Brian Hioe 丘琦欣 is a freelance writer and translator of social movements and Asia-Pacific politics. He is the co-founder of New Bloom Magazine, an English media platform and cultural collective that fosters transnational dialogues in Taiwan with left-wing perspectives, while situating local issues in their international implications. Hioe was the Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018. He also reports widely on the cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan, and contemporary youth culture in Asia.
Because images can be rapidly disseminated across the Internet and shape media narratives in real-time, social movements today are highly attentive to optics. There are few movements that would solely be labeled as consisting of dangerous “rioters.”
This has been the case with the protests in Hong Kong, in which we saw a contestation between the government and protesters over narrative depictions, and in which the Hong Kong government sought to depict the protests as mere chaotic riots.
Self-depictions by protesters often highlight everyday experiences. Ultimately, these are regular people who have been pushed to drastic measures by the authoritarian actions of their government. “There are no rioters, only tyranny,” (沒有暴徒，只有暴政) according to one protest slogan. In contrast, the Hong Kong government claimed that protesters had refused meaningful dialogue by destroying public and private property, and demonstrating irrationally against the Extradition Bill that would be used to target criminal offenders.
Along these lines, movement actors proved self-reflexive regarding how their movement was understood in external contexts. While the movement has — as a whole —been a relatively non-violent one, it is true that clashes with the police have broken out, that protesters have deliberately set fires in order to slow police advances, or to target structures viewed as representing Chinese authoritarianism. Bank of China locations have been set ablaze for example, although demonstrators ensured that each location was empty beforehand.
Some acts did indeed have the potential to cause harm to the international image of the movement, with an imagined audience of individuals who were not directly connected to the protests. Another instance was when a Chinese journalist was doused with water in the Hong Kong International Airport after confronting protesters. Cognizant of how this incident could be seized upon by media outlets, protesters first deliberated on LiHKG (an Internet forum used to coordinate protest actions), before settling on an apology.
To this extent, we observe how truth itself is something that is being contested between both pan-democratic and pro-Beijing political actors in Hong Kong. Rumors of suspicious deaths and cover-ups of police killings have circulated throughout Hong Kong for well over a year. Some point to questionable suicides. Some believe that the police covered up deaths that occurred in the Prince Edward MTR station on August 31st, 2019 during a clearance operation. In effect, the "life-world" inhabited by members of the pro-Beijing and pan-Democratic camps increasingly diverges — the Hong Kong they live in and experience are increasingly at odds with each other. Two Hong Kongs exist, overlap, and are at war with one another.
This ambiguity on whether or not the police have begun killing Hongkongers outright occurs, despite the fact that Hong Kong is increasingly becoming a surveillance state. A multitude of images are generated from protest events, and modern facial recognition technology allows for the identification of protesters and police alike. This has led to convergent behavior between protesters and police in some respects; protesters hide their faces with black masks and cover up identifying features such as tattoos, while police hide behind their black armor and their identification numbers.
Demonstrators and journalists can fight back by filming, photographing, or live streaming media. They may also try to cover up cameras or prevent clear images from being taken using laser pointers. But the overall control of images still slants in favor of the authorities; security cameras are installed all around Hong Kong, much as how security cameras are an increasingly omnipresent feature of urban spaces around the world. Despite the plethora of footage that these cameras should offer, it is still unresolved whether or not deaths took place during the Prince Edward clearance operation, because police have refused to release any security camera footage.
Police arrests under the provisions of the National Security Law passed last June have targeted mostly high-profile activists, but one can expect more arrests going forward. Perhaps Hong Kong will become even more of a panopticon going forward, with frightful precedents already set by other territories under Chinese control, i.e. Xinjiang, a surveillance state far beyond the scale of Hong Kong. In modern history, the Hong Kong protests saw some of the largest participation by proportion of the overall population, with nearly two million out of 7.5 million participating in some protest events. China may therefore be expected to carry out increasingly draconian measures against the Hong Kong population.
Yet in contesting conflicting protest narratives, both pro-Beijing and pan-democratic forces have multiple audiences. The first audience is the Hong Kong public, which is increasingly divided between the “Yellow” protest sympathizers and “Blue” pro-establishment camp. The second audience, which has particular importance for the pro-Beijing camp, is China — the pro-Beijing camp within Hong Kong must justify its utility to its masters on the mainland, with the current Hong Kong government acting as Beijing's proxy in Hong Kong.
The third audience is international opinion. It is not always clear how international opinion can aid a protest movement, except by pressuring Chinese authorities. But both pro-democracy and pro-Beijing actors are contesting international opinion, in hopes of winning supporters. So the pro-Beijing camp has embraced the narrative that shadowy outside forces are engineering the protests from without, seeking to foment a “color revolution” aimed at orchestrating regime change in China and thus delegitimizing protests. At the same time, pro-democracy groups organize overseas, resulting in the rise of overseas Hong Kong diaspora groups engaged in efforts ranging from public outreach, education, to lobbying efforts.
In many ways, these overseas efforts sought to demonstrate the vitality of protests in Hong Kong. Exhibitions featuring artwork from the protests — various tabling and flyering efforts — have been aimed at increasing awareness of events in Hong Kong. Zines to video games have also been made about the protests. There has been a growing plurality of mediums, diversity in languages, as well as the development of networks for overseas political mobilization in support of Hong Kong. Overseas efforts mirror local efforts aimed at expanding the influence of pro-democracy actors, but are articulated with a different audience in mind, and consequently involve a degree of self-curation.
Perhaps a useful comparison can be seen in Taiwan’s overseas democracy movement during the authoritarian period. This lasted from the post-war period to the 1990s, when many activists were prevented from returning to Taiwan because they were placed on a political blacklist. During this time, Taiwanese activists also initiated a number of overseas publications and sought creative means for communicating events taking place in Taiwan. We can expect something similar in Hong Kong, now that the Internet has made disseminating information and coordinating mobilization much easier across long distances.
During the period of authoritarian rule, Taiwanese activists themselves had to contest the narratives of the KMT party-state — which framed democracy activists as terrorists — and instead pointed to how they and others had been the victims of state violence. Consequently, overseas democracy activists were attentive to optics, just as overseas Hong Kong activists today must struggle to let the world know that it is not the rioters, but rather the government, which commits acts of violence against regular Hongkongers.
Hong Kong activists can learn from this history of political exile. Learning from this experience can allow for lessons in how to disrupt the narrative put forth by authorities, to rupture the imaginary of a Hong Kong in which political unrest does not simmer just below the surface. This may increasingly be an arena of contestation for overseas Hongkongers going forward.
Contesting Regimes of Truth in the Hong Kong Protests
Essay by Brian Hioe