HONG KONG—Before this summer’s rallies, the last major protest movement here was an exuberant affair. At the main site of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, rows of rainbow-colored tents lined the roads while cultural expression flourished—every available surface, from walls to sidewalks, bridges to traffic barriers, was plastered in banners, posters, flyers, chalk drawings, Post-it notes, and sculptures. The mood felt like a community arts festival: The “main stage” hosted guest speakers, movie screenings, and performances, and thousands flocked with their families to visit on sunny weekends. Musicians played impromptu gigs, dancers performed routines, and there was an array of other events: portrait-sketching, leather work, weaving, origami. The self-regulating society became a mini-utopia, reflecting the hopes of the Umbrella Movement itself, agitating for a “more perfect” democracy for Hong Kong.
This year’s demonstrations, however, reflect a feeling of desperation. Protesters in yellow hard hats, their identities hidden behind face masks, wander through drifting clouds of tear gas on streets strewn with broken bricks, laser beams cutting through the air. Young students dressed entirely in black place white carnations on a roadside shrine, tears flowing down their cheeks. A chorus of angry voices shouts the near-ubiquitous slogan “Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” in the concrete cavern of a freeway underpass. Fires burn at barricades. This is today’s Hong Kong, one where demonstrators say they are fighting for the very life of the city.
Indeed, the specter of death seems to have been hanging over this protest movement—prompted by legislation, since withdrawn, enabling the extradition of criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China—almost from the moment it began.
The protesters’ demands were initially summed up in a three-character slogan: “Fan song zhong!” A direct translation is “Oppose sending to China,” but digging a little deeper, one finds a darker core. Song zhong is a homophone for the phrase meaning “to see off a dying relative.” (It is also incidentally a homophone for the phrase “to give a clock,” which is why a clock is always considered an unlucky gift in China, effectively wishing death upon the recipient.) The slogan thus has death embedded in it, and so could be understood to mean “Oppose sending us to our death”—whether by extradition to China, or through the death of civil liberties in Hong Kong.
For the first mass rally of these protests—on June 9, in which more than 1 million people took to the streets—participants dressed in white, the traditional color of mourning in Chinese culture, and chanted their death-laced slogan. A week later, at an even larger rally of 2 million people, the largest in Hong Kong’s history, participants dressed in the West’s traditional mourning color of black. This time there was an actual death to mourn. The night before, a protester had climbed scaffolding erected outside a shopping center, strung up a banner bearing the movement’s slogans, and appeared to be threatening to jump; in what seemed to be a tragic accident, rescue workers had slipped trying to save him, and the demonstrator fell to his death. The next day, protesters carried white flowers—markets across the city reportedly sold out their entire stock—and a shrine grew outside the mall as people piled those flowers in tribute, lit candles and incense, and left messages of condolence. More suicides would follow; some left messages supporting the protests before leaping to their deaths. In total, as many as eight such deaths have been associated with the protest movement.
Then, when Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam initially announced that the extradition bill would not be proceeding, she also turned to mortality-tinged metaphors. In her English statement to the press, she said bluntly, “The bill is dead.” The phrase she used was also death-related: The bill was “shou zhong zheng qin,” meaning that it had “died a natural death in its bed,” something that online critics were quick to point out did not reflect the true state of affairs surrounding a bill that effectively had been killed by the protesters.
This willingness to invoke death so directly—in words and imagery—is significant. Hong Kong is traditionally deeply superstitious, and death-related symbols are anathema. The number four is considered unlucky because it is a homophone for death, and many apartment blocks, for example, lack a fourth floor; it is considered inauspicious to stick chopsticks vertically into a rice bowl, because it is reminiscent of incense sticks burning to commemorate the dead.
But death is something protesters now appear willing to contemplate. In recent weeks, violence on the part of both demonstrators and police has reached levels not seen in Hong Kong since the Cultural Revolution riots of the late 1960s. The Umbrella Movement was sparked by outrage at police using tear gas during a single incident. For over a month now, tear gas has been deployed almost every single weekend. Police have also turned to rubber bullets, pepper pellets, beanbag rounds, and—debuting them at a recent weekend protest—water cannons. Officers have on several occasions drawn their service weapons and, in a couple of instances, fired warning shots into the air.
Protesters have responded in kind: During the Umbrella Movement, they were equipped to defend themselves, but rarely fought back. Today’s demonstrators arm themselves with clubs and shields, and throw bricks and petrol bombs. Some reportedly even put their last will and testament in their backpack when they prepare to go to the “front line.”
The activist and artist Kacey Wong contrasts the “civil disobedience” of the Umbrella Movement with the “uncivil disobedience” he told me Hong Kong is witnessing now. “The law is already being broken, by the police, by the government,” Wong said on the sidelines of a recent demonstration, as protesters and police skirmished several blocks away. “That’s why you see everybody masking up and violating some laws, but those laws were disrespectful [from] the beginning. The people who are protesting have very high discipline, and idealism of what the law is supposed to be.”
The difference between the two movements is not only visible, but also audible. When protesters staged a peaceful sit-in in front of riot-police lines on the first night of the Umbrella protests, they sang “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” by the local band Beyond, a song that became the unofficial anthem of the movement. This was soon supplemented by an official anthem, “Raise the Umbrella,” written by the Cantopop composer Lo Hiu-pan, and recorded by a number of Hong Kong artists who supported the movement. Both songs, crowd-pleasing ballads, were sung regularly during Umbrella Movement gatherings, and reflected the uplifting spirit of the movement.
From the earliest days of this movement, a recurrent theme song has been a hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” set in a minor key and sung in the round by demonstrators, sometimes for hours at a time. Christian protesters say that they sing it to encourage peace and nonviolence, but the song has a distinctly mournful, funereal air.
The other sound heard at the front lines of this year’s protests is the “death rattle” of demonstrators beating road signs, traffic barriers, and their makeshift shields. Originally an intimidation tactic used by the police, who bang their truncheons against their riot shields as they advance, the protesters have adopted it themselves. The beat is tribal, raw, serving to rally spirits as demonstrators face off against police, and is inevitably broken by the crack of police firing tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowd.
“We are going through a darker, dystopian situation,” Wong, the artist, told me.
And that, in the end, is what the protests are about. Far from the utopian ideals of the Umbrella Movement, demonstrators here are now fighting what they see as their city sliding into a nightmare of police brutality, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial punishment. Raymond Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker, sums up the prevailing sentiment: “If we lose, it may be the end of Hong Kong as we know it.”