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How Hong Kong Protesters Fight the Official Discourse Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2022

Introduction

It is June 12, 2019, and Hong Kong remains as agitated and indignant as it was for several days in a row. A recently introduced bill to extradite some categories of criminals to mainland China, potentially exposing Hongkongers to unfair trials, provoked widespread resentment among the 7.5 million of the local population. The city that enjoys increased autonomy and civil liberties under “one country, two systems” arrangement ever since its return to China in 1997 remains ever-vigilant of the national government’s attempts to restrict its freedoms and erupts in protests. These remain peaceful so far – as recently as June 9, more than one million people marched across the city’s streets to demand the withdrawal of the controversial bill, and no violence occurred. However, the story does not repeat itself as peacefully on June 12. As the protestors gather outside the Legislative Council Complex to impede the bill’s second reading, clashes with the law enforcement begin, which the police disperses using tear gas and rubber bullets.

Stephen Lo Wai-chung, Commissioner of Police, categorizes the protests as “riots,” which raises the question of what will be the fate of the dozens of protestors arrested in the clashes of June 12. Several days later, as the protests grow stronger, he backpedals on his words and explains that police do not categorize any and all participants of the protest as “rioters.” According to the Commissioner, he only applied the term to those who have actively engaged the police with metal poles or bricks, and those not involved in violent clashes with law enforcement should and will not be classified as rioters. Still, five people already arrested for rioting during the first days of the protest and twice as more are charged with violent crimes. Commissioner also insists that some of the events outside the Legislative Council Complex were “rioting situations” and refuses to apologize to peaceful protestors injured in the process of dispersing them. The implications of the statement are clear: as far as the authorities are concerned, Hong Kong protestors are rioters, and even those who do not fall under the term legally still deserve the same treatment.

Main body

Riots – that is the world that has largely dominated the public discourse of Hong Kong protests for the past eleven months. After first being used by Hong Kong Police after the events of June 12, the term has become inseparable from the protests themselves. The authorities cling to it with an adamant conviction, consistent in their attempts to portray the protestors as little more than street ruffians opposed to law and order. The protestors themselves reject the official moniker as a mockery of their struggle for civil liberties. They have even made retracting it one of their core demands, along with the amnesty for the arrested prisoners, independent inquiry into police brutality, and universal suffrage for the elections to the city’s Legislative Council. The term initially used to describe the civil unrest in Hong Kong without much thought had since become a political problem in its own right. This raises a question of why, of all the colorful language used in the course of the civil unrest in Hong Kong, “riots” and “rioters” become the stumbling block worthy of including in the protestors’ political agenda.

One apparent reason to be opposed to the official word use so fiercely was offered mere days after the term was used for the first time. Indeed, “riot” is not a word to be tossed around lightly if one looks at its potential judicial implications. When using it may as well be an accusation of a serious crime with real and legally binding consequences, one would be completely right to oppose such characterization of one’s actions at all costs – if only to protect oneself from persecution. That interpretation was exactly what Commissioner Lo Wai-chung meant when explaining his first use of the term to describe the events of June 12. As long as such words as ”riot” and “rioters” remain not mere pejoratives, but charges with considerable legal implications for those accused, any person who values his or her life and liberty is entitled to oppose them. From this perspective, then, the case is solved: protesting Hongkongers make a firm stand against being called “rioters” to avoid criminal prosecution for their participation in the protests.

Yet while it would be infinitely easier to interpret the protestors’ opposition to the word in legal terms, this explanation does not hold up all too well. The major obstacle to such an interpretation is, ironically, the very fact that the protesting Hongkongers made retracting it one of their core demands. There are five of those in total – hence the unofficial slogan of the protests, “Five demands, not one less” – and one of them is the amnesty for all those arrested for the participation. The protestors are obviously concerned about their legal prospects, but there is a specific demand in their list to account for this concern – and it is not the one that addresses the authorities’ choice of words. If potential prosecution was the only reason why Hongkongers rejected the official term used to designate them, a demand to retract it would be redundant when there already is a specific and encompassing demand of an amnesty. It seems that judicial wordplay is not at the core of the problem after all, and the requirement to abolish the term “riots” when speaking about Hong Kong protests has deeper implications.

