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 a protest movement. It has redefined the common narratives of the 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.
In the book City Unsilenced (2017), Sabine Knierbein and I examine the common traits of public space in recent protest movements around the world. We found public space to function as a site of mobilization and negotiation, as space of contestation and learning, as a vehicle for rescaling and re-politicizing, and as grounds of alter-politics — a space in which alternative human relationships could be developed. In Hong Kong, many of the same processes are apparent. But as in all movements, they take on unique manifestations given the specificity of the local context. Still, I suspect that there is much more to learn from. The following represents an attempt to catch up with the still-evolving movement, six months after it began.
Media X Public Space
In this day and age where our sense of reality is mediated and augmented by a growing variety of online media, what constitutes public space is also shifting (or liquefying). In essence, spaces and events that can be documented or live-streamed for public consumption became public through the public view. The collective space of telecommunication and consumption becomes a public space. In Hong Kong and elsewhere, Hannah Arendt’s (1958) concept of public space in relation to appearance and visibility appears to be ever more relevant, as public space is increasingly defined by what is visible rather than the actual parameters of space and ownership.
Public space as commonly understood is still critical as a stage for visibility, especially when millions of Hong Kongers take to the streets. However, visibility is now increasingly associated with the medium of publicity instead of the actual location or space. Take the mob attack inside the Yuen Long MTR Station on July 21 as an example, when the incident was broadcast live through a witness’ private phone, it becomes a part of the public realm through the public view, even though the station was shut down and was no longer accessible (except for the mob). Through the public view and replay of recorded footage, the incident became a subject of public scrutiny and shaped public perceptions and opinions.
Even if events could not be live-streamed, such as the mysterious deaths of many young people since the protests began, the discussion of such incidents could still occupy the public consciousness. In the case of a 15-year-old student whose body was found in the sea in September, the incident and the (contested) CCTV footage before her disappearance became subject of media and public scrutiny, adding to suspicions against the authority. Similarly, when the long lines for the memorial service for the 22-year old university student, who died after falling from a carpark, was transmitted online through the media, the images and the event became a public memory.
Through these forms of publicity, the media and mediated images and voices perform the historical role of public space in a liberal democracy, as a vehicle for holding the state accountable, or at least in Hong Kong’s case as an event that undermined the legitimacy of the police and the legal authority of the government.
Malls X Public Space
As the movement in Hong Kong has demonstrated so far, physical spaces still matter critically as a stage for protests and resistance. As Parkinson (2012: 4) argues, “democracy requires physical space for its performance.” However, while protests do still take the stage in the streets and the few public open spaces such as Victoria Park, spontaneous assemblies have taken place in less conventional locations, including shopping malls, MTR stations, and even the airport. Skybridges, underpasses, and freeway columns have also been turned into Lennon Walls, transforming the typically nondescript spaces into sites of powerful communications and vehicles of collective expressions.
On one hand, these transgressions and encroachments reflect the creativity and persistence of the protesters and supporters. On the other hand, they show how these particular urban spaces have become more central to the everyday lives of Hong Kongers and the functions of the city than the conventional gathering places. For outsiders, it is important to note that sky bridges, underpasses, and other forms of passageways including outdoor escalators are functional necessities in Hong Kong. By design, many of them serve as connections between commercial, public, and more commercial spaces.
The New Town Plaza in Sha Tin is a prime example. The mall has been the site of numerous gatherings during the movement. Protesters have hung large banners, chanted slogans, and sang in the main atrium of the mall. While the name New Town Plaza suggests a traditional urban space, the atrium is actually located on the third level of the sprawling commercial complex. The atrium space has served as a convenient gathering space as it is directly connected to the MTR station. Much like the private-owned Zuccotti Park in New York City during Occupy Wall Street, the malls of Hong Kong were given a new role to play through actions performed by the citizens.
