Original: 【香港民主運動的困境──「無大台」、「排外」、「本土」、「攬炒」的思考】, published in 現代中国研究. Republished with permission.
Revisit Part 1 of the essay here.
Translators: Promise Li, Edward Hon-Sing Wong, 翡翠廢青, White Fish
Editor’s note: As the dust of the movement settles and Hongkongers face new rounds of repression on a daily basis, reorienting resistance based on the lessons of the last two years has become an urgent task for future struggle. This two-part assessment written by an active participant in the movement provides a comprehensive overview and critical look at the internal contradictions and complex socio-political forces that have brought Hong Kong’s resistance to where it is today under the National Security Laws (NSL).
The author examines various flashpoints in the movement from the limits of decentralization, disunity between moderates and radicals, xenophobic violence, the local impact of the US elections and the movement for Black lives, and the ideological evolution of the movement from localism to laam chau.1
Disinformation and polarization
Fake news has been a major presence throughout the protests, with reports of protestors being killed by the police in the aftermath of the August 31 Prince Edward Station attacks being an especially notable example. As rumors spread like wildfire, it became increasingly difficult to discern fact from falsehood. Another example is the numerous cases of “forced suicides” found making the rounds online. Considering how hard it is to procure concrete evidence, people were more or less left to fill in the blanks themselves.2
The government’s dismissal of the movement’s demands in June and July, along with the Yuen Long attack, left many Hongkongers with experiences and symptoms of collective trauma. This trauma has left many feeling unsettled, distrustful, and persecuted. A distrust of official sources and media has also left “yellow ribbon” Hongkongers susceptible to misinformation and misinterpretation. A survey conducted by Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in September 2019 discovered that high percentages of Hongkongers were influenced by fake news. This was consistent across the political spectrum, with 40% of “yellow ribbon” respondents and 60% of “blue ribbon” respondents impacted.3
On 24 September, a body was discovered floating in the Tsuen Wan waters. Since there was a suicide note at the home of the victim, and his family members arrived at the scene shortly after the police had secured the area, the police classified the case as a suicide. However, with photographs of the victim’s bloodied eyes and clenched fists taken by some journalists circulating online, conspiracy theories quickly followed.
The victim’s family members and girlfriend repeatedly rejected the narrative that the victim was murdered, and denied any connection between his death and the protest movement. At this point, some netizens began questioning the identity of the girlfriend and even attacked her. Other netizens demanded that the family make the coroner’s report public to “speak truth to power.” When the family refused, some suggested that they were being silenced. Although Dr. Philip Beh, a specialist in forensic medicine, explained that there was nothing peculiar about the appearance of the body in cases of drowning, many people chose to refute the official account.
When the body of Chan Yin-lam, a 15-year-old student, was found floating in the sea, among the conflicting reports about her death were further accusations of police involvement. Though security camera footage was released, protestors questioned whether the person in the footage was truly the victim, and suggested that it might have been an impersonator arranged by the perpetrator of Chan’s death. And when Chan’s mother expressed that her daughter had died by suicide, she was met with angry denunciations from protestors accusing her for being a negligent mother. Some, pointing to a viral photograph of a similar looking woman who had fallen to her death, questioned if Chan’s mother was also an impersonator. DNA evidence corroborating the relationship between Chan and her mother had already been produced in court at this juncture.
These are but two examples of many of rumors that remain unverified but have nevertheless deepened animosity towards the police and the “blue” camp during the protests.
‘Acceptable’ collateral damage
On February 3, 2020, Hong Kong witnessed its first healthcare workers’ strike, demanding the government to close the border and provide adequate personal protective equipment to frontline health workers. On the surface, this appeared to be a one-off, spontaneous action, but the successful strike owed much to the reorientation of the movement towards organizing labor unions to sustain the protests in the aftermath of the PolyU siege. Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong was not only a public health concern but also a focal point in the political struggle. Around the same time, far-right localists attempted to provoke xenophobic nativist sentiments under the guise of safeguarding public health.