Another possible – and only slightly less obvious – explanation is that the official term used by the authorities paints the protests in a bad light. This interpretation is not without merit, as the words “riot” or “rioters” have profoundly negative connotations for most people and will likely put the unwitting audience in a desired state of mind. Should an openly derogatory term, such as “riots,” become an accepted denomination for Hong Kong protests, it may well be a catastrophe for the public image of those who participate in them and the process as a whole. As the world observes the developments in Hong Kong closely, media representation of the conflicting sides becomes more and more important. Acquiescing to the word that paints the protestors in a negative light without a fight means admitting a defeat on the symbolical battlefield – something no sensible person would do while there is at least a meager chance of victory. Thus, the protestors’ opposition to the term may be an indication that they do not want any negative associations attached to them, whether in Hong Kong, in China as a whole, or on the world stage.

It seems to be the case, at least to a certain extent, as the protesting Hongkongers have always paid careful attention to the matters of language. In the course of several months that the protests span over, the city’s denizens devised a slang of their own to describe the events they participate in. Some of these are cheerful and uplifting – for instance, protesting Hongkongers refer to each other as “Sau Zuk” (手足) or “hands and feet,” stressing that they are parts of one body and have to stick to each other. Other neologisms can also be fairly innocent – for instance, the protestors may use the Cantonese words “Cheen Laam” (淺藍) or “Sum Laam (深藍),” literally “light blue” or “deep blue,” in a figurative sense. Since blue, as opposed to the protestors’ yellow, is viewed as the color of the police and their supporters, these terms describe pro-government affiliation. With that much effort put into developing the lingua franca of the protests, it is only logical to assume that Hongkongers will pay particular attention to the terms describing themselves.

Indeed, there is a tendency for the protestors to use euphemisms as a workaround for negative terms that may not be beneficial to the depiction of their cause. Instead of openly admitting participation in the violent clashes, a person may use the term “Faht Moong” (發) – “dreaming” – and say that he or she “dreamt” about it. “Hahng Gaai” (行街), the Cantonese for “shopping” may also designate the participation in the protests without openly referring to it. “Chut Morh Faht” (出魔法), which translates as “use magic,” may refer to starting fires – a tactic sometimes used by the more radical protestors who set the barricades ablaze. In all these cases, Hongkongers refrain from using a negative and potentially incriminating term and adopt an innocent-sounding slang equivalent instead. It is easy to speculate that the terms “riots” and “rioters” face such an opposition for the exact same reason – that is, due to their unpleasant connotations.

Yet this explanation, for all its merits, cannot fully account for the protestors’ terminological preferences either. The mere fact that someone uses a disparaging word to describe the protestors does not necessarily mean they will openly oppose it as a part of their agenda. In some cases, the police referred to the protesting Hongkongers as “Gaat Zaat” (曱甴) or “cockroaches,” but this word, for all the troubling implications of dehumanization, did not make it into the Five Demands. Other derogatory monikers have even experienced a complete turnaround, as the protestors turned them into a badge of honor. This was what happened to “Zi Jau Hai” (自由閪), which may be literally translated as “freedom c*nt” – a profanity initially used to offend the protesters by then proudly adopted by them. It seems that it is not enough for the term to be derogatory and paint the protests in the negative light to earn such fierce opposition. While Hong Kong protestors are undoubtedly aware of the importance of language, there is more to their rejection of the word “rioters” than its insulting meaning.

