Two of the world’s largest superpowers, China and the US, are facing internal political turmoil that threatens to destabilise their respective governance. The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the anti-racism demonstrations in the US have come at a time when both countries are vulnerable and the rest of the world is more connected than ever, both of which are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and international lockdowns.
In Hong Kong, protests first broke out in June 2019 following plans by the Hong Kong government to legalise extraditions of fugitives to Mainland China. Whilst demonstrations subdued during the height of the COVID19 crisis in the city, demonstrations have since reignited after China passed national security legislation for Hong Kong.
The messaging and slogans of the protests have been revised over time. What began as opposition to an extradition bill has since evolved into the Five Demands (including the release of students and the injured from police custody, calls for investigation into police behaviour and demands for universal suffrage) and has ultimately led to calls for independence.
Conversely, the Black Lives Matter protests began in 2014 in response to policeman Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American. This led to ten days of protests that became increasingly violent. Anti-racism protests were reignited throughout the US in at least 140 cities following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Protestors are calling for an end to police brutality against African Americans and ultimately for a defunding of the current police system.
Despite the differences in motivation and location, the US protests have begun to adopt the organisational techniques that have been employed in Hong Kong over the last 15 months.
The protests in Hong Kong can be traced back to the British handover of the former colony to China in 1997, when they were guaranteed 50 years of self-government. The first pro-democracy protests began in 2003, in response to anti-subversion legislation that would prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government. This prompted the resignation of the Chair of the Liberal Party and led to the bill being shelved indefinitely. In 2012, protests began against attempts to amend the Hong Kong school curriculum to include a pro-China “moral and civic education”. 2014 saw the rise of the Umbrella Movement, when protestors demanded reform to the electoral system, and was named after the use of umbrellas for protection against police pepper spray, a tactic which demonstrators continue to employ in today’s protests. In 2016, further violence and clashes with police erupted after a failed attempt to shutdown unlicensed food stall at the Lunar New Year night market.
The underlying tensions that were the source of these prior protests have culminated in what is happening today. Demonstrators continue to use some of the techniques from earlier protests but have had to adapt in terms of agility in the context of increased violence.
The Black Lives Matter protests originated in a social media movement by the same name in 2014 protesting systemic police brutality and the killing of African Americans. Their struggles originate in the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950’s and 60’s which saw dramatically different protest tactics.
Similarly to some of the 1960’s protests, the BLM protests are concerned with disrupting the status quo. However, where the Civil Rights Movement primarily employed peaceful methods of demonstration, contemporary protestors understand the limits of this type of demonstration and thus have taken an active effort to challenge notions of decorum in their tactics. Another major difference is the level of participation by those outside the African American community. Although there has always been community support for anti-racism movements, the current protests are seeing record levels of allies.
The current protests more closely resemble those of 2014, although on a much larger scale, which has allowed demonstrators to garner more international media attention.
Agility has been fundamental to the ability of the protests in Hong Kong to operate. Protestors have adopted guerrilla-like techniques, which may change form and direction at any time allowing them to dissipate and reconvene elsewhere in order to keep authorities on their toes and avoid pressure from police. Facebook, Instagram and other social media have been used to facilitate engagement with a wider demographic than would otherwise be possible.
Coordination is key to any protest and the demonstrations in Hong Kong have only shown to prove that. The use of umbrellas has become essential to the protests since 2014, during the ‘Umbrella Movement’. Umbrellas have become symbolic of the shift in the consciousness of protesters and are considered iconic to the protests for many around the world. However, they also afford protestors to maintain a degree of anonymity, shield themselves against rubber bullets and pepper spray and sometimes may be used as a weapon.
In order to protect their identities, protestors have also used a 50-year-old resistance strategy known as ‘black-blocking’. This essentially involves wearing all-black clothing to avoid identification by surveillance and has been used in protests around the world, including the Occupy Wall Street Protests. The movement has no official leadership, which is in part a response to the government’s imprisonment of previous leaders and also the result of the online tactics employed by the movement. Consequently, unity has become a fundamental aspect to these protests.
Through social media Hong Kong protestors have shared some of their tactics and techniques with their US counterparts. This has involved using a traffic cone to cover tear gas canisters, using leaf blowers to blow back tear gas and even the use of umbrellas for protection in Seattle. All of these regularly employed tactics in the Hong Kong protests have been spread to American protestors through videos online.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the US began equally peacefully, however police aggression and provocative commentary by Trump and other, typically right wing, government officials, have fuelled more aggressive strategies. Protestors are primarily concerned with disrupting the status quo in order to regain their agency. In addition to mass protests, this has involved defacing and destroying statutes of prominent historical figures engaged in slavery and other forms of racial oppression.
Social media has been fundamental to the protests, particularly in the time of COVID-19 when people are on their phones more than ever. Protestors have posted videos of clashes with police, capturing the violence and brutality they have been met with. This newfound accountability tool has been highly influential on the momentum and outcome of the protests. The protesters similarly utilise social media to create opposing narratives to those heard on mainstream platforms. In what has been called a “reclamation of acoustical agency”, protesters have used chants such as “Hands up, don’t shoot!’ and “I can’t breathe!” to ‘speak back’ to the police and administrators. This use of social media has allowed the movement to garner empathy from the public and is largely to credit for the ability of those in the movement to compel lawmakers and others in power into making concessions. Indeed, there have been historic concessions regarding the police force by public officials in a number of cities, including those in Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, New York and Los Angeles.
Indisputably, images of the two sets of protests depict striking similarities despite the thousands of kilometres between them. Social media has been fundamental to both protests, not just through its ability to allow groups of people to organise and gather, but also in its ability to proliferate tactics and strategies. These protests reflect the vulnerabilities of even the most powerful countries and the ability of ordinary, typically young, people to heavily disrupt the status quo.