ON THE FRONTLINE: The Hong Kong protests – On being in and against the crowd

ON THE FRONTLINE: The Hong Kong protests – On being in and against the crowd

Petula Sik Ying Ho

In 2014, the Umbrella Movement and its occupation took 79 days. The anti-extradition movement has now lasted for more than 100 days. Hong Kong entered its 17th straight weekend of unrest last Saturday (September 28th, 2019). The previous week, police fired tear gas in Tuen Mun as protesters blocked roads, started fires and smashed up a light rail stop. There was a sit-in at Yuen Long MTR station to mark two months since gangs of men, wearing white, attacked commuters. There is no end in sight to these protests. But for reasons that I will explain below, I am a ‘Category A War Criminal’ of the movement, someone whose support is suspect, just because it is also critical.

Class boycott
In the first lecture of the new term (on September 4th), things seemed normal. There were just a handful of students participating in the class boycott at Hong Kong University.  In the second week, there was more noise on campus.

I was teaching Foucault’s Discipline and Punish when a group of students began shouting slogans outside the lecture room. It was so loud that I could not carry on. I paused and said to the class, if you want to respond, feel free. The class smiled and we resumed.  After a while, the students came back, this time louder than last time, this time at our door. I got more anxious as the class was looking at me and waiting to see how I would respond to this challenge. I said, “You can decide for yourselves what you want to do. Just feel free.” Suddenly, one of the female students shouted, “光復香港 (Liberate Hong Kong)” and the whole class responded, “時代革命 (The revolution of our times)!” This is the most widely celebrated slogan in town. The majority of the class of 120 participated in this slogan shouting in the classroom.

The female student who initiated this was wearing a black mask and sitting at the back of the classroom. I could feel my heart beating fast. I tried to hide my fear and embarrassment and carry on with the lecture. It took some time for me and the tutors in the class to calm down because we were worried that the protesters were coming after me. Some of us were even worried that the female student was not on the course, but was some kind of agent provocateur. We concluded, after some discussion, that we were a bit too worried

The angry crowd
As a ‘Category A War Criminal’ of the movement,  I am dead, politically. I just have to worry about my own safety in public areas. I am not saying that the thousands of people who criticize me, including my friends and people I know are rioters (as portrayed by the government) are no different from the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. But they are angry people who hate our government, the Chinese Communist Party and the police who have hurt them ruthlessly. Angry people who are resisting political violence and have suffered under authoritarian rules can be quite emotional. Hong Kong young people, with their intense experience of being confronted by police brutality for over 100 days in all corners of Hong Kong, can now also be violent when they see their enemies. My personal psychological trauma has somehow enabled me to imagine their trauma as they confront violence of a much wider scope, especially when these were inflicted on the body and not just the soul. If I happen to be one of their enemies, I must be careful.

I must be careful but not be fearful. I should try to make sense of this and reflect on my own experience in order to understand how this can shed light on the movement especially the unresolved conflicts between the “Valiant” (those who go to the front lines and clash with the police) and the “Pacifist” (the so-called “Peaceful, rational and non-violent”).

Who are the war criminals within the movement and what are their worst crimes?
How did I become a Category A War Criminal? This happened during the General Strike in Hong Kong against the proposed anti-extradition bill on August 5, 2019. The incident took place outside the Tin Shui Wai Police Station, during a rally in support of a young woman who had been arrested the night before, whose dress was pulled up, exposing her underpants and private parts during her arrest by riot police. The police charged the people gathered at the rally, arresting 76 people there in one day. I became the target of attack by the radical pro-confrontation factions of the movement on Facebook, the LIHKG forum and Telegram mobile message channels. I was advised to shut up by friends and ’Pacifists’. Specifically, the Valiant accused me of two main crimes:

  • First, I asked the protesters not to throw bricks at the police when I should have pointed my finger at the police rather than the protesters.
  • Second, I used the microphone to give instructions, an indication of me wanting to be the leader on the big stage in a leaderless movement. And that I used it to ask them to stand still, which led to arrests, for which I was blamed.

The whole incident was broadcast live on Facebook, but there was no evidence of anything like that. In spite of all the clarifications I made to explain that I had not said any of those things they went on to attack me, including reporting me to the police for inciting people to illegal assembly.

The Pacifists joined the Valiant in condemning me for other crimes. Again, no fact-check was required. These were:

  • Doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Together with a group of feminists, I had read a statement to condemn sexual violence by the police in front of the police station which was condemned as a crime in a war zone.
  • This is the typical crime of Pacifists (the peaceful, rational discussion and non-violence protesters) in whose number I might have been thought to be, but they have already learnt to do better (so that they will not be in the way of the militant radical protesters). My crime was not yet to have understood this shift.
  • My lack of real actions to rescue young protesters on the spot is also a typical crime committed by supposed elites who have all the status and resources, but they have not used them for the right purpose of protecting young people.
  • As Pacifists, there are other things that we can do to redeem ourselves as we were not the ones who would be arrested and put into jail. One suggestion was that I should report myself to the police in order to show my sincere regret.

The online harassment with swear words and various forms of hate speech that followed from both camps were overwhelming. There were more than 1,000 comments attacking me under the post where I made my clarifications, not to count the thousands of shares and the repercussions that they have triggered elsewhere on social media.

