Last week images of Hong Kong citizens storming the Legislative Council dominated the international press. Global audiences love a revolution, especially when it fits neatly into a David and Goliath narrative: Goliath, in this case, is the authoritarian Chinese state, the ineffectual chief executive and her government, and the police, whose excessive use of force was found by Amnesty International to be a violation of international law.
The protesters’ objective: oppose the government’s proposed amendments to a law that would allow any person in Hong Kong to be extradited to and face trial in China, a country whose legal system has been criticised for pervasive human rights abuses and procedural unfairness. They also demanded that the government retract the designation of a previous protest as a “riot”, hold the police accountable for their unreasonable use of force, and enact universal suffrage and democracy. Brian Leung, the only protester to take off his mask, read out these demands in the form of the Admiralty declaration. On 9 July, Carrie Lam announced in a press conference that the extradition bill was “dead” – but she has been criticised for failing to invoke a formal legal procedure of withdrawal and to meet the protesters’ other demands.
The storming of the legislature is the latest in a series of actions starting from a march in the first week of June attended by 1.3 million people. On 16 June, 2 million Hong Kongers – more than a quarter of the population – took to the streets in an unprecedented show of solidarity.
Yet one crucial aspect of the protests has not made the headlines. It’s a simple slogan, that has been circulated on Telegram groups and the local online forum LIHKG, airdropped on to the phones of passersby on the street, turned into widely shared graphics and zines: “Preserve yourself and the collective; no division.”
Why is this so significant? It’s because unity has not come easily. After the 2014 umbrella movement failed to secure universal suffrage for citizens – who to this day have minimal say over the choice of Hong Kong’s top leader – the pro-democracy camp fractured seemingly beyond repair. Radical activists criticised traditional democratic parties for their protests commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and 1 July 1997 handover, which they saw as ritualistic and ultimately ineffectual. They insisted on an “any means necessary” approach to achieving their political goals of revolution and even independence. In turn, party politicians and more moderate factions criticised direct action campaigners for alienating moderate sections of Hong Kong society as well as international audiences in pursuit of inchoate goals.
Many Hong Kongers found themselves disillusioned about the possibility of change – exacerbated by the disqualification of democratically elected lawmakers, the politicised imprisonment of pro-democracy and pro-independence activists, and the building of a railway station that chipped away at Hong Kong’s legal and territorial jurisdiction.
The anti-extradition law movement has put at least a temporary end to this stasis. From the hundreds of petitions circulated by secondary schools and civil society groups, to a rally organised by housewives and mothers, to the buying of ad space in newspapers before the G20 Osaka summit, Hong Kongers in the city and around the world have shown their creativity and resilience in resistance.
This is not to say that the rifts of the past have been completely healed, or that Hong Kongers have transcended despair and helplessness; we are far more pragmatic than that. Instead, against the chief executive’s attempt to separate protesters who committed “violent acts and vandalism” from peaceful demonstrators, and some commentators’ characterisation of our movement as “divided”, we have developed a common understanding that, though we may pursue different strategies, we will never walk alone.
About 11pm on 1 July, protesters who had stormed the legislature were faced with an deadline set by the police to disperse or face forceful removal. Four protesters decided to stay until the end as the others left, prepared to face the consequences of their actions. Then, just as the others were about to leave, they decided to turn back and to carry the four remaining people out. A young woman was asked by a reporter why she was returning to save the remaining few: “I’m scared [about the police] too but I am even more scared about we may not see them [those four people] tomorrow.”
This was a defining moment of the movement – a demonstration of the unity principle: “I may not agree with what you do, but I promise that I will be there for you when you need it.” It’s in a similar vein as the message chains that spread through Hong Kongers’ Telegram groups and Facebook pages after three people died in suicides related to the extradition bill – of lists of local helplines, of contact information for counselling services offered by trained volunteers.
In the face of rising authoritarian rule, we Hong Kongers will no longer allow our judgments of each other’s capacities and strategies tear us apart. We will also take responsibility for one another, including providing support when some of us refuse help. We know that we will only succeed if we can survive as a collective; as a collective we will only survive if we cover every frontline and care for all in our corner.
• Jacky Chan Man Hei is a former secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and external secretary of Chinese University Students’ Union; Jun Pang has worked as a researcher in NGOs supporting women’s and forced migrants’ rights
• International suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.