6 – Power to the underground – freedom to Hong Kong

By Earl Tree

From April to June 2023, I was in Hong Kong for personal reasons, part of a first wave of foreigners able to enter the Special Administrative Region (SAR) without restrictions in the aftermath of the 2019 protests, the following crackdown, and the pandemic. I was curious to see what the city was like now after all these massive social changes. Like many, I had been inspired by Hong Kong in 2019 and its brave attempts to defend democracy and autonomy in the face of repression. My trip’s timing coincidentally seemed to be just right, too: I would be in the city during the first May Day and June 4 Tienanmen Square anniversary since the end of the protests and the pandemic. With all the limitations and privileges as a White American tourist who spoke no Cantonese or Mandarin, I was curious: what might happen and what might resistance now look like? 

Hong Kong is a post-colony. British rule ended and was peacefully transferred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997 under a Joint Declaration which mandated that the PRC maintain Hong Kong’s separate economic and political systems until 2047, essentially providing for a gradual incorporation into the Mainland. The result was Hong Kong as a hybrid, semi-autonomous nation-city-state. Politically, the PRC maintained a mostly hands off approach for many years allowing Hongkongers many, many freedoms completely out-of-bounds for Mainlanders. Trouble was always under the surface, however. Year after year, the PRC slowly tried to assert its authority over Hong Kong by changing small things one-by-one, always fearing its lack of control over the SAR. Pressure kept building until it broke. The first major crack was 2014’s Umbrella Revolution, a mass protest movement led by students that successfully defeated PRC proposed anti-democratic reforms. But it was just a prelude to what came next. The 2019 “Revolution of Our Times” centered, at least initially, around a proposed extradition bill with vague language which allowed for extradition from liberal Hong Kong to the authoritarian Mainland. Protests escalated throughout the year into a full-scale uprising by millions that questioned everything about Hong Kong society.

When the 2019 extradition protests started, it seemed like pro-democracy and localist forces could win. But the pandemic emptied the streets and killed the movement and its defenses and the counter-revolution began. Beijing rammed a national security law down Hong Kong’s throat in the summer of 2020. The draconian law established the new, vague crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Pro-democracy organizations shuttered across the city in fear. Then elections were postponed for over a year under the emergency pretext of the pandemic. Drama within the Legislative Council culminated in the mass resignation of all 19 non-pro-Beijing legislators and the government said it would disqualify nearly 70% of councilors and that they would be held financially responsible for their election. Within days, 217 of the 490 councilors had resigned to avoid million dollar fines. The election process was completely hollowed out to ensure that only “patriots” govern Hong Kong.  Beijing used the national security law to eliminate the free press. Books on sensitive topics are being banned. Schools plan on implementing new “patriotic” curricula, emphasizing the benefits of the PRC, and teachers are losing their jobs for having supported the protests.

I found the mood in Hong Kong to be subdued and depressed. Most individuals from the movement that I talked to felt that everything was lost. Many said that things might as well be the same as on the Mainland. Several were considering leaving the country, especially those with young children. Events on the ground seemed to affirm this perspective. In mid-April, Joe Wong and Denny To, former leaders of the independent, pro-democracy Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (which had disbanded in the wake of the new national security law in October 2021), announced that they had applied legally for a permit from the Hong Kong police for a May Day demonstration in Victoria Park. This was a very bold move considering that earlier in April, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions had bowed to public pressure from Beijing to withdraw their own application for May Day activities! Right up to the last minute, it seemed as if the May Day event might happen. Then, on April 26, Joe Wong was whisked away by police. Five hours later, he tearfully emerged announcing a withdrawal of the permit application and refusing to discuss what had happened, citing the national security law. In a separate statement, Denny To said that Wong had been “emotionally broken.”

The tone was set for the much more controversial June 4 Tienanmen Square anniversary, also commemorated in Victoria Park. With all of the organizations that had sponsored the anniversary disbanded, with the removal of all monuments to the event, and little opportunity for the free press to discuss it, there were few expectations. The government, of course, made sure its hardline perspective was clear in advance. Pressed by the media on the legality of any commemoration of the event, officials would only grimly repeat that, “everyone should act in accordance with the law.” Meanwhile, activists were harassed in advance by police for planning to hand out candles, and a carnival for “patriotic” consumer groups was announced for Victoria Park on June 4 for the first time ever. On June 4 itself, 6,000 police were deployed across the city, with stop-and-frisk and detention for any “suspicious” individuals approaching the park. The city felt like it was crawling with police that day, with small squads around every corner, even in distant neighborhoods like Mong Kok. 

