The World

Art of the Protest

Hong Kongers have turned their demonstrations into a highly effective aesthetic statement.

An anti-extradition protester waves a black flag on a street outside the Legislative Council Complex ahead of the annual flag raising ceremony of 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China on July 1, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.
An anti-extradition protester waves a black flag on a street outside the Legislative Council Complex on July 1 in Hong Kong.
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The walls of Hong Kong have been turning purple, pink, neon green, and electric orange over the past few weeks. Outside the Legislative Council Building, on tunnels and under bridges throughout the city, residents have been covering walls with colorful Post-It Notes displaying messages of peace. They contain phrases like “Free Hong Kong,” HK Is Not China,” and the personal as well: “Marry Me, Jess.”

The Technicolored transformation of the city is one of a host of nonviolent tactics protesters have used to oppose their government and broadcast their message. Since the first week of June, throngs of Hong Kongers have been on the streets protesting an extradition bill that many suspected could result in opponents of Beijing being sent to face a corrupt, rigged justice system on the mainland. They’ve gotten Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to declare the measure “dead,” but demonstrators don’t believe her. Their demands have expanded, and they’re now asking for a full withdrawal of the bill, broader democratic rights, and, preferably, Lam’s resignation.

In pursuit of these goals, they’ve embraced a thoroughly revolutionary, modern form of protest. Hong Kong residents have offered the world countless images and anecdotes of gritty, scrappy street resistance against the rubber bullets and beanbag pellets lobbed at them by police. In the hands of the protesters, umbrellas block tear gas, and water bottles diffuse the stuff. The marchers pair their parasols with all-black outfits to mark their solidarity. Graffiti and posters now pepper the Legislative Council Building, which was stormed on July 1; the interior is plastered with phrases like “It was you who taught me that peaceful marches don’t work.” Demonstrators defaced the red emblem of Hong Kong on the wall of the building—which heavily features the iconography of the Chinese Communist Party—with black spray paint, leaving only the word Hong Kong untouched. A variation of the Hong Kong flag has appeared at the rallies, turned black and manipulated so that the five petals of the bauhinia flower in the center are wilting, signifying the erosion of freedom. The entire operation on the front lines is coordinated through a system of hand signals.

Post-It Notes related to protests against the proposed extradition bill.
Post-It Notes related to protests against the proposed extradition bill pasted onto a wall in an underpass in the Hang Hau area of Kowloon in Hong Kong.
Vivek Prakash/AFP/Getty Images
Residents view the protest-themed Post-It Notes.
Hong Kong residents view the protest-themed Post-It Notes.
Vivek Prakash/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters gather outside the Legislative Council Building.
Protesters gather outside the Legislative Council Building as they demonstrate against the extradition bill on June 16 in Hong Kong.
Carl Court/Getty Images

This is what makes the Hong Kong protesters unique. They act as artists, and their protest presents as a masterpiece. They’re succeeding by taking everyday objects and rendering them into mesmerizing symbols and tools of resistance. By doing so, they have thwarted and defied the government in Beijing, the police, and Lam more effectively than any weapon could.

“You need the energy of the youth, the wisdom of the elders, and the participation of everyone else” in order for a movement to be dynamic and effective, says Maria J. Stephan, director of the Program on Nonviolent Action at the United States Institute for Peace. In Hong Kong, all of the key groups have showed up en masse. During the protest’s opening days, pictures flooded social media of young and old standing side by side as about 25 percent of the city’s population hit the streets.

They were millions strong, but transforming the situation still required inventiveness and resourcefulness. Hong Kongers—still fresh off the 2014 Umbrella protests, which, before being suppressed by the government, saw demonstrators demanding electoral reforms and universal suffrage—recognized that, and it was immediately obvious that they were up to the task when they took to the city center this time. It speaks to their artistry that their tactics told the story for them.

Putting out tear gas with water bottles became a fitting metaphor for their commitment to peace even as the government accused them of being “rioters” and committing “extreme violence.”

While they’d mastered communication and coordination with each other through apps like Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp in Hong Kong, getting their message across to mainland China had them stumped. Blocked by the nearly impenetrable Great Firewall, China’s elaborate censorship system, residents struggled to expose neighbors on the mainland to images and pamphlets explaining what was happening in Hong Kong. In response, they developed a couple of simple techniques to spread the message. Some traveled to Kowloon, the city’s bustling tourist district, and approached tourists with QR codes that were formatted for popular Chinese apps WeChat and AliPay and that opened up to information about the protests. Moreover, they were able to breach the Great Firewall by using AirDrop to bombard mainland tourists with information about the protests.

Graffiti is seen in the main chamber of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong.
Graffiti is seen in the main chamber of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong.
Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters gather near the Legislative Council building ahead of the arrival of pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong who was earlier released from prison, on June 17, 2019 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, Joshua Wong, said on Monday after being released from jail that Chief Executive Carrie Lam must step down as he joined protesters against the controversial extradition bill which would allow suspected criminals to be sent to the mainland and place its citizens at risk of extradition to China. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Protesters gather near the Legislative Council on June 17 in Hong Kong.
Carl Court/Getty Images

One protester describes how he and others have tested out a theory based on aggressive nonviolent action to bait police into lashing out, while themselves remaining peaceful. The protesters have embraced martial arts legend Bruce Lee as an icon—in contrast to the staunchly pro-Beijing Jackie Chan—taking inspiration from his martial arts tactics, adopting Bruce Lee’s maxim “Be water, my friend.”

Stephan says that the movement “has been very creative, very persistent, very focused” as the Hong Kongers have marched through June and July. That explains why the uproar against the extradition bill has only been guided by minimal leadership, and why it’s been so effective. Well-known protestors like Umbrella Revolution activist Joshua Wong and pop star Denise Ho spend a lot of time talking to the media, but they’ve taken a back seat at the marches, allowing the people on the street to control the narrative—which they have done, masterfully.

Hong Kongers have struck an impossibly “elegant” position by balancing gritty resistance with nonviolence with clear-eyed political objectives. This, then, is a sort of protest that draws power from unity based in art rather than individual direction or violence. Their challenge, as their demands expand to encompass democratic rights, will be to stay on this course and not stray from the principles and tactics that have guided them this far.