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The Revolution Will Not Be Trending – Hong Kong, Social Media, and The Failure of Attention Politics

A question: why did the Hong Kong protests fail?

First: a story.

In 2016 Yau Wai-Ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, of the localist, independence-advocating group “Youngspiration”, were elected to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s, um legislative body. This was a big step for the localist movement – it seemed to reflect the general changing of the guard in Hong Kong opposition politics, as a new generation of activists educated in the 2014 Umbrella Movement took their first steps into the Hong Kong political system proper, a journey that might one day result in their radical goals – varying from full non-Beijing vetted universal suffrage, almost full autonomy from China in all areas, or even independence – becoming serious topics of political discussion. All they had to do was the oath-swearing ceremony, standard-issue boilerplate nonsense for politicians all over the world. British Labour politicians swear to a monarchy they might not really care about; every Party member in the mainland has to swear to “fight for communism”, even Jack Ma. A simple oath-swearing ceremony is all it takes to be In Politics; if you don’t want to do that, there’s always the principled stance of – for example – the British MPs representing the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, who have refused for decades to take their seats in every respective Parliament as they’re unwilling to swear allegiance to the Queen.

Yau Wai-Ching and Baggio Leung had different ideas. Yau decided that instead of repeating the clause about the “People’s Republic of China” she’d do something else; she replaced the word ‘Republic’ with ‘Refucking’, which isn’t even a word, and ‘China’ with ‘Shina’, which is an old-fashioned Japanese term made offensive in the modern day by its association with World War Two and the Japanese atrocities there. She did this all three times the phrase came up in the oath. She also pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation”, in English, and with a banner saying HONG KONG IS NOT CHINA in front of her. Baggio Leung also waved this banner and also called China ‘Shina’.

Now. What happened next? These two candidates were disqualified – they lost their seats in Legco, as the government judged that this long list of pranks meant that they weren’t taking the oath seriously and so were unfit to stand for office. Whoops.

Second question. What was the point of this? To get an answer we only have to look at the media coverage of the time; article after article talking about PRO-INDEPENDENCE LEGCO MEMBERS DISQUALIFIED. Yau and Leung were for a little while famous, their faces all over the news. Once again, after the storm of 2014 had died down a little, people were briefly talking about those things that Beijing gets mad about, independence and localism and “the youth” and Hong Kong’s future and that worst most terrible word “democracy” and these minor political figures were everywhere, within the pages of newspapers all over the world. This was a victory! Kind of. Was it?

Let’s look at this event in isolation. Remove the media spin and we see: two localist candidates for Legco won elections and were on course to have some influence – a tiny amount, in HK’s broken political system – over events. Then they fluffed their oaths and were disqualified. Nothing else really changed except for that the localist movement was given even more media attention.

Even more clout, if you will.

My point in today’s ramble is to talk a little bit about what we can really learn from Hong Kong – it has nothing to do with their cool, creative protest tactics or their savvy use of social media and sloganeering or the sense of cohesion and purpose achieved through a broad tent anti-China social movement. It’s about why, despite all that, they ended up after all their struggling actually making their situation ten times worse than before. The enactment of the National Security Law and the direct involvement of the Beijing government, clearly over the heads of the HKSAR government, is a step backwards of monumental proportions, eliminating for good the chance of candidates like Leung and Yau from even getting the chance to fuck up as before, as well as calling America’s bluff on its high-minded statements of intent regarding protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy. Nobody wants this situation as it is now, probably not even Beijing, which seems to have resigned itself to the battle of hearts and minds being lost and is mostly determined just to get the remnants of this once-powerful political movement to shut up, in the process doing whatever it feels like to a Basic Law it once at least tried to tiptoe around. The “revolution of our times” hasn’t eaten itself so much as eaten the city it was intended to save.

When we discuss any kind of campaign, whether political, military, or in business, we have to discuss both strategy and tactics. It’s my belief that the Hong Kong protest campaign has had good (not perfect) tactics and a very distorted strategy, that has caused it to throw away some absolutely monumental gains in favour of the maximum possible international media outreach – I believe this strategy was pursued not even wholly consciously, but partially because of the history and culture of the movement and also because of the warping nature of one of the main mediums of organisation and communication of the movement: that being the internet.