And yet, this past June 4 is a good example of how, despite diminished expectations, under harsh repression, Hongkongers’ still defiantly resist government oppression. Despite the somber mood, many concerned groups are engaged in all kinds of interesting and powerful projects aimed at building an alternative, inclusive, and democratic Hong Kong.1 Despite the iron fist, people did protest and commemorate Tienanmen Square. Pro-democracy activist Chan Po-ying was detained and eventually released near the park while holding an LED candle and two flowers. The day before, activists Kwan Chun-pong and Lau Ka-yee were detained, but not before announcing a 24 hour hunger strike in honor of the Tienanmen Square victims. And artist Sanmu Chen had to be dragged away while shouting at bystanders: “Do not forget June 4! Do not forget June 4! Hongkongers, don’t be afraid of them! Do not forget tomorrow is June 4!” All told, around 32 people were detained June 3 and June 4, willing to risk everything for the right to publicly protest.

Another bold and creative June 4 action came via a group called the Baak Choi Collective. They felt confident enough to host a silent “tai chi event” via Facebook at a public market! The Baak Choi Collective had established a living space and art studio in the old working class, but gentrifying, neighborhood of To Kwa Wan. They host numerous art events and print their own zines. They also engaged with the local Punjabi immigrant community (Hong Kong is a relatively diverse city with several small, but important minority groups; South Asians are ~1.4% of the population.) It’s worth noting that this neighborhood also had a large, hipster cinema and restaurant that sold mixed-language political books and films; they even screened, to a packed audience, the recent Swiss film Unrest, a period piece on Kropotkin’s travels among the anarchist watchmakers of the Jura Valley! The Baak Choi Collective had also made connections with outlying farms and sold or gave away produce at the local market. Addressing issues at the nexus of land, housing, and space seemed a common, fundamental theme with many organized groups in Hong Kong. 

And for good reason: these are the critical issues of daily life in the SAR. Hong Kong is one of the densest and most expensive places on Earth. Most people live crammed with family in small flats in giant high rises. Hundreds of thousands of heavily exploited Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers in the city are legally forced to live in frequently unlivable and abusive conditions with their employers and are lucky to even get a day off; each weekend they ecstatically take to the sidewalks and parks for a brief reprieve. Street markets and the street as public space are perhaps the most essential elements of Hong Kong culture and identity: mass riots were sparked in Mong Kok in 2016 after police tried to enforce street vendor regulations during the New Year. There is homelessness in Hong Kong and the city is notorious for its “coffin homes” where thirty people might live in stacked bunks in a 45 mapartment, a fate that often afflicts elderly, single men or those struggling with addiction. Historically, there were powerful squatter movements with entire neighborhoods built from squats. Today, many of these communities have been legally incorporated or were granted public housing, but squatting still exists in many forms despite its supposed nonexistence. I saw many actively squatted homes in rural areas, including in wilderness areas that had supposedly been cleared of squatters years ago. Meanwhile, the city suffers from severe inequality: Hong Kong is home to the second-highest number of billionaires of any city in the world, and the top 10% earns ~40% of all income. These issues affect Hong Kong’s rural New Territories and islands as well. Rapacious real estate forces and corrupt officials have frequently colluded in land grabs from traditional communal village lands, contributing to the suburbanization of the countryside and several notable fights over farm evictions.

I found out about the Baak Choi Collective from another collective, REO Housing Estates. They’re an arts nonprofit that runs an entire multi-story building in the crowded Quarry Bay neighborhood. Each floor hosts art studios and performance spaces or affordable housing for the artists themselves, as well as a top floor with a mixed-language radical bookstore, plus a zine library. I had found REO Housing Estates from yet another bookstore. One morning on rural Lamma Island, I stumbled into the Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow collective, a small, indie non-English bookstore with movement literature. Mei was working that day, and she was very helpful and kind, telling me how they were a group of ex-students who had moved to the quieter, cheaper, and very different space on the island. Lamma Island is a mix of touristy getaway and traditional fishing village, with community gardens and hiking trails; there aren’t even cars on the island. In this atmosphere, things were much more relaxed and private. The island was actually the only place in all of Hong Kong I saw that still had an active Lennon Wall, walls from the protest movement turned into spaces where anyone could post anything, including political slogans and graffiti, often tacked down as a post-it note. 

