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    Analysis of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests


    Written by Majidah Bangura

    Hong Kong is a country with a time limit. A former British colony returned to China 27 years ago (1997); it exists as its own country, with separate laws and freedoms from China under Basic Law until 2047 (BBC, 2019). A country under two systems, retaining a capitalist economy and a large amount of political autonomy (excluding foreign policy and defense), and with criminal law generally derived from the United Kingdom, the security law governing extradition imposed by mainland China had brought civil unrest (Britannica, n.d.). Dubbed the 2019 Hong Kong protests, the movement has no official name but has been called “anti-ELAB protests” (Extradition Law Amendment Bill), Hong Kong’s Summer of Discontent, Occupy Central/Occupy 2.0, Umbrella Movement, Hard Hat Revolution, Water-Revolution, pro-Democracy movement, anti-Government movement (Dapiran, 2020). The movement’s large-scale breakout ended as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up, discouraging protest in 2020, though the movement still survived, especially as protesters and activists are being put on trial.

    However, this is not the first time Hong Kong has protested in response to China’s interference in its political and judicial systems, infringing on the Basic Laws. Back in 2014, the original Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central took place (a response to a change in the election process in Hong Kong), ending after 79 days with many of the protestors being hauled off the street by the police (Griffiths, 2019). The Umbrella Movement left with the promise of return. It returned it did after a proposed extradition bill that “…would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances” (BBC, 2019) but has since encompassed pro-Democracy sentiments, as stated in their Five Demands:

    1. For the protests not to be characterized as a “riot”
    2. Amnesty for arrested protesters
    3. An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality 
    4. Implementation of complete universal suffrage

    And 5, for the withdrawal of the bill, which was successfully met (BBC, 2019). With numerous support protests in the UK, France, the US, Canada, and Australia, it went from a national to a global revolutionary movement (BBC, 2019).

    It didn’t start as a revolutionary movement. Originally, it was a reform movement focused on a specific proposal (extradition) imposed by China that protesters had an issue with, but as demonstrated in the different names of the movement, it became a revolutionary/resistance movement, depending on how much a protester aims to gain or how you perceive the changes wanted. The call for universal suffrage could be seen as demanding a new political system, revolting against the Hong Kong government, or just returning to a time with less involvement from China, opposing infringements on Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties by the Chinese government.

    In sociology, Resource Mobilization Theory emphasizes the role of resources, such as money, knowledge, and organizational skills, in the success of social movements. Considering that both protests (2014 and 2019) lasted multiple weeks and succeeded in the original goal (failure of a proposed bill), it is important to note why these movements were successful despite extreme policing. To specify, how does more time as a resource influence the effectiveness of a movement, and what do teenagers have to do with it?

    Not to devalue the work youths do, the general assumption is that youths are freer, or more accurately, have fewer responsibilities. Being a teenager or a young adult is stressful, as you’re forced to resocialize and resolve role strain and conflict. However, youths are free from burdens like housing and dependents relying on them. In summary, they have more time (a resource) to protest in comparison to a mother who cannot risk getting arrested and not being able to pay rent. This generalization is supported in Hong Kong: “At the forefront of these demonstrations are young people, many barely out of their teens.” (Cheung, 2019) Considering that the movement had successfully had the bill withdrawn and “‘broke through the past 30 years of protest traditions,’” (Cheung, 2019) Young people have demonstrated their ability to be a driving force in the movement, though it would be inaccurate to call the anti-ELAB protests ‘a youth movement’. This observation also suggests time is the great determinant of a successful protest, though money did play a role in that longevity, securing resources like inhalers, saline spray, and water (Cheung, 2019).

    Of course, protesting has changed as technology has evolved. Modernization refers to the societal shift marked by advancements in technology, changes in economic structures, and cultural trends. Social media are culture-producing organizations and play a crucial role in modernization by connecting people, allowing for rapid information exchange, and influencing collective narratives. During the protest,  “Telegram”, an app with a self-destruct feature, was popular, as it protected protestors from persecution in the event they were arrested and served as a way to circumvent tracking. Social media plays a large role in the social movement “industry”, with protest planning changing in response to the rise of technology (like phones and apps like Telegram), a result of the advent of personal phones. “Can You Hear Me Now? How Communication Technology Affects Protest and Repression”, a manuscript by Dr. Darin Christensen and Dr. Francisco Garfias, supports this conclusion, concluding that cell phones enable protests by lowering coordination costs and broadcasting information about repression. This increases the probability of protest by over half the mean, particularly when coverage connects a locality to a large proportion of citizens (Christensen & Garfias, 2018).