On January 28, Kwong Wing Catering made the following Facebook post: “From this day forward, Kwong Wing restaurants will only serve Hongkongers. We will only allow orders to be made in Cantonese or English. We will not serve Mandarin speakers, period. Edit: Taiwanese friends are welcome! #WeWillCloseOurShopIfYouDon’tCloseTheBorder.” Based on the content of this post, Kwong Wing’s position is very clear: mainland Chinese people are not welcome. This move was framed ostensibly as a public health measure made out of pure self-defense given the government’s refusal to close the border. Yet, if this was the only intention, they would not have also included the following: “Corrupt Officials and Dogs Not Welcome” (狗官與狗恕不招待).4
Minnie Li, a lecturer at the Education University of Hong Kong, attempted to initiate dialogue with Kwong Wing Catering. She is also a Shanghai-born Hong Kong Permanent Resident and part of the “yellow” camp. Her invitation for a conversation was framed by “yellow ribbon” right-wing nativists as elitist, and an insidious attempt by the “colonizers” to spy on and entrap activists (放蛇). They also attacked Li for not respecting the use of diverse tactics. While Li’s commentary was diplomatic and earnest to the point of self-deprecation, it was still framed by more radical localists as a deceitful performance of innocence. According to Lewis Loud (盧斯達) and other KOLs (key opinion leaders), Li was being a “green tea bitch” (綠茶婊).5 Others argued that in order to engage with “yellow ribbon” activists, one must first declare themselves supporters of the movement. If they want to follow their support with any criticisms, they must always end with the definitive slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” Ultimately, Li’s declaration of support was still viewed by some as a sure sign of a guilty conscience, implying that if Li was confident about her politics, she would not need to make such a statement.
Is a political opinion only permissible when it is expressed in the ‘correct’ manner and is it automatically the speaker’s fault if the delivery is somehow deemed ‘incorrect’?
Apparently, direct criticism is never allowed; being tactful is putting on an innocent act; declaring comradeship is indicative of a guilty conscience. So then, what would be an appropriate response? Is a political opinion only permissible when it is expressed in the “correct” manner and is it automatically the speaker’s fault if the delivery is somehow deemed “incorrect”?
A close reading of an essay penned by Nan Nan, one of Li’s companions on the day of the proposed dialogue, reveals how awkwardly positioned “yellow ribbon” mainland Chinese immigrants are within a pro-democracy movement, not to mention wider society, rife with anti-mainland sentiment. Even though she was united with protestors in their opposition towards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), “yellow ribbons” at large might still not see her as a friend, let alone a comrade (手足); only if she unreservedly agreed with the protestors would she be considered a comrade. If she expressed any disagreement at all, let alone in good faith, she would be tarred as a “left plastic” (左膠) or “blue ribbon.”6 While new Chinese immigrants tend to be more ostracized by dint of their identity, those born and raised as Hongkongers could just as easily be alienated by these right-wing “yellow ribbons.”
I had an argument with Mr. A, one of the instigators of the new policy at Kwong Wing Catering, on the heels of the controversial move. He had taken part in devising the company’s exclusionary messaging, and admitted that the consequent posts had been released after careful planning and consultation with lawyers. The following is an outline of our conversation.
I pointed out how unreasonable it is to use language as a way to sweepingly classify particular groups as COVID super-spreaders. Just because someone speaks Mandarin does not mean that they have recently visited mainland China. Similarly, with several hundred thousands of Hongkongers regularly traversing the border or settling in the mainland, it does not mean that Cantonese speakers have collectively not travelled to China since the pandemic. Mr. A conceded that this line of reasoning made no sense, but felt it was justified because the heated discourse this could and did generate would pressure the government into closing the border. Even if it reinforced discrimination against new immigrants and mainlanders, Mr. A thought “it is inevitable that stray bullets will injure innocent people.” His logic sounded exactly like Edward Leung’s on the reporters who were surrounded and attacked by protestors in 2016’s Fishball Revolution—that they were the inevitable collateral damage of the revolution. Leung was once denounced by the mainstream pro-democracy movement. The anti-extradition protests, however, have led many young “valiants” to regard him as a prophet.
Later, I tried to reason with Mr. A again as a friend, offering my personal experience. For instance, one of my classmates from mainland China had participated in the June 12 and June 16 marches and has been vocal in her support for the anti-extradition movement. The repercussions from the Kwong Wing Catering controversy drove a wedge into her sense of belonging from fellow “yellow ribbon” comrades. At the research center on our campus, she overheard her Hongkonger colleagues make, intentionally or not, discriminatory remarks against mainlanders. I explained to Mr. A that condoning the exclusionary practices of Kwong Wing Catering would only sever the ties forged between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese comrades, thereby reducing the number of participants in our movement. In response, he countered that these mainland comrades should be all the more proactive in professing their loyalty towards the movement, so as to prove to all Hongkongers their determination to be included. Mr. A was not alone in this thinking; such views became more and more prevalent on the Internet, as many “yellow ribbons’” egos became increasingly inflated by favorable mainstream coverage of and the outpouring of international support for the movement.