Another collective that I wish I had been able to spend more time with was the Red Dog Cafe. Located in the working class Kowloon Tong, I had trouble connecting due to the language barrier. But the space was great and doing amazing work: on top of running a coffee shop, they hosted organizing meetings, ran a vast anarchist library, and engaged in land defense and domestic worker outreach. I also had the chance to visit a nearby non-English radical bookstore that had gotten some recent press attention for hosting movement art and a photography exhibition of the successful 2013 independent dockworkers’ strike on its ten year anniversary. I also want to note that there is still a lot of movement prisoner support, often at great risk to those participating, with several cases of prison visitors showing up and being arrested themselves.

I also spent some time staying in the “notorious” Chungking Mansions, a dark, maze-like city within the city of over 4,000 people known for its cheap hostels, vibrant immigrant communities, and gray market activities. It’s said that people from every country on Earth will enter and exit the building every year and that perhaps a fifth of all of Africa’s cellphones pass through this building on the way to market. My hostel was a former family textile factory. Jessie, the owner and management, had wanted to preserve her family’s legacy in the face of aggressive buy-out offers and code enforcement, and had converted it to the current hostel to stay afloat through foreign travelers’ money. She also ran a small art studio and daycare out of the space, and her family would drop in and out frequently. The walls were covered in posters from the protests, the fridge had a ZAD sticker, and the lyrics of Hong Kong’s unofficial national (protest) anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong,” lined our bedroom walls (in July this year, the High Court surprisingly rejected a government attempt to ban the song, but it’s now on appeal.) To me, more than any other space, this place represented Hong Kong’s spirit of resistance, a spirit that has gone deeper than just an expression of politics, down into a vibrant, independent culture constantly recreating itself against all odds. Though the PRC may be able to keep the streets quiet for now, though it seems to hold all the power, it seems to me impossible that it will ever be able to put the genie of freedom back in the bottle.

In the U.S., it might be hard to connect with struggles in China and Hong Kong. The U.S. is a particularly insular culture and American anarchists/activists can be no exception. Meanwhile, stuck between the U.S.’s aggressive, imperialist, and xenophobic anti-PRC propaganda on the one hand, and forced on the other hand to hear fellow leftists’ warmed-over Stalinism, which ignorantly parrots the CCP’s party line, sees a foreign plot in every act of resistance, and somehow finds anything liberatory in a supposedly “Communist” country where billionaires proudly promote the “996” work culture of 12 hour shifts/6 days per week, it can be hard to find a footing. But the left must be critical and it must be internationalist; we ignore China and its social issues and social movements to our own detriment. We must find ways to stand in concrete solidarity despite barriers of borders, languages, and cultures. Especially since there is a vocal, active Chinese diaspora in the U.S. (too often sidelined or dismissed while also facing down anti-Asian violence like the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting or pro-PRC nationalist violence like the 2022 Laguna Woods shooting) and around the world. 

Anarchists have played a key role in the struggles in Hong Kong, a movement that has shaken the PRC to its core. And nowhere was more tactically innovative than Hong Kong during the 2019 global revolutionary wave. With issues of housing, space, and land use in the city and its hinterlands reaching a critical mass in the U.S., too, and facing down our own rising specter of authoritarianism and repression (2024 election, I’m looking at you…), there is much we can learn from Hong Kong’s creative struggles for grassroots democracy and a better way of living. 

Further Resources

-Bonham Tree Aid- UK-based prisoner support organization for Hongkongers. The only one able to take international/monetary donations? 

– gongchao.org- A great resource for information on current struggles in China. Recently published a text available in Spanish, Revueltas en China.

Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution by Arif Dirlik- Overview of the birth of Chinese anarchism and its surprising influence, including crucial events that led up to Mao’s/the CCP’s victory in the Civil War in 1949.

Hong Kong Free Press– One of the last critical, independent newspapers in Hong Kong, English language.

South China Morning Post– Hong Kong’s English language newspaper of record. It has a strong pro-Beijing bias, but it generally reports facts accurately.

City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong by Antony Dapiran- Comprehensive summary of the 2019 upheaval in Hong Kong, though its narrative ends before COVID and the crackdown.

1Due to the harsh nature of repression around the issue of democracy in Hong Kong (or anything related to the PRC), and with Chinese government officials more than willing to pursue and punish opponents even internationally, I’ve anonymized and mixed-and-matched names and details around many of these groups, individuals, events, etc.