Chinese internet

Online counter-hegemonic resistance in China’s Hong Kong

Written by Daniel Garrett.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is well known as a “City of Protests” but fewer are aware that Hongkongers’ vivacious dissent against hegemonic rule and social injustice also extends into virtual Chinese and HK Internet spaces as much as its physical streets and public spaces.  As postmodernist movements and new social movement actors have taken root in HK (Chan K.-m., Cheung A.B.L., Choy, So) the importance of information communication technologies, especially new and social media platforms, have increased sharply in the last few years.  This has been all the more the case as the city’s subalterns have become more assertive and transgressive in confronting hegemonic efforts to create and (re)present images and visualities of the territory as an economic entity well-adjusted to, and accepting of, Chinese sovereignty under the “One Country, Two Systems” (OCTS) ideology.  Typical of postmodern social movements and actors, subaltern Hongkongers’ contemporary dissent is frequently expressed visually in both its street-level and online protest repertoires (Garrett and Ho 2014, forthcoming) which work together in a continuum to present a countervisuality (Mirzoeff) disputing hegemonic claims of a harmonious HK and HKSAR-China relationship.

As the political situation in HK rapidly deteriorated since 2010, the SAR government and Chinese officials have been increasingly pressured by these new modes of digital and visual insurgency.  Indeed, a HKSAR Executive Council member advising the Region’s chief executive warned in 2012 – a year many pro-regime observers identify as a point where HK took a virulent anticommunist turn (Chan T., Chan T., Yang) and identity politics reared its ugly head (Garrett) – online activism, as “a parallel universe where ideas, consensus and influence come out of online chat rooms, Facebook and internet radio” (Chan B.), could no longer be ignored.  Another China Daily writer argued in August 2013 that given the larger number of Facebook users in HK than those that voted in the last legislative elections, HK’s online communities were more representative than electoral rituals. (Lam J.)  Garrett and Ho (Forthcoming 2014) also observe that Hongkongers’ online activism (aka ‘digital democracy’) has been insufficiently considered in assessing the political and social situation and in conceptualizing Hongkongers’ political participation. Not entirely oblivious, various recent SAR government actions and measures – such as efforts to proscribe online parodies over putative copyright violations (Nip and Wong), making a record number of arrests and prosecutions of demonstrators (Cheung S.), circumscribing online political campaigning, and apprehending a dissident for simply uploading an image of a defaced national flag onto social media (Lam O.) – are contemporary indicators of steady ‘mainlandization’ of the security and judicial sectors of the “HK system” (Lo S., Lo T.W., Lo and Kwok) and shrinking physical and online spaces for dissent in HK’s public spheres.

In February 2013, for instance, after HKSAR police arrested the resident for uploading an image of a defaced Chinese flag to Facebook, a longtime local China Daily commentator opined HK’s National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance which prohibits burning, mutilation, or otherwise defiling the symbols had been “well-enforced in the city” as evidenced by the police’s actions.  Privileging mainland “Internet sovereignty” rhetoric over HK’s liberal freedom of speech, he further asserted: “The arrest serves as a reminder that laws in the real world are also applicable to the cyberspace.” (Chan K.)  Notably, the commentator’s observations followed the government’s levying of its harshest punishment (nine months) to date for flag burning by a pro-democracy activist.[i]  The perceived excessiveness of the sentence – clearly designed to send a message to radical pro-democracy dissidents – provoked further online civil disobedience and a flood of subaltern-produced images of desecrated, defiled, and parodied national and regional flags and emblems were uploaded and disseminated online in overt challenges to the local and central regimes. (Lam O.)

This reprisal like many other acts of visual resistance was not limited to just the virtual realm but showed convergence between off- and online dissent in HK.  For example, a local alternative media organization supportive of democracy and social justice movements, Inmediahk.net, circulated online a picture of a PRC national flag with the five stars replaced with five crabs signifying the Chinese police/censorship state.  This ‘flag’ was later reproduced as hand sized washcloths and distributed to demonstrators during the 2012 July 1st pro-democracy political rally and procession.  Another visual act of defiance (among many) during the same annual political ritual involved photographing and disseminating online images of a police officer’s motorcycle covered with anti-regime flyers calling for universal suffrage, opposing national security legislation (Article 23), and other political claims.  These images were widely circulated online much to the chagrin of the police who investigated the incident and who felt it ‘disrespected them.’ (Lee)

