Our Summer of Discontent

Tai Po Lennon Wall displaying democratic messages and banner reading “No rioters, only tyranny” The original Lennon Wall was erected in Prague in 1989, a wall of graffiti at first to commemorate the death of John Lennon, but then evolving to become poster wall of sorts for messages of love and peace and liberation. In Hong Kong, Lennon Walls were created during the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, with people decorating walls with colourful post-it notes and art with messages in support of the democratization of the region. During the 2019 protests, Lennon Walls had “blossomed everywhere” (遍地開花) throughout Hong Kong. August 23 2019, Tai Po, Hong Kong.
PC: Samantha Klein

In the spring during his interview class, professor Marc Miller would always stroll into the classroom, look you dead in the eye, and ask, “Are you excited for the summer?”

We were excited. We’d planned on doing thesis work, going hiking and diving, and doing all the things normal twenty-somethings in grad school would do. Then it all crumbled. And we weren’t excited anymore. 

In early 2019, the Hong Kong government introduced a bill entitled the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 (hereafter referred to as the Extradition Bill). If passed, the bill would allow the Hong Kong government to detain and extradite criminal fugitives who are wanted in regions  with which Hong Kong does not currently have extradition agreements, including Taiwan and mainland China. This is concerning because the bill would also allow for local authorities to extradite political fugitives wanted by the mainland, which would undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and its civil liberties.

June 16th 2019, Hong Kong. Two million people march in the streets of Hong Kong Island to oppose the Extradition Bill and to commemorate Mr. Leung, a protester who had fallen to his death off a building after standing on top it for hours with a sign saying “Make Love, No Shoot! No extradition to China!”
PC: Samantha Klein

The protests that you see on the news today started with the aim to stand against the Extradition Bill. The Hong Kong people mobilized two million people to march; shut down the Hong Kong airport, showers of tear gas and petrol bombs and real shots were fired on the streets. Since then, the protests have evolved to oppose escalating police violence, demand democratic political reform, and resist crackdowns on our right to protest. We fought to reclaim our city even as the subway (MTR) bowed down to the government’s will and shut itself down and gangsters terrorized people with knives and police lied repeatedly to the public.

Imagine you are exiting the subway station right next to the family planning center where you buy your birth control. You walk toward the public basketball courts. It is 5 o’clock on a Saturday night and usually, groups of friends, young and old, gather to play together. But tonight the street is different, there are no cars. The noodle shop across the street where you usually get lunch at is closed. Hundreds of people wearing black with gas masks and helmets are standing in the middle of the road. You join them. Someone tries to hand you a yellow construction helmet. You want to refuse the offer, but there’s no time. The police are here. A young man runs by yelling up to the apartments above. “Close your windows! Tear gas is coming!” 

A tear gas canister whizzes past and explodes in front of you. You try to run, but it’s too late. Your eyes are on fire. Your throat is on fire. Your heart is in your throat, burning and aching as well. Then someone’s tugging at your hand, dragging you through a door, then another door. Blearily, through your tears, you find yourself hiding in a strangers apartment and see twenty faces peering back at you, anxious, tense. On the other side of the door, there’s yelling, threatening, terrorizing. It goes on for another five minutes. And then, finally, there’s quiet.

If, at the beginning of the summer, you were really excited to be working on your thesis, to start planning for your new life in Seattle, you cannot afford to be anymore. This – fighting to make your home recognizable, safe, livable – consumes you.

Pop-up recycling center at the Hong Kong International Airport, August 9 2019 PC: Sallie Lau
Mission statement of the Waste-No-Mall recycling station in Yuen Long, September 7th, 2019. PC: Sallie Lau

As the protests wage on, the city is reduced to a mosaic of safe and unsafe spaces, and your life is reduced to navigating your way through them, trying to find the next place that’s shielded from police violence and surveillance. Everyday objects become tools for resistance; a metal cooking pot is used to smother tear gas canisters and hiking poles are used to fend off police attacks. Even the urban landscape changes. Police and subway stations, places deemed unsafe, have been buried under a sea of graffiti and destruction. In our search for safe spaces, Hong Kongers have started taking  bus routes that bring us past parts of the city previously unknown to us. We venture into the woods to test our Molotov cocktails. We hop on ferries and cross the seas of Hong Kong for the first time in years. The protest connects people with the ocean and the environment in ways we had never imagined. New relations are being formed between us and nature. 

New relations are also being formed between the city’s inhabitants. When we are on the streets together, food and water get passed around for free. And to prove that protesters are respectful and to put our ideals and visions for a better future into practice, there are pop-up stations for recycling water bottles and other types of packaging. More permanent, expansive recycling stations are being set up around the city too. The Waste-No-Mall movement, initiated by one of our legislators, Eddie Chu, and set up by people in various communities, is gaining momentum and allowing people to take charge of their own waste management and create a community-based economy.

But the protests are also bringing more insidious human-environmental interactions to light. During marches in June and July, not only were people protesting against the Extradition Bill, some people were handing out flyers protesting the Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Lennon walls in certain parts of the city displayed sticky notes of the same sentiment. Part of the Lantau Tomorrow Vision involves the construction of a 6.6 square mile artificial island. If this development happens, there will be no more coral reefs and rocky shore in the area. Entire ecosystems will be gone. The livelihoods of local fishermen will evaporate. This plan is expected to proceed with full steam ahead despite widely criticized by citizens as an impractical solution to Hong Kong’s housing problems. Like the extradition bill, the Lantau Tomorrow Vision is pushed by the government officials put into power by the very political system we are protesting against. This connection between the artificial island and the broader protests show that the Hong Kong protests are about something much deeper than the Extradition Bill. They are about Hong Kong people wanting to protect what makes Hong Kong, Hong Kong, and about them feeling powerless to shape the future of their city and yet empowering themselves to try anyway.

Site of proposed Lantau Tomorrow Vision artificial island from Peng Chau island. September 9th 2019.
PC: Sallie Lau

We felt powerless, too, when we moved back to Seattle from Hong Kong. We expected the movement to lose steam as school began again. But the government has continued to ignore our demands, and the violence and chaos has only escalated in the last few weeks. How do we focus on studying when it feels like home is on fire and we are just staring at the flames on the computer screen? Teenagers are out in the street being beaten by the police and skipping meals to buy protest gear. They should be worrying about passing their classes, not worrying about erosion of their rights. People are putting their jobs and careers on the line right now for a better future. It’s not fair. Our summer is over, but we still feel the discontent raging through us. 

So this fall, we are forming connections with other people who care about Hong Kong and the environment in Seattle, to continue to organize rallies, discussions, and events about totalitarianism and its connections to environmental justice. These actions foster a sense of international solidarity that can build the movement to become even larger.