Where else could this blog start but with the kind of mass protest that first ignited my passion for activism, social change, solidarity, direct action and revolution?
The images coming out from Hong Kong are very familiar. Masses occupying the centre of town, young men and women wearing medical masks to protect themselves from the tear gas standing peacefully, defiantly. And in front of them the most familiar image of all – lines of monolithic riot police, as uniform in appearance as the protesters are varied, as obedient as the demonstrators are defiant, the line between them the physical manifestation of the gap between change and the obstacles to that change.
It’s an image that symbolises power, “the structural capacity of a social actor to impose its will over other social actors” and counter-power, “the capacity of a social actor to resist and challenge power relations that are institutionalised” (Castells 2007)
We’ve seen similar movements play out on our TV screens, on Twitter, YouTube and facebook dozens of times in the last 3 or 4 years – Tunis, Tahrir, Pearl Roundabout, Benghazi, Athens, Madrid, Taksim Square, Santiago, New York, London…
And now Hong Kong. Today protesters are standing up to demand greater democracy, to have a chance to have the full and final say over who leads them, to express themselves, to show the authorities that they will not silently accept the status quo.
In short, they want change.
This campaign is, at its core, about voices being heard. A common slogan in the Hong Protest is “one person, one vote” – a campaign to ensure that every Hong Kong citizen’s voice is heard on an equal level, without Beijing’s interference.
When viewed as a campaign for social change, this slogan is one of many tools used by the protesters to drum up supports for the movement on a local and international level. The movement has many features that has helped its popular appeal – for example the use of a famous Cantonese pop song which has now become the song of the uprising:
This makes it easier for regular citizens to feel a sense of familiarity with the movement. But other familiar icons make it easy for people around the world to identify with the Hong Kong youth. Such as:
Mobile phones – many of us are following events on our smart phones. Seeing them hold theirs aloft shows they’re not really so different to you and I:
Yellow ribbons – in Hong Kong a symbol of universal sufferage and democracy, and around the world it has various symbolic connotations, often relating to struggles (in the UK a pink ribbon is worn to show support for Breast Cancer research).
Familiar popular culture references, in this case to the John Lennon song “Imagine”:
And, perhaps most importantly, the umbrella.
The umbrella has become such an important symbol in Hong Kong that the uprising has been dubbed the Umbrella Revolution.
The umbrella – a commonly used item in Hong Kong to guard against the harsh sun – has been transformed from a prosaic, ordinary item into a revolutionary weapon and symbol. Not only is this an item which everyone across the world understands and can identify with, it’s also a symbol of the struggle between ordinary looking citizens using ordinary items, and a masked police force using dangerous or lethal weapons.
It’s been a feature of other recent struggles and reminds me of Egyptian revolutionaries who used ordinary household items, including pots and pans, to protect themselves from the police.
For the protesters, this allows the images to perfectly reinforce the narrative that they are delivering in interviews and on social media – that they are the people. They are the representatives of the ordinary citizen that are heroically standing in front of the authorities who are using violent foot soldiers to prevent the people from getting their rights. The activists actively shape the frame and form the narrative, they are “signifying agents” (Snow & Benford 1988) that construct meaning. An umbrella, a yellow ribbon a kitchen pot, all are transformed by the meaning placed on them by activists.
Mass action like what’s happening in Hong Kong now is an example of when a campaign for change ignites in a significant number of people the fire of fighting for the cause. It’s that unique intersection between raised awareness, belief in a cause, empowerment, unity, and a belief that your actions can change things. In many ways, it is the turning point that most campaigns strive for, but few achieve.
So what can we learn from Hong Kong? As we’ve seen in previous uprisings, uniting behind a single specific cause, particularly an achievable one, makes it easier to get, and keep, people’s support. Contrast Hong Kongs demand for their the city’s unpopular Chief Executive to step down as leader and for free voting, and Egypt’s demand for Mubarak to step down, and Turkish protesters calling for the cancellation of an urban development plan in Gezi Park, to Occupy NY and London’s lofty but vague demands to express their discontent and change the system.
Armed with a specific, difficult but arguably achievable goal, the protesters set about campaigning. The slogans, the familiar tools, the popular music, and their media savviness all helped. But the key here is that this protest did not arrive spontaneously out of nowhere. Activists, in particular from the ‘Hong Kong Federation of Students’ and ‘Scholarism’, have for years been laying the ground work. According to Foreign Policy, as early as January 2013 the ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ movement warned that it would occupy the financial district if Hong Kong was not granted universal suffrage – this campaign was a long time in the making.
Whether or not it achieves its specific goals right now, the movement has already been a success at least in terms of galvanising support and raising awareness. The media campaigns that we are seeing today coming out of Hong Kong, which has helped to gain and keep support locally and internationally, are of course important. But that alone would not have been enough. The campaign owes a lot to the hard work that has been put in for the past several years, before #HongKongProtest trended on twitter and before the eyes of the world turned towards the island.