Affect X Public Space
During the months of ongoing protests in Hong Kong, public space is not just a space for demonstration and protest. It is also a space of care and affect. Examples include passengers leaving change money for protesters at MTR stations (so that they would not risk being tracked by using transit cards) and pre-paid drinks and food left at the convenience stores also for protesters. Other examples include the actions of those who volunteered to clean up, deliver supplies, offer food, give protesters rides home or to safe places, or to simply distract the police so that protesters could escape. Like the spontaneous gatherings in commercial spaces mentioned above, these acts of generosity transcend the boundaries that previously divide the society.
Besides the simple acts of generosity, care and affect also occurred in a deeper and more emotional level during the movement. In a lecture at the Taiwan Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Taipei in November 2019, Ching Kwan Lee, a UCLA sociology professor, discussed what she considered as an important turning point for the movement on June 12 when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds. “Everyone who has been to those protests would have been saved, would have been helped, would have been greeted with so much warmth, would have felt that they belonged to a community,” said Lee. Through these actions and encounters, she argued, “a community was reborn, reconstituted, and people relate to that community with a very deep reservoir of passion and commitment.”
While the space of media was important in bringing the protests into the public view, it was these visceral encounters in physical spaces that trigger deeper and more emotional connections. Lee called it in her talk, “a deeply personal and revolutionary process” that changed the self-identity of many Hong Kongers from being politically detached and disinterested to being passionate and committed to the political cause. According to Wai Hei Samson Yuen, a political science professor at Lingnan University who also presented at the conference in Taipei, 42% of people in Hong Kong have participated in the movement. With such a high degree of participation and given the emotional connections the participants might have felt on the streets (or other forms of public space), it’s not surprising that the movement continues to have strong public support.
Violence X Public Space
With care and affect in full display on the streets of Hong Kong, it is hard not romanticize the human generosity seen during movement. However, such a tendency can quickly dissipate when one is reminded of the high cost of the movement, especially in terms of bodily harms and lives lost to state terror and brutality. Public space here could be seen as a stage in which such terror is performed, arguably with the exact intention of terrorizing the public not only through the degree of brutality but also the optics of such actions.
In the protests of 2019 in Hong Kong, the escalation of violence is also evident on the part of the movement. Perhaps similar to the brutal acts of the police, it was also through the deliberate and strategic acts of vandalism (or “decorations”) that the protesters wish to convey their message, retaliate against the authority, and disrupt business as usual in the city. In a presentation also at the Taiwan Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Taipei, Professor Gary Tang of Hang Seng University finds the violent acts by protesters to fulfill two goals: as an expression of anger and frustration and as a strategic move to escalate the struggle to lure Beijing to send troops and risk the political and economic consequence of such move.
For both the police and the protesters, public space became the stage in which acts of violence were performed with different intentions. Under the public view, these “public” actions also invite different interpretations and reactions. Specifically, the degree of violence against protestors and increasingly bystanders and the general public has most certainly backfired against the authority as evident in the degree of continued public support for the movement. On the part of the protesters, excessive violence could also be criticized and resulted in subsequent self-correction. Public space becomes a stage in which violence is not only performed but also scrutinized.
People X Public Space
In a city known for its hyper-density and land scarcity, it is especially remarkable that the protest movement in Hong Kong could occur without the kind of central, monumental public space normally associated with large-scale demonstrations and assemblies. In 2012, at a panel discussion in New York City to reflect on the Occupy Wall Street protest, a member of the audience argued that there was no proper space in New York to stage protests. As a panelist, I answered, “why not the streets?” The person in the audience was not impressed. But taking to the streets was precisely what Hong Kongers did, and what made the movement powerful, in terms of how it became visible and how protests and disruptions could happen anywhere, at any time, in full public display.
