Op-Ed: Hong Kong’s new political lexicon

Anti-extradition bill protesters take part in a march to West Kowloon railway station in Hong Kong, China, July 7, 2019.
(Chan Long Hei /EPA-EFE/REX)

For many of my fellow citizens in Hong Kong, June 2019 has broken new ground in the city’s political imagination. With mass street rallies against the extradition of criminal suspects to China, violent police crackdowns and the storming of the Legislative Council Complex, we’ve entered a time of living dangerously and truthfully — in opposition to an autocratic and intransigent government and in solidarity with the youth on the front line and their moral clarity.

Hong Kongers are first and foremost quick-witted pragmatists. They don’t typically embrace theories or ideologies about consciousness liberation. But that is what’s happening today, and in the process, they have added new keywords to the city’s political lexicon. This must be recognized as a victory, regardless of the fate of the extradition bill and Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her government.

Never in my lifetime has existential “desperation” been the talk of the town. Hong Kongers, who built a world-class city, like to speak of hope, aspiration and diligence, even in the face of grotesque inequality. Desperation in public discourse is new to the city’s emotional landscape. For young and old, there is a common belief that our future is all but doomed by the extradition bill, the last straw in a long list of legislation and policies chipping away Hong Kong’s freedom, civil liberty and rule of law, and with these, its identity and essence.


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For the younger generations, the darkness seems total. On LIHKG, the online platform that has become the headquarters of protests, young people lament hopeless and dreamless lives of poorly paid dead-end jobs in the world’s most expensive housing market. Their parents’ generation echoes with a sense of guilt that it did not fight hard enough for democracy when it might have been more possible. It was this deep emotional connection across generations, united by a sense that “we have nothing more to lose,” that sent millions of people to the streets in June.

The appearance of “martyrs” this June was also a first in the city’s political conversation. At first, the term was used to demand the release of those who were arrested during the June 12 confrontations with the riot police who fired more than 150 canisters of tear gas, 20 rounds of bean bags and a handful of rubber bullets. Then on June 15, televisions and social media broadcast live the fatal fall of a 35-year-old man in yellow raincoat from the luxury mall Pacific Place after unfurling a protest banner demanding the withdrawal of the “evil bill.” The next day, 2 million people came out to mourn his death, leaving behind miles of flowers. Days later, a university student and a young woman jumped to their deaths, leaving suicide notes demanding the bill’s withdrawal. Another suicide related to the protests was confirmed in recent days. Social media commentators drew parallels from these deaths with democracy struggles in South Korea and Taiwan.

In 2014, the Umbrella Movement and the jailing of the Occupy Central leaders popularized civil disobedience in Hong Kong and its principle of breaking the law to achieve justice. Now, with ever more blatant abuses by the government of our public institutions, the term “institutional violence” has entered everyday parlance. In the wake of the government and pro-establishment elite’s condemnation of physical violence, public opinion largely swayed in protesters’ favor, as people asked, “Is the destruction of some glass doors more violent than the destruction of young lives?”

“Be water,” and other vernacular phrases such as “climbing mountains together, making your own effort” and “let flowers bloom everywhere” have taken on new meaning. They now invite citizens to open up new modes of decentralized action: schoolgirls posting flyers they created, mass visits to the tax headquarters, rallies initiated by housewives and mothers, community-focused marches. Subverting the playbook of movements emphasizing leadership and organization, protesters are creating a broader, organic sense of ownership of the movement.

Everywhere, the spirit of solidarity is strong. Minutes before armed police were to regain control of the Legislative Council building, a dozen protesters who had already fled to safety risked their own lives to return to extract the four people who had declared their determination to stay and face death. Live television featured a young woman’s trembling voice explaining their action, “we are all very, very scared, but we are even more scared by the thought of not seeing these four tomorrow …” Never mind that they didn’t know each other.


This particular moment has shown Hong Kongers what binds us together. We have always imagined ourselves to be global citizens, but only as homo economicus boasting a free port, a global financial market, top-notch international culinary choices, glittering marble-lined malls, and voracious consumption of all things foreign. Now, we show we also belong to the world as freedom fighters.

As with the Umbrella Movement, Beijing so far has shown restraint in avoiding bloodshed in this uprising, perhaps cognizant of Hong Kong’s unique role in acquiring strategic technology, internationalization of the renminbi, and unification with Taiwan. Protesters have vowed to dig in, bracing for a long battle. June 2019 will go down in history as a turning point, because the actions of Hong Kong’s people have opened up new territories in their hearts and minds, something Beijing has tried in vain to capture for 22 years.

Ching Kwan Lee is a professor of sociology at UCLA and co-editor of the forthcoming book, “Take Back Our Future: An Eventful Sociology of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement.”