Of all the disparaging remarks used to describe them, Hongkongers have chosen “rioters” to make their rallying cry against the government crackdown on their protests. Since this choice cannot be completely reduced to either potential legal consequences of the sheer negativity inherent in the term, it is, perhaps, the time to look at the meaning of the word more closely. Admittedly, the actual term that proved to be the stumbling block is not the English “rioter,” but the Cantonese “Bou Tou” (暴徒), which makes using the English dictionary definition a slippery slope. Still, Hong Kong protests receive wide international coverage, a considerable part of which is in English, and the perception of the events by the international community is important for both sides of the conflict. Considering this, looking at the English word “rioter” is still a reasonable way to assess the representation that the protestors struggle against.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “riot” as “a violent public disorder,” thus making the “rioters” the participants of such an event. It would be hard to deny that some parts of this definition are applicable to the events unfolding in Hong Kong since June 2019. While the protests started as a peaceful manifestation of Hongkongers’ political demands – “peaceful, rational, non-violent” was one of their original slogans – they escalated rather quickly, and violent clashes between the protestors and the police occurred more than once since then. The “public” part would be hard to deny as well – if anything, the sheer magnitude of the protests made it impossible for anything but the public spaces to accommodate their numbers. On the fateful day of June 12, the first clashes happened outside the Legislative Council Complex – a public space if there ever was one – and then the conflict spilled over to the streets and shopping malls. When public spaces become the battlefield between the protestors and the law enforcement, it corresponds literally to the second part of the dictionary definition of “riot.”

That brings the inquiring reader to the final and the most important question of all: are Hong Kong protests, public and occasionally violent as they are, a disorder? Answering it requires going back to June 2019 when it all began – to the initial protests when the word “riot” has not even been used yet.

On June 12, when the people marched to the Legislative Council Complex unaware of the clashes that would break out soon, there were no Five Demands yet. No one could demand amnesty for those arrested for participation, as the arrests have not occurred at that point. No one could call for retracting the term “rioters,” as the word was yet to be spoken. The only reason that brought Hongkongers to the streets of their city in a unified protest was their opposition to the extradition bill that was going through its second reading at the time. Allowing the extradition to mainland China and exposing Hongkongers to potentially unfair trials undermined one of the pillars of the city’s autonomy – and this was the sole original reason why the people protested. In June 2019, Hongkongers did not come on the streets to challenge the existing order of things – they have come to preserve this order against those who would see it undone. A bitter irony of being labeled “rioters” when they stand for the established order rather than against it was what propelled the people of Hong Kong to oppose the controversial term.

This juxtaposition of “riot” and “order” reaches to the very core of Hongkongers’ refusal to accept or rework the official moniker, as they have done with other derogatory terms thrown at them. “Cockroach,” for all its dehumanizing potential, is merely an insult shouted by an exasperated enemy, and “freedom c*nt” may even be adopted as an honorary title, as it designates its bearers as freedom fighters. Yet the connotations inherent in “riot” leave no potential for a positive reinterpretation of the term, as they already hint at the outcome of the struggle. As John Harington famously said, “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.” Should the protests succeed, they do not stay in history as “riots.” While “protests” invoke the image of responsible citizens voicing their concerns, “riots” are something to be cracked upon without mercy or hesitation. Using the term to designate Hong Kong protestors not merely goes against the definition, but implicitly suggests they are bound to lose – a perspective that no Hongkonger devoted to his or her home city would accept.

Conclusion

In the late 1860s in the United States, a former Confederate officer James Innes Randolph wrote the poem titled “O I’m a good old rebel.” Beginning with these very words and soon adopted as a folk song across the defeated South, the poem decried the outcome of the American Civil War and expressed a bitter resentment toward the victorious Northern states. Yet for all its bitterness, the very name of the song signaled the acceptance of defeat – by calling himself a “rebel,” Randolph recognized that his attempt failed and would be forever known henceforth as nothing more than a “rebellion.” Aware of the implications, Hong Kong protestors are in no rush to proclaim themselves “good old rioters.” As long as they reject the official moniker – all the more unfitting since they stand for the existing order rather than against it – they preserve hope for the victorious outcome of their struggle.

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