An umbrella to protect yourself from water cannon blasts; a hard hat to protect yourself from rubber bullets; a pair of goggles to protect yourself from tear gas; and, arguably most importantly, a face mask to protect your identity from the police. This is the uniform of the average protester in Hong Kong.
Since early summer, millennial-aged workers and students as young as 10 years old have been taking to the streets of Hong Kong in demonstration against China’s gradual encroachments upon their culture and freedoms. The crux of their demands — the permanent withdrawal of a proposed extradition bill that would allow arrested citizens to be susceptible to severe criminal punishments on the mainland — was officially ceded by Chief Executive Carrie Lam in September. However, as of this writing, their other requests (for Lam to step down, for the release of unjustly-arrested protesters, for the government to investigate and punish instances of police brutality and for greater democratic freedoms in general) have only been met by Lam with terse and inadequate offers of open discussion. Thus, the protests continue, and they’re becoming more turbulent by the day.
This is not the first protest in Hong Kong to receive international attention. In fact, today’s protests stem from the societal unrest and demonstrations following the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997. Fears that mainland China would impose its political system as well as its national identity onto Hong Kong’s unique system inspired vocal yet nonviolent demonstrations that year. These fears were partially assuaged by government promises not to interfere with Hong Kong’s system for at least 50 years. Yet in 2014, proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral process that allowed China to pre-screen candidates for chief executive resulted in another highly-visible activist movement — the Umbrella Revolution.
These 2014 protests started as yet another series of nonviolent, sit-in street demonstrations against colonialism and imperialism; however, the pacifism of the movement was met with extreme police violence. Thus, protesters began wielding umbrellas to shield themselves from rubber bullets and tear gas canisters thrown at them by law enforcement while remaining nonviolent. When it rained, protesters even held out their umbrellas for law enforcement officials to stand under in order to demonstrate their peaceable intentions.
In spite of this non-threatening display, many protesters — some only students at the time — were arrested and have yet to be released from police custody. This is part of the reason why, in 2019, the extradition bill served as such a point of contention among protesters; had the bill gone through, it would have left those arrested for their activism to face much more severe consequences on the mainland than they would otherwise in Hong Kong. This possibility, combined with China’s increased implementation of surveillance technologies in Hong Kong (such as CCTVs installed on lampposts, equipped with facial recognition software to apprehend suspected activists caught on tape), has changed the nature of the protests entirely.
Now, Hong Kong citizens’ battle to protect their national identity from China has evolved into a battle to protect their individual identities from the police. It is becoming more and more difficult for protesters to act as a faceless group. This has prompted them to develop increasingly sophisticated organizational tactics: the use of apps such as Tinder and Pokémon Go to covertly distribute protest information, sign language to signal what safety equipment they’ll need at the next location and clothing changes left in subway stations to help others quickly disguise themselves while running from police are just a few of those known. And umbrellas, once primarily used to deflect tear gas canisters and sprays from water cannons, are now also being used to shield protesters’ faces from CCTV footage.
However, the increase in police surveillance has also led to an increase in anxiety and paranoia among protesters, which in turn has increased incidents of violence on their part. In one instance, a group of protesters attacked an elderly man taking photos nearby after falsely suspecting him to be a government spy. In another, protesters laid siege to a police station; these protesters were subsequently attacked with fireworks thrown out of an unmarked moving van. And a 13-year-old protester was recently arrested for being caught with petrol bombs on his person.
The scary fact is that Hong Kong police are using these individual cases as justification to escalate systemic violence against protesters to an exponential degree. On Tuesday, Oct. 1, an 18-year-old student protester was the first to be shot by police with a real bullet instead of a rubber one. There have been more cases of this happening since, and there will probably be even more by the time this editorial is published. And the Chinese government only enables the perpetration of this violence — since 2014, umbrellas in Hong Kong have been legally designated as weapons, and it is impossible for Hong Kong citizens to order one from Chinese retailers online. “I cannot [even] put it into my basket if the destination is Hong Kong,” says 22-year-old activist Kelvin Yeung.
But that’s not all. On Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced an emergency legislative measure to ban the use of face masks in public.
If protesters can be arrested whether or not they’re wearing masks, what are they supposed to do? This act was designed to silence protesters into complicity, and to incarcerate those who refuse to comply. Not only is the legislation designed to scare protesters into inaction, it actively empowers officers to forcibly remove masks and use handheld facial recognition to quickly identify and arrest activists. Its cruelty cannot be understated, and its message cannot be ignored. In a battle that is being waged on the grounds of identity, it is exceptionally revealing that the “emergency” measure passed denies individuals the right to protect their own.
You may be wondering why we should care about these demonstrations happening across the ocean — especially ones that, in spite of the police brutality faced by protesters, have resulted in partial success. The extradition bill was, after all, officially withdrawn due to the work of activists; though this is only a fraction of the battle, it is a victory nonetheless.
However, it is important not to let our desensitization to police violence color our assessment of the situation. When a police officer in Hong Kong pulls a firearm on a nonviolent protester, it is a shock; when a police officer in the United States does the same, it is a Tuesday. The escalation of police violence and surveillance in Hong Kong is making it increasingly difficult for citizens to protest peacefully, and it will only continue until it becomes too difficult for them to protest at all. So while it may be tempting to covet protesters’ progress, or to wonder what similar demonstrations in the United States could accomplish, these events should serve as reminders that police brutality is quite possibly the greatest threat we face to our ability to organize.
These first few weeks of October are shaping up to be rainy ones. As you and your fellow students open umbrellas to shield yourselves from the weather, we hope you’ll spare a thought for the students halfway across the world wielding theirs against violence and injustice.