In terms of the Hong Kong opposition movement, I think we can count the post-97 incarnation of it in three distinct phases. The first is best embodied by veteran politician and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee or Apple Daily mogul Jimmy Lai; this phase of the movement believed itself to be more or less Chinese, remembered in its own lifetime the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, and soldiered on either in the belief that China would one day democratise (the optimists) or that while independence was preferable, it was impossible to realistically hope for and so was to be avoided being said out loud (the realists).

The second was that of Yau Wai-Ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang; or really, although rooted in the ‘Occupy Central’ concept of lawyer Benny Tai, it was the phase most seen fronted by media darlings the youthful Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Agnes Chow and their Scholarism and Demosisto organisations. These kids were much less patient with China’s heavy hand and with the HK oligarchy’s perpetual blundering in government, and being much more pro-Japan and Taiwan and anti-China, these firebrands had a lot in common with the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. A pro-democracy movement against an aged, decrepit vaguely pro-China government, using unorthodox tactics and dramatic setpiece protests, calling for independence in all ways but the most official and lethal – the only difference was that the Sunflower Movement survived to be co-opted by the ruling DPP, while the Occupy Central movement exploded onto the scene and then subsequently floundered embarrassingly before puttering out. Taiwan’s Kuomintang government had a much less close relationship with China than Hong Kong’s DAB, and was also much less resolute than the DAB was, partially because of Taiwan’s already open and democratic political culture.

Still, the second phase of opposition politics was extremely influential, so much so that many mainland Chinese still refuse to believe that Wong and Law and Chow aren’t at the heart of what came after (they were never the heart of anything, truthfully, just pretty faces for the media). And it taught the new generation of opposition activists new tactics; show-stopping ways of disrupting life in Hong Kong and getting messages across, the importance of powerful and simple political images like the yellow umbrella, and language unencumbered by the ambiguous and confused politics of the first phase. But a certain line hadn’t yet been crossed; Wong, Tai, and the other famous heroes of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ were, like Tsai Yingwen, the DPP’s eventual benefactor of the Sunflower Movement, ready to stop at the Rubicon, and ready if not to concede to Beijing then to accept the power gap between here and there. This gave the 2014 protests a grim and demoralising resolution but offered a hope to localists of using further social unrest and local and Legco elections to firmly establish themselves and perhaps displace the old-fashioned, plodding Democratic Party as Hong Kong’s main opposition movement.

The third phase of opposition is that which began last year, and which goes on, leaving Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai and even Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow and Nathan Law behind, wholly supportive and doing their best to keep up with it but dazed by events way out of their control. This phase lacks legitimate, experienced politicians like the first, or even rebellious populists like the second; it rejects politics altogether, and finally has found the courage to say and do and ask for what has never been asked for before. And yet it is an heir to both prior phases – and both phases, the unresolved questions of the first phase and from the second phase the theatricality of Yau Wai-Ching and her Refucking of Shina, of Joshua Wong and his biblical language of good and evil and his Netflix documentary and of Agnes Chow’s kawaii selfies and ever-buzzing Twitter feed, it finds both its strength and the reason for its ultimate failure.

Simply put: the first phase was closest to Tiananmen, closest to mainland China, grew up in the creation and practice of One Country Two Systems and the HKSAR government system, and its ideas were found in newspapers and bar room talks and discussions at country clubs and lawyer’s offices. The latest has never been to China, has never trusted 1C2S or the HKSAR government, and its ideas came from student campuses and largely from the internet. We see here an evolution from the politically-minded men and women of the first phase, who were conflicted about their Chinese identity and who watched nervously as the handover approached, happened, and then was history, to a movement primarily composed of people who were younger, more media-savvy, and more attuned to an instant-gratification diet of fast news, trending topics, and pop culture. It was these young people who led the 2019 movement, who protested in the street – Hong Kong’s first internet generation. The nature of what followed reflected that.

HK’s “girl with her eye shot out” was a legendary figure. Except she wasn’t. Except her eye was fine. Wasn’t it? The nature of political-movement-via-social-media meant that quickly the truth was gone, as if it had ever mattered. This picture is just a cosplayer, even.

