Resistance in Hiding
by Katherine Cheng
At 11:00 p.m. on 30 June 2020, the night before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China and the first anniversary of the storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the sweeping National Security Law was officially enacted. Prior to the release of the details, nobody in Hong Kong was allowed to see the details of the law—not even Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Introduced a month earlier by Beijing, it redefines and criminalises actions that the Chinese Communist Party considers to be acts of “subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference” that are seen as threats to national security. Inserted into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, it bypasses the local legislature, effectively ending the “One Country, Two Systems” framework—27 years earlier than its original expiration date of 2047.
As the city awoke to a new reality, with people liable to be arrested for even possessing protest-related stickers, citizens quickly adjusted accordingly. With the law having a far-reaching scope of 66 articles, waves of social media accounts were deleted and people openly contemplated emigration. However, in an air of fear and uncertainty, a heavy silence, conveyed through blank pages and newly confected code emerged, replacing what many were now unable to voice out.
In line with the Hong Kong protest movement’s reputation for being creatively versatile, satirically snarky, and stubbornly resilient, artists and social media users quickly found ways to work around the new restrictions. Playing with visual, auditory, and symbolic puns, they came up with a variety of workarounds, the following of which are among those most widely shared.
Presented in a style reminiscent of a museum’s archive, this series also draws attention to the fears of many Hongkongers that the tumultuous year that the city has just experienced will be remembered as nothing more than a footnote in history, gathering dust in a museum—if it is allowed to be remembered at all.
- At 11 p.m. on 30 June 2020, the night before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China and the one year anniversary of the storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the document on the National Security Law was finally released, its contents immediately effective as law. None of the details of the law were available to anyone in Hong Kong prior to this moment, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and the law surpassed people’s worst expectations. Ripples were sent forth in the digital space, with people deleting Twitter accounts, making social media private, and downloading VPNs. The erasure of history had begun.
- One week after the National Security Law was passed, an invitation to attend a small, public conversation was opened to those who wanted to understand how the law would affect everyday life and the upcoming Legislative Council elections. Amidst an atmosphere of worry and uncertainty, a long line of individuals, friends, and families of all ages filed into a small room. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, attendees were asked to hand over their phones upon entering to facilitate a safe space, preventing people from recording and taking photos. The phones were first wrapped in aluminium foil to create a ‘Faraday Cage’ barrier, which blocks incoming and outgoing radio signals. They were then slipped inside envelopes made of old newspapers and recycled paper with the owners’ names marked, each person trusting that their phone would not be stolen in this intimate crowd. An air of sombre anticipation hung heavily in the room, as attendees sought solace and clarity amongst one another, trying to process the new reality that now grips Hong Kong.
- As early as one day after the National Security Law was passed, sheets of blank paper began appearing as signs of protest instead of the placards that would normally bear popular slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong”—slogans that were now considered illegal under the new legislation, potentially subject to life in prison. Inspired by an anecdote that a protester had heard about dissidents who were arrested by Soviet police for distributing blank pamphlets in Red Square, other protesters also explained that these blank sheets of paper represented the “white terror” that had taken over Hong Kong. Though these sheets of white paper did not have any text, the meaning of the blank spaces were clear to all. As previous signs would have said, “you can’t kill ideas”.
- From July 2019, Lennon Walls of Post-it notes featuring encouraging messages and popular slogans began appearing in residential neighbourhoods across Hong Kong. Filling tunnels, transportation hubs, and restaurant walls, these temporary spaces were seen as fleeting and peaceful moments of solidarity between protesters. Following the passing of the National Security Law, it was announced that these walls would now be illegal, and businesses were instructed to take down any Lennon Walls on their premises. In response, some “Yellow” shops (businesses that openly supported the protest movement), replaced their Lennon Walls with blank Post-its. One business owner explained that “most pro-democracy supporters will understand and visualise the [messages] when they see the blank notes”.
- “Glory to Hong Kong“, composed and written by a musician using the pseudonym of “Thomas dgx yhi”, with the support of Hong Kong netizens, is a song that has been adopted as the anthem of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests—with some even regarding it as the “national anthem of Hong Kong”. Though the Hong Kong government has refused to declare whether the protest song is illegal following the passing of the National Security Law, it has been banned in schools. Given the tonal language of Cantonese and the fear of potential repercussions following the law, the song has been translated into numbers, with the pronunciation of the numbers sounding quite close to the original lyrics.
- In the week that followed the implementation of the National Security Law, at least nine books written by pro-democracy and localist activists such as Joshua Wong, Horace Chin and Tanya Chan were recalled for “review” in libraries across Hong Kong. A few days later, Hong Kong education officials followed suit and instructed schools to review reading materials which could “possibly violate” the new legislation. Despite repeated assurances by mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities that freedoms of speech and assembly would remain protected under the law, legal authorities called these moves alarming, restrictive of the public’s right to seek information, and an infringement of academic freedom.
- Some artists chose to reinterpret the Chinese-language protest slogans—all of which were now illegal under the National Security Law—into simple geometric shapes. Though the shapes do not by themselves seem to make sense, the triangles and rectangles begin to resemble the Chinese characters for “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” a phrase that would now be considered as a call for subversion and secession.
- In another creative substitution for protest slogans that are now deemed illegal, artists have replaced the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” (or “Gwong fuk Hoeng Gong, si doi gaak ming” in Cantonese) with the near-homonym “Bacon and Sausage, Vegetables and Noodles” (which sounds like “jin juk hoeng coeng, si coi zaa min” in Cantonese). Some “yellow” restaurants have also incorporated the dish into their menus.
- A popular staple of Hong Kong bread brands, Garden Bakery’s Life Bread is presented in an easily-recognisable and nostalgia-inducing packaging of blue and white gingham. During the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the peak of tensions in November 2019 that resulted in a two-week lockdown of the university campus, a police officer was filmed mocking the besieged protesters. Noticing that they were eating Life bread, the police officer boasted he was going to Shenzhen to have hot pot and cold beer after his shift, while the protesters would not be able to leave the site. Protesters responded by championing the brand, turning up to protests with loaves of Life.
- Finally, a popular symbol of the Hong Kong protests, 3M 7502 masks have been vital equipment for protesters since the summer of 2019, used as protection against tear gas, pepper spray, and surveillance. In October 2019, face masks were banned under a colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance in an effort to stifle the protests, with sentences of up to a year in jail and a fine of HK$25,000. In January 2020, there was a sudden need for face masks as Covid-19 appeared in the city. With surgical masks initially sold out, the 7502 masks were pressed into action – this time, for casual use on the streets of Hong Kong. 3M masks can still occasionally be seen, a stark reminder of what the city has experienced over the course of just a single year. Now the question is: what will happen in the next year, and the years to come?
A graduate of International Relations and Development Studies, Katherine Cheng is driven to share the stories of our world through a critical lens rooted in de-colonial practices. As the past Photography Project Manager for Climate Tracker and Producer for Photographers without Borders, she will be studying for a Masters of Journalism at the University of Hong Kong in Fall 2020. Her work explores themes of social resistance, the climate crisis, and the rise of China in all of its multifaceted dimensions. Currently, she is a member of Authority Collective, Diversify Photo, and Chinese Storytellers.