Significantly, the police and other agents of social control like the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and judiciary, were once unblemished icons of the HK Way of Life and frequently lauded post-1997 as symbols of the successful upholding of the “HK system” under OCTS.  However, during the last few years these ‘paragons’ have faced mounting criticisms from counter-hegemonic forces for allegedly suppressing peaceful protests and speech, making political arrests and prosecutions, and condoning mainland interference in local politics all the while tolerating violence by pro-regime ‘civil society’ groups directed at dissident political and religious groups.  Subaltern accusations of White Terror and Culture Revolution-style politics and policing are now prolific as confrontations between anti- and pro-regime civil society groups have exploded in the streets and virtual spaces of HK.  While some of this dissent is captured by local self-censoring and partisan mainstream media outlets (The Hong Kong Journalist Association 2013), arguably the most virulent manifestations of subaltern anger, defiance, and insurgency exist online where officials, organizations, and policies are ruthlessly caricatured, mocked, parodied, and satirized by HK’s “subaltern counterpublics.” (Fraser, p.67)

This is also where the most iconoclastic, transgressive and unmediated, or lesser mediated, counter-hegemonic representations of identity politics and moral panic in HK are manifested as exemplified by the YouTube videos “Locust World,” “Nasty China Style,” and “Attack on China” – albeit similarly profane insurgent texts are also readily available on Facebook and other places within HK’s virtual communities (such as HK Golden Forum.)  Though the Internet’s role in mobilizing social movements in HK has been lightly examined before – Lam and Ip are notable exceptions – its growing role in counter-hegemonic identity formation, contentious politics, and resistance towards China are fruitful areas for research. Likewise, the convergence of online dissent with popular culture (Dittmer) is creating a new lens to better grasp the construction of HK separate from China. (Garrett 2014. forthcoming)

Daniel Garrett is a PhD. Candidate in the Department of Applied Social Studies at the City University of Hong Kong

References

Garrett, D. (Forthcoming 2014). “Superheroes in Hong Kong’s Political Resistance: Images, Icons, and Opposition.” PS: Political Science & Politics 47(1).
Garrett, D. and W. C. Ho (Forthcoming 2014). Hong Kong at the Brink: Emerging Forms of Political Participation in the New Social Movement. New Threads in Hong Kong’s Political Participation. J. Y. S. Cheng. Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong Press.

Note

[i] This sentence was later reduced.

3 replies »

  1. Is it fair to say that Patten left a legacy and his influence as final governor should not be underestimated. To what extent is it true/fair to say?

  2. Hi Sam, Thanks for the question. Apologies on the belated response.

    Without a doubt Patten had an influence (good and bad) on Hong Kong which remains with some today. And it is clear that HK politics still suffer from the confrontational politics employed (by both sides) during the twilight of colonial-rule. His image and other aspects of colonial rule do continue to be invoked in some visual and verbal texts albeit much more so in a nostalgic and contrastive context. Other images and individuals from the colonial period are also deployed in different contexts and juxtapositions.

    That said, based on personal observations and research over the last few years, those incidences and images of Patten or colonial rule are not representative of the broader online Hongkonger visual resistance that remains pretty firmly seated within contemporary HK-China tensions which are substantial. You also see nostalgic invocations of pre-1997 days but without any overt (or implied) colonial presence. Some stereotypical visual themes (re)-oscillate with new and recurrent cultural, political, and social confrontations.

    And, I would argue that even where Patten or other colonial HK or British icons are presented many (but not all) compositions are ambiguous or appear mainly to be illustrative and critical visual arguments rather than anything much more substantive. Symbolically there is a lot going on, but if definitely is not the ‘cause’ of any ‘fire’ albeit it might inspire a strong ‘fire response’ from some. If anything, they are more indicative of Hongkonger identity rather than any type of call for the return of the Brits.

    In my assessment, other visual themes and icons are much more corrosive and problematic to the state of affairs of Hong Kong and the “One Country, Two Systems” ideology. My thesis (and forthcoming papers) will elucidate some of these trends and trajectories – as well as other international invocations – more thoroughly as part of a larger examination of the use of fear and moral panic by regime and anti-regime forces during the post-Handover period.

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