A very modern protest: Hongkongers take democracy struggle to the UK

Protester ‘Chris’ at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Protester ‘Chris’ at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photograph: An Rong Xu

Chris, one of thousands who have been protesting in Hong Kong over the past seven weeks, is on what he calls the “keyboard frontline”. The twentysomething Hongkonger, who uses an alias for security reasons, is fielding phone calls on the final version of an advert he and other protesters are placing in a paper the next day. He looks over the final cut of a video, going out in 20 minutes. He has two phones, one for his daily use and another that he takes to the protests in case it gets damaged in the chaos.

Chris is part of a group that calls itself StandwithHK, which has launched a media blitz aimed at the UK, calling on British residents to defend their country’s former colony, Hong Kong. Full-page adverts appeared in major British newspapers, including the Guardian, while videos were launched on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. A flashmob was held in Trafalgar Square. An online petition automatically sends a letter to one’s MP, based on the postcode given. On Sunday, protesters plan to hold rallies around the UK.

StandwithHK is a loose group of protesters who describe themselves as “concerned Hongkongers from around the world”. Chris sums up their goal: “The question that we would like to ask UK politicians is: ‘Why haven’t you been doing more? Why?’”

The New Town Plaza Mall, in Sha Tin, New Territories, where people have left protest notes against the government.
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 The New Town Plaza Mall, in Sha Tin, New Territories, where people have left protest notes against the government. Photograph: An Rong Xu/The Guardian

The group’s slickly produced ads and videos focus on a historical document signed by Margaret Thatcher and the former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984, called the Joint Declaration. The goal is to remind the UK of its legal and moral responsibilities to Hong Kong, a British colony for 156 years before it was returned to Chinese control in 1997.

The Joint Declaration promised Hong Kong could keep the legal and political system inherited from the British. Under the agreement, Hong Kong would maintain a “high degree of autonomy” through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as: “One country two systems.”

But, over the years, Chinese influence over Hong Kong has grown, with its government and legislature tilted in favour of Beijing. Education, publishing and the media have all come under pressure.

A pro-democracy activist in London.
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 A pro-democracy activist in London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

After a bill was put forward to allow extradition to China, a change that critics say would undermine Hong Kong’s judicial system and leave anyone up for grabs by the Chinese state, relatively moderate Hongkongers, a group Chris once counted himself among, came out to the streets.

“I would face 100 charges here rather than face a single charge in China,” he said. “I basically have no confidence in the Chinese legal system. They could do anything to me.”

Earlier this month, someone floated the idea of targeting the UK and its role as a signatory to the Joint Declaration. In less than a day, they raised approximately £320,000 from 9,519 donors and, within a few weeks, the campaign was launched. The group has writers, designers, social media managers, animators, accountants and lawyers to advise on Hong Kong and UK law.”

StandwithHK echoes the broader protest movement. It is not a formal group with any organisational structure – just people who volunteer to take charge of different tasks. Ideas are floated on online forums and Telegram groups, judged by the discussion they inspire or the amount of up-votes they get. Decisions are made quickly. If mistakes are made they move on. The ethos follows that of the movement, and the words of Bruce Lee: “Be water”.

More specifically, according to Chris, it operates like a neural network, “where every cell is independent and autonomous but as a whole there’s a collective intelligence that emerges from it,” Chris said.

Six thousand miles away, Hongkongers studying and working in Europe are also playing a role in the campaign. They work across three time zones, the UK and Europe, the US and Hong Kong. “We have people everywhere,” Chris said.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Sam, another organiser, has been organised from the UK. In the corner of a busy cafe in central London, she explained how she and others were part of a very 21st century movement active across the world. Communication is maintained using social media apps with a high degree of anonymity. They speak mostly over Telegram, an encrypted platform.

“It’s very horizontal. There are no clear leaders and we don’t necessarily know each other. We all use Telegram and communicate with each other to organise rosters for example or discuss what we do next,” Sam said.

Chris in Hong Kong.
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 Chris said: ‘If we have left this little spark in people’s minds … then that’s our historical mark.’ Photograph: An Rong Xu

While activists in Hong Kong have felt the sharp end of police tactics, those who are active in Britain and other countries are also wary. “It’s quite scary, even here. We know also that the Metropolitan police detained a Tiananmen Square dissident in London after pressure from China,” she said. Members of the group, whether in the UK or in Hong Kong, are always on high alert.

The group is not naive. “We’re under no illusions but Boris Johnson did say that he would back the people of Hong Kong every inch of the way, so we’ll be closely monitoring what he does,” she said. “We are focusing on Britain’s historical responsibility and unique, legal right to hold China to its promises under the Joint Declaration. We want the country to stand with us in our fight to protect our freedoms,” she said.

Neither does Chris expect the UK to sanction China or Hong Kong uphold the Joint Declaration. Instead, Chris says, their work is from bottom up and hopefully more lasting.

Shoppers look at protest notes inside The New Town Plaza Mall, in Sha Tin.
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 Shoppers look at protest notes inside The New Town Plaza Mall, in Sha Tin. Photograph: An Rong Xu/The Guardian

“This kind of large-scale leaderless movement and the sheer efficiency of it has captured the imagination of audiences everywhere,” he said. “So if we have left this little spark in people’s minds … then that’s our historical mark.”

In Hong Kong, Chris is preparing for a weekend of protests that have been declared illegal by the police, raising the chances of arrest and clashes. He spends his days scouting locations, ferrying supplies to drop-off locations, and scanning messages from dozens of groups on Telegram to see what needs doing.

Sometimes he thinks about his life from the perspective of his sister, who lives in Hong Kong but is not as much of an activist as he is. Like many Hongkongers, she has gone on with normal life, going to work in an office. “She once said it’s like a parallel world. The protesters are fellow Hongkongers, but they live seemingly in a parallel dimension.” He quotes his sister: “‘How can they be protesting all the time? Their whole lives are full of these values, schemes … meanwhile, I’m thinking about lunch I should have.’”

Chris agrees, because his life was once similar. Now, he spends more time on the protests than on his real job, which he says is the case for many of his fellow demonstrators. “The past seems so distant,” he says.

[“source=theguardian”]