The movement that emerged in 2019 has proved through its internet-savvy and energy quite masterful at controlling the narrative, at imposing upon the whole world – not only Hong Kong – a story of heroic underdog youth versus a corrupt government and a capital-c Communist superpower. The number of amateur and professional photographers and reporters who followed the protests, capturing both the worst moments of the police and best, most surreal and exciting moments of the protesters themselves, was remarkable. The images and rhetoric employed, whether a simple HONG KONG ADD OIL, the stark, powerful LIBERATE HONG KONG REVOLUTION OF OUR TIMES, or the by-now iconic FIVE DEMANDS AND NOT ONE LESS, all stuck out in contrast to the muddled symbolism of past HK localist efforts. Internet memes like Pepe the Frog (which I’ve talked about before) or ‘Xinnie the Pooh’ (because apparently Winnie the Pooh is banned in China, which he is not) were everywhere. PR stunts like HKers recording “last message” videos for the New York Times in case they died (they did not), sweet stories of protester romance, gruesome rumours of police murders of protestors, and most powerfully the legend of the ‘721 Incident’, where triads allegedly at the behest of the police attacked protestors in an MTR station, were constant, thanks to the power of the internet. All of this created an atmosphere of delirious, incredible unreality, where the movement had power far beyond its actual ability, where it seemed for a while that all of the impossible things the first and second phases of the democracy movement had balked at really were possible, or at least were impossible and worth dying gloriously for.

A classic example of protest art, featuring the anonymous heroes of the movement. Note the immediate connection with the heroes of the American Revolution – hardly accidental. The HK protest movement had a desperate focus on winning American support as a counterweight to China – a policy that wouldn’t pay off, like at all.

The image of the masked, black-clad protester with umbrella or other improvised weapon in hand took off around the world. I remember being in a Tokyo nightclub drunk off my ass for New Year’s Eve last year and talking with a guy from Chile who was asking me, as a guy who lived in China, about Hong Kong – I remember saying something about how I didn’t support the protestor’s ultimate objectives because I felt they were muddled and vague (probably with way more “fuck” and “shit”) and he immediately got serious with me: “You know, in my country we know what protest is, and how important it is. Are you denying their right to protest?” Of course I wasn’t. But to say that was to bump up against a wall of sheer emotive content the protest movement had generated. To say that was to invite a picture of a HKPF cop standing on a teenager’s head, or of a grotesque suicided corpse repurposed as the apparent victim of a police murder, or an infographic describing all the ways ‘ChiNazi’ would take over my country and destroy my freedom. In the information flood war the protestors were unbeatable.

And yet these dizzying heights and the incredible global reach of the protest movement came at a cost that those paying for it didn’t really understand. In a revolutionary moment – and in the sense of its definitive break with the prior reality, the seductive touch of its ideas, Hong Kong represented the vague stirrings of one – the most important thing, once the structure has fallen in, is to consolidate it. Mao Zedong, upon forging a movement in China with the reach and unity to overthrow both the Kuomintang and the landlord system, repeatedly leashed it and held it back, and spent time to build organisations to sustain it and imparted upon it the importance of strategy in dealing with both outside forces and internal ones.

The Hong Kong protestors did not go for this. They did not attempt to create a dual power system in the Soviet style in 1917, or attempt to build alternative structures or forces that could rival the HKSAR government; they did not bide their time or wait or plan. The truly revolutionary impulse – of construction rather than destruction – escaped them, and after their victory in the fight over the Extradition Bill they immediately escalated, and they escalated in the stupidest possible way. Five Demands that were impossible, that trapped the HKSAR government, and increasingly strident rhetoric that was designed to irritate Beijing, and ever-increasing acts of violence and disruption, and finally the HK PolyU siege, a pointless act of supreme grandstanding that gave the police everything they wanted; here the two strands of the movement that had pushed it so far damned it. Why did this happen?

The interpretation of the Communist Party of China as not just a cold, ruthless Marxist-Leninist party but as literally a Chinese Nazi – ChiNazi – movement is also very common. How many kids who knew nothing about politics or about China went along with this rhetoric and now believe it as 100% fact? Also note the usual appeal to foreigners.

Firstly the protests were only grasping at a truly revolutionary moment – they tore down and basically destroyed the authority of the HKSAR government, but had nothing much to replace it with. They weren’t socialists and definitely not – in anti-communist Hong Kong – Marxists, and their anarchism was not of the experimental communal type but the violent smashing type, and their liberalism was only insofar as they demanded freedom and suffrage, and in fact many of them and many of the old guard like Wong actively courted American conservative support. Without anything to move forward with, without an ideal that inspires, a movement cannot evolve – suffrage and freedom, but in what form? For who? What about the housing crises, the oligarchs, the stark fact that life in Hong Kong, despite its relative freedoms, is far more grinding and grimmer than in the most developed parts of the mainland? It’s true that of course these topics were discussed. But they didn’t find purchase, and there was no revolutionary organisation – no Communist Party, dare I say – to propagate them and transform the reactionary anti-HKSAR mood into something more. Without that next step, the HKSAR was allowed to continue existing in name only, normality of a kind pushing back, and the protest movement retreated into its comfort zone, back from the new world and into the places it had spawned from, the earlier phases of the Hong Kong opposition.