Black Lives Matter and the US Election
The murder of George Floyd, who was suffocated to death from excessive force at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, sparked a nationwide uprising in the United States. However, not only did much of the right-wing “yellow” camp and the Pan-Green Coalition in Taiwan—both of whom are longtime self-proclaimed advocates for democracy and progressive values—refrain from standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM), they also condemned the protestors as “rioters” and claimed that the uprising was a CCP-backed plot to destabilize America. Their attacks against BLM eerily echoed the vilification of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong by the pro-Beijing press as rioters and foreign agents. Why would Hong Kong protestors, who have themselves experienced such smearing by the establishment, so readily reproduce identical rhetoric when the same thing happens to other dissidents?
This inconsistency can be attributed, in part, to ideological blindspots. This has nothing to do with one’s educational level; I’ve known more than a few academics who don’t think to question their own unfounded convictions. More importantly, there is a specific group of actors, including the aforementioned Mr. A, who had a clear, unobstructed understanding of the situation and yet persisted in their support for the American establishment. They denounced BLM because they believed that only a hawkish Trump administration would be capable of containing China in their eagerness to fight fire with fire: pitting Trump’s brand of populist chauvinism and xenophobia against Beijing’s nationalist authoritarianism. This is why pro-Trump Hongkongers did not hesitate to discredit BLM, magnifying then rebuking acts of violence and looting in the US even as they simultaneously excused those of Hong Kong’s own pro-democracy protestors. Ignoring the continuities of policing in both contexts, they dismissed and whitewashed the abject violence of policing in the US. On this topic, Mr. A stated, quite ironically, that “since we don’t have a full understanding of other countries’ domestic issues, we should not give them any attention.”
Compared to the Kwong Wing Catering incident, the topic of BLM has generated a more introspective and reflective response within yellow ribbon social circles. In an interview with the BBC, Demosistō’s Jeffrey Ngo voiced his support for BLM, and stated that there was only a small faction of far-right Hongkongers who supported Trump. Because of his remarks, Ngo became the target of online attacks on LIHKG. Afterwards, Joshua Wong published a letter apologizing to the netizens of LIHKG.7 In his statement, Wong apologized for verbal slips and inappropriate word choice, without clarifying Demosistō’s stance on BLM. During the annual Tiananmen vigil, a few friends and I held up placards in support of BLM, and we saw three teenagers in black bloc taking a knee in protest of American police brutality. Other than that, we did not see any other sign of recognition of the BLM protests, which were at their height at the time.
Localist candidates would often declare the primacy of political democracy over other socioeconomic issues.
Max Percy, a British resident in Hong Kong, initiated plans for a rally in support of BLM. It received positive responses online, albeit mainly from expatriates. Although the rally failed to obtain police approval and was thus cancelled, the League of Social Democrats, in support of Percy and other expatriates, staged a protest in front of the American consulate in Hong Kong. Prior to the rally, the organizers were attacked by netizens as Chinese spies, and in response, on top of condemning police brutality in the US, the League of Social Democrats stressed that support for BLM does not equate to support for Beijing or the CCP. To slander all supporters of BLM as Chinese agents or “left plastic” is to further drive a wedge between Hong Kong and American protesters to the detriment of cooperation and solidarity between these struggles.
The American presidential election only added fuel to the fire. On the pages of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai—the newspaper’s owner—wrote columns that openly supported Trump’s bid for the presidency, echoing many right-wing and liberal scholars and local internet personalities. Hong Kong’s interest in US politics had never been more vigorous and it soon became a contentious topic of discussion in yellow-ribbon circles. Lai’s personal assistant went one step further: He allegedly partook in the fabrication of slanderous materials against Trump’s rival, Joe Biden. While Lai professed his ignorance and innocence, his apology implicitly confirmed his assistant’s actions.
When election results were announced, Hong Kong netizens reacted strongly against Biden’s lead. Around the same time, Trump made unsubstantiated claims of foul play. Fake news and unverified videos and rumors about voter fraud were spreading like wildfire. When exiled activist Sunny Cheung made a Facebook post urging netizens not to so readily place their faith in unsubstantiated rumors and jump to conclusions, the comments section was deluged by messages calling him “left plastic.” Similarly, when trusted local news outlet Stand News platformed news coverage unfavorable to Trump, they too were derided as “left plastic,” with a not insignificant amount of supporters threatening to cease donations. Even people like Nathan Law, who advocated for bipartisan support, faced attacks in the same vein. In reality, the political stances of Nathan Law, Sunny Cheung, or Stand News cannot be considered left-wing in any way, reflecting the zero-sum mentality of their detractors who leveled the label “left plastic” without any real understanding of the political spectrum.
