inevitable development. Confrontation between the police inside the LegCo and the protesters trying to break in had lasted from 1pm to 9pm.
By 9pm of the day, a very unexpected turn has changed the course of the day’s event: the police force inside the LegCo retreated completely, out of the public’s surprise. At the same time, thousands of protesters were stationing and occupying roads and open spaces surrounding the CGO and the LegCo toward the evening. The division of labor among the crowd was clear: protesters who were not ready to break into the LegCo were on the periphery, they would build barricades to deter police from approaching the district again, and would report if there was any sign of police approaching. Other than that, protesters were forming highly systematic human chains to transport all kinds of resources from the periphery to the “center,” the LegCo’s entrances. An unimaginable amount of umbrellas, hamlets, goggles, gloves and other defensive materials for producing “armors” were piling outside the entrances of the LegCo, it was obvious that the plan was for the most radical activists who planned to enter the LegCo building to defend themselves for days or up to weeks, while the crowd outside would defend and delay the police from evicting them for as long as possible. Shortly after the police retreated completely, the historical moment of Hong Kong public storming the LegCo began.
As small groups of protesters gradually entered the building and wandered through it before any light was turned on, a few of them approached the glass curtain wall facing the public. They then turned the laser pointers and torches in their hands on to indicate to the crowd outside that they had successfully occupied the building, as if they were chanting “We are here finally!”. The moment is perhaps the most unforgettable one throughout the day.
The subsequent development was well documented in the media. Protesters who entered the LegCo took effort to damage various parts of the building, and graffiti and slogans were sprayed on various locations. The destruction was considered by the public to be humorous and thoughtful: artworks were carefully selected and screened by the protesters before they spayed them, and a sign was deliberately placed in front of the library to urge fellow activists not to damage any part of it. It is important to note that this is the first time “vandalism” as a means of protest has been approved by the participants of the movement. Furthermore, the intervention in the LegCo has influenced how the public perceive ‘“vandalism” as more and more believe that “violence applied to objects” could be accepted in this movement if the actions are designed in a thoughtful way.
As the activists regrouped and entered the main Chamber of the legislative council to deliberate their next steps, representatives of the police announced that they would use a high level of force to evict the protesters inside and outside the building. Occupying the area surrounding the LegCo and the building itself quickly became an untenable choice. Although the consensus for all protesters inside and outside the LegCo to retreat collectively at once has emerged, the decision was not communicated effectively with the protesters inside the building. In the end, the protesters inside LegCo decided to read different versions of manifestoes articulating the rationale of the action (of breaking into the LegCo) before they would leave the building. Two dramatic events subsequently happened and defined the day.
Firstly, one of the protesters decided to take off his mask to reveal his identity before he read a moving manifesto that he wrote. The manifesto urged the public to accept that from that moment onward Hong Kong people have nothing to lose and can afford to lose nothing further.
The act of revealing his identity shocked everyone, since other protesters inside the building all believed that it was utmost important to remain anonymous. His act moved participants in the movement and has since been seen as one of the most powerful events in the Hong Kong protest. After leaving Hong Kong, Brian Kai-ping Leung, now being called “the comrade who took off his mask,” revealed his identity and was frequently interviewed by the media to express his political thoughts and convictions. As a PhD candidate of political science in Seattle, Leung’s praxis merged with his intellectual project — he had been an active scholar researching Hong Kong’s autonomy — his face in a movement without a face or a leader unexpectedly propelled Hong Kong’s movement forward.
Secondly, as all protesters were retreating, four activists decided to stay inside the LegCo Chamber until the police reached them, in an action they considered as a necessary sacrifice. However, another group of protesters who had almost left the building decided to return to the chamber and convince them to retreat collectively. Since a large team of riot police was already approaching, the longer they stayed would result in a smaller chance for them to all escape from arrest. The dozen of returning protesters hugged the four who intended to stay and proceeded to forcefully carry them away. The four were touched by their insistence and the risk they were taking for them and all finally reached a consensus about retreating together. The act was celebrated by the movement, and from that moment onward “marching forward collectively and retreating collectively” has become one of the most circulated slogans in the movement.
In the end, thousands of protesters inside and outside the LegCo had managed to retreat completely. The building was broken into and occupied for roughly three hours. When the riot police arrived, they were not able to arrest a single protester.
The event on July 1st and the two dramatic moments towards the end of the day described above have boosted the morale of the movement, and solidarity of the protesters were built substantially. The day’s lasting impact on the movement can be seen in how it unfolded in the months after. What we call “the five demands” was clearly articulated in various versions of political manifestos being read inside the LegCo chamber, officially turning the Anti-ELAB movement into a political movement fighting for five specific points: on top of the now-fulfilled demand of withdrawing the extradition bill, the other four are 1) full democratization for the city, 2) releasing all protesters who have been prosecuted in the movement, 3) stop charging the protesters with “rioting,” and 4) establishing an independent investigation committee for the events and investigating police brutality), as well as the radical goal of “liberating Hong Kong.” In a way, the movement sustained due to the highly visible process of re-articulation in the chamber. Also, after that the July 1st’s occupy and so-called “positional warfare” protest tactics manifested through the LegCo events were abandoned, the movement’s participants decided to take the motto “Be water!” seriously, implying that truly pluralistic forms of actions were adopted and experimented. Most importantly, after the July 1st’s events the public gradually accepted vandalism as a form of justified and necessary violence, and the new understanding on violence has since greatly altered the public discourses. These developments have paved the way for the next seven months of protests in Hong Kong.
July 1st, 1997 and July 1st, 2003 were once seen as the most dramatic and important days in Hong Kong history, July 1st, 2019 has completely transcend their historical meaning and will remain to be the most important July 1st in the city’s history. ■