The rules about dos and don’ts for the Pacifists are widely circulated online and finally I see their power. We are not supposed to question these rules explicitly. Rather, we should have trust in young people and the online forums with their own mechanism of self-correction and reflections.

  • There is no big stage. It is a leaderless movement. If anyone shows their face by not wearing a mask, they are trying to claim credit and that is a sin.
  • There are no visible leaders but there is a dominant ideology to protect the militant young protesters who are now the centre of the movement. They have sacrificed their future for Hong Kong and we others should all feel guilty of our own weaknesses, and those of the “peace-centred” (“和理非”) methods of campaigning that have led us nowhere.
  • We have no rights to criticize the Valiant if you are not one of them!
  • So, the peaceful faction has to declare this most hilarious statement every time after seeing the vandalising actions of the Valiant. 放核彈我都唔割蓆 “I won’t cut the mattress even if you drop a nuclear bomb on us!” ‘Cutting the mattress’ means to ‘unfriend’

Most of my friends who are Pacifists believe that the significance of this solidarity is what has kept the mass together against the efforts of the government to exploit disagreements within the movement. They believe that this is such a formidable achievement that we should treasure it rather than ruining it by making a complaint about any personal suffering or small sacrifices of individuals. I resisted. If you don’t care about suppressing alternative views within your own movement, aren’t you acting in the same way as the authorities you are opposing? What won’t you be willing to do?

Coming back, alive
The first few weeks of my life as a war criminal were particularly tough, but I got through it with some kind support. I wrote a long piece on Stand News to express my views on the movement making use of an online dialogue I had with Brian Leung, who was the hero breaking into the LegCo building on July 1st which was seen to be the militant action that had helped suspend the Bill. Brian used to be an HKU student and is now doing his PhD at the University of Washington. That night, he took off his mask and then made a statement about the political aims of their valiant action.

During the skype meeting, I tried to engage him in an evaluation of the movement and a discussion of what is true valiance, solidarity and what are the subjugated voices of the movement. So, I made my way back to the public sphere through him. It was not an easy come back. I got some attention and recognition, but my refusal to be silenced has triggered a new wave of attack. But this time, it was much more manageable and so I decided to reply to them especially those who claimed to have attended my classes before and said they were so disappointed to see me resorting to “expressive individualism” in the way I talk about my own experiences. I was seen as having lost sight of the broader movement when I talked about my own case and evading my responsibilities – as an elite person – to protect young people.

This sort of narrative shows how common it is for netizens and protesters to exclude people from engaging with questions that could be unsettling or disturbing. The impact of political participation on our personal life, friendships and family life could not be any clearer as we are not even allowed to talk about these things in any public space without risking becoming a war criminal. This makes it even more important that we make better use of our research as the safe space for democratizing knowledge production!

The egg and the high wall
When Haruki Murakami accepted the Jerusalem Prize as part of the Jerusalem International Book Fair and said this, “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” What is the meaning of this metaphor? We felt so encouraged by this speech during the Umbrella Movement. Many of us have taken it to mean the that we should always stand on the side of the eggs. We have gone so far as to believe that the eggs are always right or, even if they were not, we have to defend them. We would never dare to speak the truth because it is not the ethos of the movement to express independent views. We want to be on the side of the less powerful and the victims of oppression and we do not have to admit our fault and come to terms with our own darkness because the government and the police were much worse.

Even if protesters are the victim of political violence, does that make it right to escalate the violence? ? Should one bully those who are less powerful because they are not seen as the protagonist of protest performance? Should we be silent when we see women protesters bullied by other protesters? Damaging objects, vandalizing the MTR and beating up the police and the Mainlanders, is that really the right thing to do? Feminists talk so much about condemning gender and sexual violence so why do we turn a blind eye to the online abuse against the police’s wives and their families? Violence breeds violence. Does it matter? Should we turn a blind eye to violence within the movement and violence against the police just to protect the image of the movement? This is not a matter of the consequences to me personally of thinking differently. Violence by the movement against voices of dissent is creating autocratic conditions within the movement: How should we challenge this? The end does not justify the means, but the means may destroy the end.

When I read Haruki Murakami today I think it means that each one of us is so fragile when we are facing a high wall so we should protect each egg rather than be a part of the system that silences the marginalized. If we don’t care about suppressing alternative views within our own movement, we are acting in the same way as the authorities we are opposing. What is this movement about if there is no ethics of care?


Petula Sik Ying Ho is Professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at Hong Kong University. Her work is at the forefront of gender and sexuality qualitative research and cross-cultural comparative studies. Her recent work includes, Love and Desire in Hong Kong, co-edited with Ka Tat Tsang. She is also author of I am Ho Sik Ying, 55 years old (2013), Everyday Life in the Age of Resistance (2015), and co-author of Umbrella Politics Quartet (2015). Her research projects include using documentary films to explore the integration of arts and scholarship. They include: 22 Springs: The Invincible (2010); The “Kong-lo” Chronicles and The Umbrella Movement: A Collaborative Focus Group Analysis” (2016); Doing Qualitative Research Together (2018). Her recent documentary films and research based multi-media theatre Labouring Women Devised Theatre (2016) call for the imagination of new modalities of social activism beyond those that are historically recognized or culturally sanctioned as being ‘political’ to include various forms of cultural interventions and practices of care and solidarity.