Since the Kwong Wing Catering incident, these political personalities and media platforms have at best remained silent bystanders, and at worst actively fueled xenophobia and persecution of dissenters within the movement. This dynamic gave rise to a faction of radical yellow ribbons whose actions were akin to the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The consequences of their earlier indifference to this incipient right-wing radicalism have come back to haunt them as they face attacks from the reactionary forces they themselves helped to cultivate.
The romance of localism and colonial nostalgia
The intense struggle for ideological dominance between the localist right and the centrist “old guard” pan-democrats has culminated in the flourishing of the former and the increasing unpopular liberalism of the latter. The left in Hong Kong, meanwhile, has always been weak, and amidst these tensions, has only become further marginalized. As the movement became more radicalized, a common refrain heard on the scenes of protests, chanted by youth protestors, was “Hong Kong Independence is the only way out” (香港獨立，唯一出路).
This ideological shift in the movement was readily evident in the pro-democracy primaries for the since-suspended 2020 Legislative Council (LegCo) elections,8 where militant localist groups would rally around this idea: “Make localism the mainstream.” It is worth noting that while localist candidates would never proclaim themselves as “pro-independence” in their official branding, as that would surely bar them from legally running for the LegCo, it is nevertheless hard to ascertain how many within the localist camp are truly pro-independence in general. Localist candidates would often declare the primacy of political democracy over other socioeconomic issues (只談民主，不講民生) as an edge with which to discredit more moderate pan-democrats who opposed the former’s scorched earth ethos. At this stage, the movement can no longer ignore lingering questions about Hong Kong’s class contradictions and economic disparities.
During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, localist Ventus Lau frequently advocated for Hong Kong independence, although he would later renounce his position in the 2018 LegCo by-elections. However, a 2016 post made on his Facebook page reveals an underlying tenet of localist thought: “On the second day of Hong Kong’s independence, the present lifestyle of Hong Kong citizens will remain unchanged.” Reflected in this statement is the localist’s avoidance of Hong Kong’s longstanding wealth and resource disparity between the rich and the poor—a consequence of neoliberalism that can be traced back to the British colonial era.
Ideas of laam chau, so vocally championed during the primaries by the localists, are premised upon the expectation that, upon gaining a majority in the LegCo, the pro-democracy voting bloc could reject all government budget and policy proposals, thereby paralyzing the state apparatus. Outside of parliamentary politics, localist political figures also expressed hopes to convince the American government to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading status as a means of applying economic pressure on China. Unfortunately, the NSL, hastily implemented by Beijing, pre-empted the localists’ laam chau strategy before it could do any real damage to China. Following the implementation of the NSL, Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were instead confronted with a flurry of political persecution that forced many into exile and imprisoned those who remained.
On Oct 5, 2020, Finn Lau would reveal himself to be the LIHKG user “I want Laam Chau” (攬炒巴) and the leader of Hong Kong Liberty (攬炒團隊). In a viral video, Lau claimed to be the first to come up with the strategy of laam chau, and emphasized that the Hong Kong Liberty team would fight for an international brand of Hong Kong self-determination (國際下的香港自治) that would be free from Chinese control. Without irony, the British colonial flag of Hong Kong hangs in the background as Lau characterized Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997 as an act of illegal occupation. A month later, on November 6, Lau posted on Facebook that those who aided and abetted the expansion of Chinese Communist capital are enemies of the Hong Kong people, appending his post with a picture proclaiming “Hong Kong is not China.” His actions and rhetoric beg the question: Is his conceptualization of the “Hong Kong nation” based on the Hong Kong that existed under British colonial rule?
The house arrest in Shenzhen of veteran pro-democracy activist Alexandra Wong—better known as Grandma Wong—during the protests attracted much international attention as well. She has been a fixture of the pro-democracy scene since the days of the Umbrella Movement, often seen holding a yellow umbrella or placards emblazoned with protest slogans. Sometimes, she would be seen waving a Union Jack. To Grandma Wong, Finn Lau, or any of the other protestors who would brandish British flags at protests, the valorization of the Union Jack and other colonial-era iconography is not so much a nostalgic longing for the “good old days” of the colonial regime as it refracts contemporary dissatisfaction towards the status quo.9 More poignantly, this fixation on Hong Kong’s colonial past is reflective of the pro-democracy movement’s actual lack of confidence in the substance of the independent and truly local Hongkonger identity on which it relies.