From the first phase it borrowed that fundamental hopelessness – Martin Lee and the other early Democrats were basically fighting a rear-guard action and saw One Country Two Systems in those terms, either waiting for China to somehow democratise or simply using the Basic Law as a club with which to beat off any attempts at encroachment or integration by Beijing. This had infused the protests from the start, but as they went on this aspect become more and more hysterical, progressing via hashtag from MagnitskyActNow or HKDemocracyAndHumanRightsAct (at least a kind of constructive gesture, if a naïve one, indicating dependence on foreign powers which Chinese media ran with) to SOSHK, SaveHK and HKPoliceTerrorists (basically just cries for help) to at the time of PolyU mostly just “Tiananmen2.0”, a terrified recollection of an event most of the people tweeting about it weren’t even alive for.

Vivid and amazing photography such as this created striking images of brutal police uniformity and violence that acted as a shorthand for imagery that in Hong Kong goes back to Tiananmen Square – to the young HKers, this picture was the face not of Hong Kong, but of China, just wearing a disguise. Rumours of Mandarin-speaking cops persisted for all of the period of the protests.

From the second? It borrowed from Yau Wai-Ching. The earlier Democrats had always tried to keep Hong Kong’s system running, even if they did so out of resignation rather than love. The Umbrella Movement taught the children of 2019 how to thumb their noses at Beijing, how to really stick it to the man in ways that were youthful, innovative and sometimes pretty funny – and which got headlines and retweets galore. But along with the silly costumes, the light-up signs, the laser pointers and the Lennon walls, this soon became dumping things on train tracks, dropping objects from bridges to stop cars, smashing ATMs and traffic lights and increasing levels of vandalism, violence, and ‘disruption’. Disruption is of course a legitimate protest tactic, but it has to be used in a way that forces the opponent to heel effectively – for instance, via strike, walk-out, or other assault at the vital levers of the oppressing machine. In Hong Kong the disruption was not targeted, and did not do much of anything except give street-cleaners and “Blue” government supporters more work to do. In their drive for attention and for increasing lashing-out at the police state that would not budge combined with the hysterical despair the shadow of Tiananmen brought, the movement’s tactics slipped – they started, like Yau Wai-Ching, to say “fuck” when they should have said “republic”. This culminated tragically in the murder of an elderly street-cleaner, Luo Changqing, by a group of protesters via a brick to the head when he tried to clear some of their “disruption” from the streets.

The PolyU siege, another tragic culmination, was an exhausting, tactically pointless exercise, with the students who had taken over the university campus, now surrounded by walls of very angry police, getting lots of airtime on international TV and social media, and giving us social media hounds some amazing photography and spectacle. It was a very impressive performance art project- as revolutionary practice it was lousy. It was an example of what happens when the break from reality of revolution doesn’t lead to a new reality asserting itself – instead the new reality of Hong Kong was allowed to fester internally.

Here we see the protestors at their most brilliant (appealing to pop culture to promote their cause) but also at their weakest: is comparing themselves to the children’s story of Star Wars simply a tactic, or something these impressionable young people really did believe?

Hong Kong has always been a bubble city, a place where if you’re a local person, out of the loop of international business and finance that most people assume is Hong Kong but isn’t, it’s hard to see beyond where you are. The internet and social media reinforced that massively – the protesters in the Telegram groups and Twitter threads that had acted as the invisible muscle of their alternative body politic became locked in their echo chambers. I would compare the Hong Kong protesters in this respect to that nightmare American net-cult, QAnon – by the late stages of the protest movement the protesters themselves were so invested in this life and death struggle with the Communist Party of China – which Hong Kong’s persistent Falun Gong presence has hardly helped with – that there was no hope of strategy. Why negotiate, why offer terms, why try to talk at all when the enemy are purest evil, and have killed your friends and taken your democracy and are going to place you in death camps like they have the Uighurs and Tibetans?

hong kong poster
A poster I saw last year in Yuen Long. This is pretty standard stuff: comparisons to easy black-and-white morality dystopian movies, edited internet memes, and slightly awkward English.

