Editor’s note: Over three months ago, a student from McGill University was spending her fall semester studying abroad in Hong Kong at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). She was present throughout much of its occupation, including the night protesters and police clashed on 11 November. She shares her experience and observations of the movement in this article and through her photo collection. Originally published on 14 February, it has been translated from French for Harbour Times.
In June 2019, the protests in opposition to the government continued to escalate until the turn of the decade. What originally began as a demand to completely withdraw the extradition law proposed by Carrie Lam’s office transformed into a mass movement, calling for full democracy, justice, and political representation centred around five demands.
After seven months of demonstrations both peaceful and violent, the number of organised protests have declined, largely due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Even though the government has since retracted the bill, the two opposing groups remain reluctant to making any new concessions.
The death of Chow Tsz-Lok in November, caused by a parking lot fall during a demonstration, was subject to suspicion of police misconduct and led to an eruption of chaos in HK. On 11 November, many campuses had gone under siege, including CUHK. My presence during the occupation allowed me to note certain characteristics of the movement which reflected those of the protests as a whole.
From an outsider’s point of view, the lack of one or more leaders could lead one to think that the movement is anarchical, without real cohesion nor organisation. However, this does not mean total chaos as the movement is in fact a functioning decentralised organisation.
After the complete blocking-off of the CUHK campus and the evacuation of the university’s administrative members, the protesters took the initiative to occupy various positions essential for campus management; some turned to the kitchen to feed the hundreds of protesters while others were in charge of managing the dorms or the students evacuating the campus. Some protesters even converted a stolen van into an ambulance. Health and safety positions, as well as molotov cocktail making, were also undertaken. Each one was taking his or her place in an emerging and efficient horizontal society, at least in the short term.
This particular organisation is emblematic of the broader movement. Indeed, at a time in which protesters claim for more freedom and democracy, their decision-making is conducted as a community on the internet using a voting system. For example, on 22 August after a woman’s eye was wounded in Tsim Sha Tsui by a projectile many linked to the police, the protesters deliberated on these internet forums before deciding to conduct a four day sit-in at the Hong Kong International Airport.
This way of functioning contrasts with the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which had young activist Joshua Wong take the helm as the campus protests evolved into the large-scale demonstrations they are recognised as today. In the recent demonstrations, no members claimed themselves as leader. When the Time Magazine Person of the Year reader poll was released, the movement was represented as the “Hong Kong protesters”, symbolizing the movement’s organic cohesion.
The relationship with the police
The relationship between protesters and the police is another characteristic of the movement that was showcased during the university campus occupation. At the beginning of the CUHK siege, the protesters, most of who were students, blocked the road and the MTR rail which passes below one of the university’s bridges. In response, the police intervened onto what was considered the private property of CUHK. The protesters therefore felt threatened by this reaction and entitled to defend themselves.
This triggered violent clashes between the two parties, with clouds of tear gas and molotov cocktails filling the campus air. The police finally withdrew at night, and the students stayed for a number of days awaiting their return. They made defense preparations during this time; in vain as it turned out as the police never came back. Controlling such a space required so much physical, intellectual, and psychological efforts that the lack of police response made it absurd to remain. The area was evacuated three days later, in order to support other occupations taking place throughout the city.
This experience shows how much the police strategy influences the actions of the protesters and the outcome of the clashes. A student pointed out to me in late September that the protests only became violent when police intervened.
The role of social media
Social media also plays a crucial role in the development of the protests. On one end, as we have seen, it allows the organisation of actions without a structural hierarchy to govern decision-making. On the other end, it is also a space to share information about the events as they occur, as well as a one to share the opinions from different perspectives. At the time of the CUHK occupation, the protesters informed each other of the events that had taken place via social media. Thus, it was possible for us to access information about the clashes with the police from the safety of our dormitories.
Social media also constitutes an alternative to traditional media for informing oneself on the specific aspects of the grievances brought by the movement. The protesters are using journalistic techniques to advance their opinion and share information about the movement. It acts as an alternative – though not a complete substitute – to media outlets positioned in favour of the government.
The Instagram account @peoplevsbeijing is an example of this. It publishes mini-reports of ten photos centred around a theme, such as solidarity with Tibetans or Lithuanians, for example. Finally, they stand as proof of their freedom of expression and thought, in contrast to the regime in place in mainland China.
The occupation of CUHK therefore serves as an example of a movement which initially appears chaotic due to its anarchic nature, as completely devoid of hierarchy. But the result is, in fact, a horizontal (rather than vertical) organisation, which was constructed with the use of social media and in response to police strategies.
This cohesion has since eroded in the face of the coronavirus which has exacerbated tensions and xenophobia toward citizens from mainland China. Rallies and strikes by medical personnel in the last month multiplied in protest against the government’s management of the crisis, deemed to be slow and ineffective, reflecting protester’s ability to use social grievances to advance their opinion.
Despite calling for city-wide solidarity, the polarisation of HK’s society seems to reinforce and evolve itself as the city meets new obstacles, undermining the core values of collective decision-making and shared interests that protest organisers hoped the movement would represent.