How to ‘really fucking love Hong Kong’
Two days after the implementation of the NSL, a large banner appeared in the July 1 parade: “We really fucking love Hong Kong” (我哋真係好撚鍾意香港). This proclamation has since become one of the movement’s major slogans.
Around the same time, a local film, Beyond the Dream, started screening in theaters and aroused heated discussions. Many young viewers praised the film’s beautiful shots of Tuen Mun. It ended up becoming one of the few Hong Kong productions to make it into the year’s top ten box office hits. Li Mei-ting, a PhD candidate at CUHK, wrote an article problematizing the misogyny in the film, which immediately raised the ire of the film’s supporters. Some of them regarded Li’s critique as the idle musings of an intellectual who is detached from the realities on the ground. They further argued that the “local power” demonstrated by the film was more worthy of attention than Li’s critique. This is not an isolated incident. Throughout the protests, anyone who offended the right-wing localists effectively opened themselves up to all kinds of attacks. In the face of “the local,” feminism must make way; in the face of “democracy,” socioeconomic inequities must also make way.
Li responded to these criticisms in another essay: “The gung-ho acceptance of Beyond the Dream uncovers the depth of the desperation for the ‘local.’ The Tuen Mun portrayed through beautiful cinematography does not look like Tuen Mun as it is, but rather resembles the idyllic cityscapes of Japanese dramas, which some have noted and praised. In an attempt to capture a renewed notion of ‘Hong Kong,’ we have reached into a Japanophilic imaginary. What kind of local desire is really being drawn upon?”10 Be it the Beyond the Dream phenomenon, or Grandma Wong and Finn Lau’s brandishing of the British colonial flag, Hong Kong’s localist imagination is premised on aligning with and seeking approval from external others, as if it would suffice as a means to flesh out a lack within the self.
If Hongkongers would like the pro-democracy movement to progress further, they may want to chew on the words of CUHK professor Song Hwee Lim: “It’s not that intellectuals are incapable of understanding what true love is, but love, in the capacity of ‘really fucking love Hong Kong,’ cannot become the outer limits of critical thinking. The primary and ultimate task of intellectuals is to be responsible for the truthfulness and accuracy of knowledge (to be clear, political correctness is a separate issue). If to demand such true ‘love’ also means obscuring, concealing, or even denying the right and responsibility to reflect, we must be all the more vigilant about the distance we have yet to close in our pursuit of love.”
Revisit Part 1 of the essay here
- Laam chau (攬炒) refers to the principle of mutually assured destruction that has become a well-known catchphrase in the 2019 protests.
- Contacts close to localist protestors admitted that they have witnessed groups in charge of information and communication (文宣組) producing misinformation by tampering with photos and videos.
- In Hong Kong social movement parlance, the “yellow” camp or “yellow ribbons” denote anti-establishment protestors, whereas the “blue” camp or “blue ribbons” refer to pro-establishment and pro-police individuals.
- Establishment figures are typically referred to as dogs.
- “Green tea bitch” is a misogynistic Cantonese slang describing women who portray themselves as pure and innocent to fulfill an ulterior motive.
- Jor gau or “left plastic” is a derogatory Cantonese catchphrase for people who are liberal to left ideologically and unstrategic practically. It first became popular as a derogatory phrase against certain protestors who object to any form of escalation and radical action. It is closely associated with lei dei (離地), a term of derision used to characterize certain strategies or arguments as out of touch, unpragmatic, or too “academic.”
- This apology by Wong was likely written in response to a slightly different controversy surrounding Ngo: After Ngo was attacked, he took to his private Instagram account and posted stories that lambasted LIHKG commenters in a humiliating way. Someone took screenshots of those stories and shared it widely. Wong’s apology statement came immediately after those screenshots were shared. -eds.
- The primaries held by the pro-democracy camp were a coordinated attempt at electoral strategy, aimed at increasing the likelihood of pro-democracy candidates being elected to LegCo in the 2020 elections. Occurring once every four years, the 2020 elections could not be a better opportunity to capitalize on the wave of pro-democratic political radicalization spurred by the protests.
- It’s worth noting that while some iconic political figures would fly the Union Jack or the Hong Kong colonial flag, they were a minority in marches and rallies. Many supporters of Finn Lau and Grandma Wong often do not realize that these flags carry complex political and ideological connotations. To them, these flags simply demonstrated resistance.