Since the passing of the National Security Law (NSL), the Hong Kong government has used it not only to prosecute and deter protesters and activists, but to generate a diffused sense of fear and anxiety among people uncertain whether they are next in line to be arrested.

Over just the last few weeks, student activist Tony Chung was charged under the NSL and denied bail while others were arrested; RTHK producer Bao Choy was arrested for investigating police misconduct in Yuen Long; eight pro-democracy lawmakers were arrested; and police launched a multi-platform national security hotline for people to report on one another. It received over 2,500 tips within hours. The chilling effect of the NSL is palpable in people’s everyday lives. 

Bao Choy Yuk Ling RTHK Fanling Court
Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

It is no surprise that the government targets youth activists, journalists, and lawmakers as they are key actors who motivate the public to investigate and deliberate on political truths and policies. By prosecuting them, the government is intentionally generating a diffused sense of fear and disempowerment among Hongkongers in general, in which everyone worries about their own safety and the safety of loved ones.

Social movement scholar Zeynep Tufekci, who covered both the Umbrella Movement and Anti-Extradition Movement, observes that suppressive state governments often seek to “produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people.” She argues that they do so partly by delegitimising credible news media, deliberately sowing confusion, fear and doubt in the public sphere, and harassing and surveilling activists and dissidents on and offline.

Beijing and the Hong Kong government have deployed all these strategies to undermine the agency and spirit of Hongkongers. As people become discouraged and scared, Tufekci posits, they slip into a state of paralysis and stop organising collective political actions, which ultimately benefits the government’s efforts to preserve the status quo.

protest bricks "August 24, 2019"
A photo of frontline protesters taken at a protest on August 24, 2020. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

Tufekci is not the only social movement scholar whose observations are relevant to Hong Kong. In order to sustain and build on what the Anti-Extradition Movement started last year, there are several other lessons we can glean. 

Negative political emotions and actions 

Since the NSL put an abrupt end to over a year of street protests and direct action, the collective feelings in Hong Kong have shifted from anger to despair. In studying the ACT UP movement in the late 1980s, sociologist Deborah Gould observes that social movements are always driven by feelings. In grassroots movements, activists are motivated by each other to feel angry about the injustice they are fighting against. The culture of such movements, however, seldom allows people to experience and transform negative feelings like despair, disappointment, and depression collectively into political action. As a result, people who despair feel alone and gradually retreat from the movement. 

As a deep sense of disempowerment sets in among Hongkongers, we need to collectively reckon with these negative feelings, hold space for each other to deeply feel the despair of the moment, and think through how we can mobilise these feelings to sustain other forms of grassroot organising. We can begin by supporting local organizations such as From Trauma to Transformation, which has been offering seminars, storytelling workshops and art exhibits to help Hongkongers process social trauma collectively. 

Tactical freeze and civil resistance 

While street protests and anti-government direct actions are no longer permitted under the NSL, there are other ways to sustain the movement in our everyday lives. After examining decentralised social movements in the US, Turkey, Egypt, and Hong Kong, Tufekci remarks that many suffer from “tactical freeze”: when political situations change, activists and protesters fail to adopt new tactics to sustain the movement. 

During the Anti-Extradition Movement, Hongkongers overcame tactical freeze by consistently inventing new forms of resistance that allowed people from different social locations to attend. In addition to street protests, marches, and assemblies, there were also mall sing-alongs, letter writing campaigns, the yellow economic circle and strikes.

While the NSL makes many of these activities too risky, there are other ways of civil resistance that Hongkongers can adopt to sustain the movement and combat feelings of despair and disempowerment. 

hongkongers' golden week yellow shop queue "May 1 2020"
Citizens lined up outside a “yellow” shop in Causeway Bay on May 1. File Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

After studying social movements from 1900 to 2008, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan find that movements which deploy non-violent civil resistance are twice as effective in achieving their stated goals. Having a robust civil society, hence, is crucial, especially under draconian state suppression.

Xi Jinping’s administration has been cracking down on civil society in mainland China, forcing many non-profit organizations either to go underground or become depoliticised. With the implementation of the NSL and the government’s continual suppression of political freedom, civil society in Hong Kong is already under siege.

By transferring our collective energies from street protests to supporting civil society organisations, we can protect and strengthen our local capacity for resistance. Some examples of community grassroots organizations include FixingHK and 自己社區自己搞 (Organize Our Own Neighborhood) – both focus on building mutual aid networks to sustain the spirit of democracy. 

Advocating for and working alongside marginalised communities is a crucial tenet in building a just and democratic political future in Hong Kong. Doing so can also help strengthen the city’s civil society as it allows more people from different backgrounds to take part in the public sphere. Social causes such as LGBTQ rights, labour rights, gender equity, and anti-racist efforts, in other words, are intimately connected to the free political future we have been fighting for during the Anti-Extradition Movement.

Depending on our individual interests and positionality, we can divert our attention and resources to support organizations such as HER Fund, Hong Kong Unison, Refugee Union, and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. By strengthening our own community and building a coalition with marginalised groups in Hong Kong, we are signalling to ourselves, the government and the world how resilient we are. It’s time for “be water” to take on a new meaning.

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Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.