And they saw their own photographs and memes being uploaded and looking great and the mass hashtags showing their numbers, and they saw foreign newspapers fawning and international leaders speaking out, and with that all the disinformation of modern social media, of Epoch Times articles and clickbait journalism and people from all over the world who they’d never met expressing support, and this became their new reality; the world versus ChiNazi. Their behaviour became unmoored from strategy and their tactics thus dissolved.

And so in the end China, roused by LIBERATE HONG KONG and the American flag and their own flag being burned and tossed aside, by so much intentional provocation on the side of the protestors for the whole of the course of the movement, finally pushed back; it didn’t give them what they wanted, the Tiananmen 2.0 that would have vindicated all the suffering they endured by at least proving them right. Instead it slammed Hong Kong shut with the National Security Law, destroying them with bureaucracy instead of bullets. And the 2019 that set Hong Kong ablaze, its end delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, finally came to a close just as unsatisfying and meaningless as the Umbrella Movement before it.

There will be a phase four. As the delirious HK protester response to COVID-19 – more hashtags, more image spamming, conspiracy theories about the WHO being owned by ‘CCP’ and COVID being a Chinese bioweapon and Black Lives Matter being hardcore communists paid by China, all straight from the same disinfo sources that pump out QAnon content – shows, the people who were caught in this movement are still true believers, law or no law. They’re lying low, and either emigrating or committing themselves to some future glorious bowing-out against ChiNazi, or simply alive but inert, caught in the despair common to these kinds of movements when the rapture doesn’t come. Democracy in Hong Kong has gone from Martin Lee, a major opponent of China but mostly also a by-the-book politician, to would-be evangelist disruptor Joshua Wong, celebrity star of “Teenager vs. Superpower” who once uploaded to Twitter a photo of his McDonalds meal arranged in the shape of the “tank man” picture as a joke, to the radicalised, miserable, faceless and nameless youth of today. They are alone, their Telegram groups shut down and their good times last year ended, now convinced they will be spirited away tomorrow by the police terrorists, their futures in many cases destroyed by jail sentences and prison time and family quarrels and sheer mental unwellness. Once upon a time they were famous.

The rapture of the social media moment, of the headline and the story, has robbed Hong Kong of everything – the protestors have lost their war, the government has lost Beijing’s trust, and China has lost a city it always hoped to woo rather than coerce. And the poor of Hong Kong are still poor and the rich are still rich, and the Chief Executive will still go to work tomorrow and the freight will continue to come in and out of Victoria Harbour. The revolution of our times has worked out, in the end, to have been a great headline and a fascinating story, and a great way to get a book out or start a career in activism – but because it fell in love with itself, because it fell prey to the delusions of social media, like a guy narcissistically looking at his own Instagram feed and going “damn I have a lot of followers” and then spending the night inside waiting for more, it was always going to end like this.

dumb hk shit
Orphaned from real politics, the contributions of HKers to the COVID-19 discourse – already pretty rancid – is kind of amazing, to say the least. The energy and drive of the early protests is gone – all that’s left is this bitter, stubborn contempt for “CCP terrorists”. This problem is not going away any time soon.

Revolution is about strategy, not attention – the Hong Kong protest movement was always lopsided towards attention, and the information age that we live in supercharged this tendency terminally, creating attention politics; political strategy aimed at nothing else. We saw how well this went. Yau Wai-Ching eventually said that she regretted her Legco stunt – what will the protestors of last year one day regret? In both cases, no matter how great it seemed to be able to look at the whole world looking at you, at the end of the day the media and the internet went away – at the end of the day the People’s Republic of China came out on top, regardless of what names anyone called it. Mao said something about where political power comes from once, and it was nothing to do with fame or media exposure – the kids of Hong Kong’s internet generation might have done better if they’d listened to him instead of the echo chambers they spent their revolution immersing themselves in. They might have avoided here and now – the truth that far from being revolutionary as the Arab Spring suggested to us, that the internet and modern media have done some very, very unpleasant things to politics indeed. Hong Kong is the first place to lose itself entirely to the madness of online attention politics; unfortunately, I really doubt it’ll be the last.

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