In Hong Kong and elsewhere, public space as a space of political expression and mobilization is clearly a space made by the people, an insurgent public space as I argue elsewhere (Hou 2010). While such function may be sanctioned by the state, it is the actions of the citizens that enable the public space to take on a political role, sometimes against rules and limitations imposed by the state. It is through the actions of people that spaces of ordinary functions and activities can take on extraordinary meanings and significance. In Hong Kong, these include actions of those who turned university campuses, the airport, malls, streets, sky bridges, underpasses, and even the LegCo chamber into the sites of resistance.
In an interview for an online article (Hui 2019), human rights activist Johnson Yeung sees the current movement in Hong Kong as “leader-full” rather than leaderless, in the sense that anyone is empowered to take part in the movement. “A decentralized, leader-full movement is resilient against an authoritarian regime,” said Yeung (Hui 2019). By taking to the streets, the limited public space in Hong Kong suddenly becomes abundant. The streets and other “liquefied” forms of public, semi-public, and privately-owned public spaces have enabled such leader-full movement to flourish and sustain.
Learning from the Liquid Public Space
With “Be Water” as the motto and operating tactics, the protests of 2019 in Hong Kong have made profound contributions to what we know about the relationship between political resistance and public space. It allows the movement to avoid the high cost of long-term occupation. It provides a framework for more nimble actions for which less coordination and advanced planning is needed. It has enabled individuals and groups to self-organize and make corrections and adjustments as needed. It had led to a “leader-full” movement. (Given the significance of the tactic, I am surprised that the movement has not been named the “Be Water Revolution” already, much like the Umbrella Revolution of 2014.)
Aside from the fluid and tactical nature of the movement, another aspect of the movement stood out for me — how public space (in both solid and liquid forms) functions as a space for learning and relearning. As evident in the discussion above, public space provides a vehicle where individuals and collectives can learn to see, act, bond with others, think critically, and acquire new skills and identity. Through the process of learning, they become capable of adapting and engaging in self-corrections. They learn to retreat or shift course if necessary. During the District Council election, the collective decision to cease disruptions might have contributed to the large turnout and the electoral landslide that redefined the political map of the city, for example. It is through these processes that public space becomes liquefied, in the sense that its functions and meanings can be shaped by forces of resistance.
In the book, The Design of Protests that examines a collection of cases around the world from Beijing to Istanbul, author Tali Hatuka (2018: 120) argues, “there is no winning spatial choreography in the making of change.” Instead, she suggests that effective protests are a result of creative designs that surprise authorities and attract attention. The Be Water tactics and the phenomenon of liquid public space in Hong Kong’s 2019 protests serve as a reminder of what makes social movements work. But more than just tactics and space, it is the agency of individuals and collectives mediated through the liquefied public space that fuels and sustains the movement.
Short of toppling the regime and despite the profound human cost, the accomplishments of the protests of 2019 in Hong Kong are remarkable in many ways. However, there are still many obstacles to overcome. At the risk of over-extending the metaphor, it is important to note that as public space becomes liquefied, it can also slip away. As evident in precedents elsewhere, we can expect to see increasing militarization and greater control of public space in Hong Kong in years to come. Yet it is certain that Hong Kongers will continue to adapt. It is through such processes of learning and adaptation that the movement will retain its strength and resilience. These are the lessons learned from Hong Kong’s protests in 2019.
Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bayat, A. (2013). Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press.
Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, 25/26: 56–80.
Hatuka, T. (2018). The Design of Protest: Choreographing Political Demonstrations in Public Space. Austin: The University of Texas Press.
Hou, J. (ed.)(2010) Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities. London and New York: Routledge.
Hou, J., and Knierbein, S. (2017). City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy. London and New York: Routledge.
Hui, M. (2019). What the Hong Kong protests can teach the world about enduring social movements. Quartz. November 19, 2019. [Online] https://qz.com/1695788/the-hong-kong-protests-epitomize-a-resilient-social-movement/ (Accessed: December 12, 2019).
Parkinson, J.R. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scott, J.C. (1989). Everyday forms of resistance. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 4: 33–62.