June 12 this year marks the one-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law movement.
A year ago that day, thousands of protesters surrounded the Legislative Council Complex to oppose the extradition bill. Later that evening, a group of young activists stormed the building. They were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray. Since then, Hongkongers have experienced and witnessed countless mass arrests, violent clashes, and police brutality that drastically altered the city’s landscape and atmosphere.
Soon after the pandemic, the Hong Kong and Chinese governments hastily proposed the implementation of national anthem and security laws that would allow Beijing to further restrict the political freedom of Hongkongers.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Police Force continue to inflict violence on protesters, and has recently arrested 15 prominent pro-democracy activists on the charge of allegedly “organising and participating in unlawful assemblies.”
Given these political developments, it is easy for us to despair, to become cynical, or to lose hope on the pro-democracy movement activists and protesters have fought so hard for – not just in the last year, but over the last decade.
However, in the face of rampant state violence and oppression, it is all the more urgent and necessary for us to recognise the progress this movement has made, and to cultivate radical hope that would help sustain our continual struggle.
Reflecting on the many political crises and grassroots movements in the 21st century, Rebecca Solnit wrote: “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities [of oppression]. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”
Indeed, over the past year, Hongkongers have shown each other, Beijing, and the world time and again the power and spirit of grassroots organisation, despite active state suppression and police violence.
A more robust civil society has emerged due to the decentralised nature of the anti-extradition law movement. Not guided by any key political parties or leaders, the movement relies on grassroots efforts to organise marches, assemblies, sing-ins and letter-writing campaigns that foster a sense of solidarity and community among pro-democracy Hongkongers.
Repeated police suppression and condemnation from Beijing and Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration have not deterred grassroots organisation. Rather, Hong Kong’s civil society has become more organised and resourceful as it continues to advance its pro-democracy and anti-authoritarian agenda.
The Telegram channel and social media account “HKerschedule” is constantly filled with a wide range of protest events across different Hong Kong neighbourhoods. These events are organised by diverse groups volunteers that include students, white-collared office workers, and labour unions.
Labour unions are powerful organizations in the grassroots resistance effort. In Hong Kong, the movement has motivated workers from different industries to form trade unions. Not only are these labour unions effective in rallying its members to participate in marches and assemblies, but they also exert pressure on Hong Kong government by organising strikes and putting forth pro-democracy candidates to run in the upcoming Legislative Council election.
Over the past year, protests, community events, and assemblies have been organised not only by seasoned activists but also students as young as those in middle school.
Since the student-led protests and hunger strike in 2012 against the government’s mandatory moral and national education curriculum proposal, Hong Kong youths have become active participants and leaders in social movements.
During the anti-extradition law movement, students have, despite government warnings, organised peaceful assemblies and human chains. They have also participated in more violent clashes as protesters and volunteer medics, coming face to face with rubber bullets, teargas, pepper spray, and police batons.
Sixteen-year-old anti-extradition law protester Zita told TIME that even though she was scared, she felt the need to stand in the frontline to protect protesters who were even younger than she was. Meanwhile, Wing-tung Ho, a Hong Kong college student, led a solidarity rally in Taiwan last year in front of 10,000 Taiwanese people and Hongkongers, advocating for more collaboration between Taiwan and Hong Kong activists.
Globally, youth-led social movements have been on the rise. The young organisers and protesters in Hong Kong join the ranks of climate activist Greta Thunberg and Emma González from Parkland, Florida who organised the March for Our Lives against gun violence.
Youth-led activism is a sign of hope as it indicates that future generations refuse to be co-opted by the state, and will mobilise to continuously challenge the status quo.
Grassroots economic resistance
As street protests and assemblies become more and more high risk due to unchecked police violence, Hong Kong activists mobilised to create economic resistance, and popularised the concept of a “yellow economic circle.”
Hongkongers are encouraged to patronise local small businesses that support the movement, in order to counter chains owned by pro-Beijing corporations or individuals. This form of grassroots resistance allows Hongkongers from all walks of life to participate, which in turn promote a deep sense of solidarity and support for the movement.
This tactic also creates financial incentives, motivating local businesses to partake in the pro-democracy movement. By doing so, it helps counter an economy dominated by pro-establishment corporations that profit from their connections with Beijing.
In addition to funnelling money to small local businesses that have struggled to survive in recent years, Hongkongers’ economic resistance also holds transnational brands and corporations accountable for their words and actions.
International businesses like Apple, Starbucks, Activision Blizzard, and the NBA have been boycotted and called out by Hong Kong activists for prioritising their profits in the Chinese market over human rights concerns. This critique is not only relevant to the Hong Kong anti-extradition law movement. It also directs our attention to the more global socioeconomic problem of collusion between multinational corporations and oppressive state regimes. The yellow economic circle, in other words, has far-reaching impacts in and out of Hong Kong.
Courage and memory
Hong Kong activists understand the importance of collective memory in keeping the movement alive and sustainable. Despite police suppression, each month movement supporters commemorate the anniversary of monumental events, such as the death of college student Alex Tsz-Lok Chow, the incident of police brutality at the Prince Edward MTR station on August 31, and the Yuen Long mob attack on July 21.
These commemorations help constitute a shared identity and history among Hongkongers who support and have fought, in their own ways, for the movement. They also serve as reminders that the Hong Kong government and police force have yet to be held accountable.
This year, citing social distancing policies due to Covid-19, Hong Kong police made the unprecedented ban the annual June 4 candlelight vigil at Victoria Park to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Despite governmental suppression, the organiser of the vigil remained steadfast. Even though the gathering was deemed unlawful, thousands of Hongkongers streamed into Victoria Park, filling several courts. Just hours before the vigil was set to occur, the Hong Kong Legislative Council, dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, had passed the national anthem bill, which criminalises altering the anthem’s lyrics and singing it “in a distorted or disrespectful way.”
By showing up at Victoria Park or in their respective neighbourhoods to commemorate June 4, Hongkongers made it clear that they would not succumb to governmental suppression and laws that were intended to instil widespread fear and self-censorship.
Amidst Beijing’s continual encroachment and crackdown, we need to remember that despair, resignation, amnesia, and defeatism will only work in the regime’s favour. As Solnit reminds us, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes.”
The odds right now seem to be stacked against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy struggle, but this is exactly why we need to cultivate and practice radical hope in ourselves and in each other.