Be Water, as in Liquid Public Space
The protests of 2019 in Hong Kong will no doubt be recognized as one of the most important chapters in the city’s history. Since June of 2019 and with no end in sight, the movement has stretched our imagination about the possibilities of social and political movements. It has challenged what is conceivable and practical in terms of tactics and organizational structures of political resistance. It has redefined the common narratives of Hong King society. It has pushed the boundaries and limits of human capacity. It has overturned many accepted norms in terms of how cities and societies can function. These norms include those that have historically governed the functions and meanings of public space.
Public space has historically been the site of resistance and political struggles. They are spaces of mobilization and demonstration. They enable movements to take shape and become visible. Through imageries and narratives, they help define the identity and meanings of movements as well as the substance of political contestation. In liberal democracies, public space serves a site for collective deliberation (Parkinson 2012). In an idealized public sphere, these public deliberations supposedly render the state accountable to the society via “publicity” (Fraser 1990). It is through such deliberations, which could include debates and demonstrations, that public space functions as a cornerstone and a vehicle of liberal democracy.
It is obvious that democracy does not exist everywhere, nor is it practiced in the same manner universally. Even in authoritarian states, movements can still occur and topple regimes in full public display, beyond clandestine operations. In societies without opportunities for public demonstrations or organized movements, ordinary citizens can still engage in what Asef Bayat (2013) calls “quiet encroachment,” or what James C. Scott (1989) refers to as “everyday forms of resistance” — actions that undermine or challenge the absolute control of the state, also in public space. All of the above and more have taken place in Hong Kong in 2019, with the only exception of toppling the current regime — at least not yet.