    In the context of the 2019 Hong Kong protest, the modernization of communication served as a vital advantage for protestors to organize, share information, and spread their movement to the global stage. Specifically, the increased availability of self-destructing messaging software, like Telegram, served as a massive safety net for protestors, potentially encouraging more individuals to turn out.

    The Frame Alignment Theory provides a lens to comprehend the intricate process of developing shared meanings and objectives within collective actions. This theory states that individuals within a movement align their perspectives, values, and goals to forge a cohesive and purposeful collective identity. The 2019 Hong Kong Protests display this “frameshift” in the evolution of protest demands. Protesters, comprising diverse segments of the population, engaged in a deliberate process of aligning their perspectives. This alignment was essential for creating a shared identity and purpose, uniting participants behind a common cause.

    Concrete examples abound within the protests, demonstrating the tangible outcomes of the frame alignment process. The adoption of shared symbols, notably the umbrella symbolizing the early movement, and the collective use of slogans advocating for democracy illustrate how participants aligned their perspectives to create a cohesive and resonant identity. These shared symbols became powerful representations of the protesters’ common goals. Frame Alignment Theory is even seen in the development of the movement and protesting, as outlined by The Washington Post in “The evolution of Hong Kong’s protests” by Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin. June 9th is when the first protest occurred, with an estimated 1 million people taking to the streets of Hong Kong and demanding the scrapping of the extradition bill. By September 4th, the bill was formally withdrawn, but, as Mahtani and McLaughin put it, “Too little, too late, said many protesters. They quickly adopt a new slogan, ‘five demands, not one less.’” (2019) The shift towards the 5 demands shows how individual goals have shifted the goals of the movement from just extradition to these demands, especially when you consider how the protests were largely leaderless. Student groups, political and non-governmental organizations, labor unions, and teachers’ associations crowdsourced their course of action online (Bodeen, 2019). Protestors even reference this frame alignment unknowingly, with Cheung stating,

    “He describes the 2014 protests as a ‘failure’ – as the protesters were split over their goals, including what sort of ’universal suffrage’ would be acceptable. But this time, there is a crucial difference – because protesters are not demanding more democracy, but fighting to keep what rights Hong Kong currently has. There is a greater incentive to stay united because protesters are ‘fighting to make sure we don’t lose our existing freedoms’, he says.”

    Yet again, showing the alignment process a movement goes through as the acting crowd evolves.

    ”Risky shift,” examines the sociological phenomenon where group decisions tend to be more extreme than individual choices. Applied to the context of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests, this concept sheds light on how collective decisions within the movement may have contributed to the escalation of violence. The voluntary organization of protesters may have contributed to riskier strategies as decisions were made collectively, impacting the overall trajectory of the social movement. The Washington Post offers insights into the real-life examples of risky shifts within the Hong Kong protests like on July 1, 2019, a portion of the voluntary organization stormed the Council building (Mahtani & McLaughlin, 2019). This trend of ignoring social norms when surrounded as a group continues, with a large group of protesters spray painting the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong and eventually with a general strike that led to clashes with security forces and increased aggression from police. This trend is reflected in the police force as well, with the police escalating in brutality towards protestors. However, that might be a result of them being favored by the hegemonic ruling class.

    In addition to analyzing the sociological dimensions of the Hong Kong protests, it is crucial to consider counter-movements that emerged in response to the pro-democracy movement. Pro-Beijing demonstrators often clashed and attacked pro-democracy demonstrators in public spaces, taking a pro-China stance in the conflict (Al Jazeera, 2019). The casual crowd is not a movement, lacking the key features needed, but serves the role of a resistance movement to a resistance movement, aiming to prevent social change. Assuming a value-added theorist view, it’s likely that these counter-protestors aimed to maintain their prestige under the current cultural hegemony.

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    Analysis of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests