Since the anti-extradition bill protests began last year, Hong Kong protesters have evolved quickly by learning from experiences elsewhere. For example, they dressed in the style of the black bloc, which originated in Germany, shouted slogans from their apartment windows at night, following Iranians’ tactics in protests against a curfew, and formed grand human chains, paying homage to the “Baltic Way.”
Yet, in addition to multifarious techniques which bring hope to success, it is no less important to learn from the depressing facts about how hard tomorrow can be. Life cannot be more insulting than when free expression becomes a criminal act. Hong Kong officially entered the age of insult this year. Thousands of kilometers away in a secluded square, there stands a world-famous wall, which has witnessed the rise and fall of totalitarianism, and displays the traces of resistant will.
In 1980, after the murder of John Lennon, artists in Prague painted Lennon’s image and the lyrics of a Beatles song on a wall to pledge allegiance to love and peace. Such an innocent move was politically defiant, as the Czechoslovak Communist Party forbade the spread of “Western values.” Allocating secret police to keep the wall clean only triggered more dissenters to spray anti-communists graffiti. Hide and seek at what was to become the “Lennon Wall” continued until the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution.
In 2014, a surprising descendant of the ways of protest explored in Prague appeared in Hong Kong. During the “Umbrella movement,” when demonstrators occupied the areas surrounding the Hong Kong government headquarters with slogans of love and peace, Hong Kongers were invited to write wishes on colorful sticky notes and stick them to a wall next to an outdoor staircase leading to the government offices, resembling a common practice of worshipers at religious shrines.
A gray facade was transformed into a message board, displaying the democratic aspirations of the protesters and their supporters. Although the mosaic of notes was soon removed by the authorities, the idea persists. Five years later, what can be described as the “Hong Kong Lennon Wall” appeared again. This time, angered by a proposed extradition bill, volunteers spread the concept to many Hong Kong districts, following the motto of making resistance “blossom everywhere.”
Versions of the “Hong Kong Lennon Wall” appeared all over the territory. Bridges, pedestrian tunnels and the interiors of cafes and other businesses were covered by sticky notes, posters and handicrafts. As a common fate of peaceful protests, self-expression soon met violence.
Young people, volunteering to rebuild and safeguard the walls — for pro-establishment crowds frequently destroyed them — were attacked with knifes and hammers. Hostilities between the pro-democracy yellow camp and the pro-establishment blue camp escalated irreversibly.
Last month, after Beijing passed national security legislation for Hong Kong, even “Lennon Walls” became illegal. Police are now threatening “yellow shops” to remove all pro-democracy symbols. What used-to-be a free port is undergoing an analogous fate to the Soviet satellite states. The seed for the first “Lennon Wall” was sown in 1968, when then-Czechoslovak Communist Party first secretary Alexander Dubcek initiated democratic reforms to create a “socialism with a human face.”
Czechoslovakians enjoyed a short-lived euphoria during the Prague Spring. Unsurprisingly, it displeased the Soviet leaders in Moscow. In August that year, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague’s Wenceslas Square to crush the protests and proclaim the supremacy of the Soviet model. Dubcek, after being sent to Moscow for interrogations, stayed uncompromising.
He was in April 1969 replaced as first secretary by Gustav Husak. The Husak government started a process of “normalization,” bringing back the pre-Prague Spring cold temperatures. Resistance went underground in the form of private seminars, art exhibitions, poetry readings, theater performances, concerts and secret church services. Thus far, we have traveled through history to places where the spirit of the “Lennon Wall” grew.
As former Czech president Vaclav Havel, the playwright who took office after the Velvet Revolution, advocated in his renowned essay “The power of the powerless,” the “hidden sphere” of the freedoms of thought and expression as first and foremost “pre-political,” upheld by “painters, musicians, or simply ordinary citizens who were able to maintain their human dignity.”
Protesters in Hong Kong rarely make reference to Czechoslovakia, as in their context Dubcek is nowhere and Husak is everywhere, and the daring young people are not yet accustomed to totalitarian insults. For them, it feels easier to sympathize with the Ukrainian protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square.
Amid the campaign against extradition to mainland China, the documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom went viral in the pro-democracy camp. Open-air screenings took place in multiple locations in Hong Kong. Released in 2015 on Netflix, the film chronicles events of the Euromaidan protests unfolding over three months in 2013 and 2014.
Audiences in Hong Kong are astonished by the many parallels between democratic struggles in these two distant places. Both Kiev and Hong Kong witnessed peaceful demonstrations turning into fierce street battles.
While the puppet government in Kiev ordered its riot police, assisted by organized criminals hired by the administration, to beat civilians to death, the government in Hong Kong unleashed police brutality to spread terror among activists with the help of triads.
Besides the obvious oppression from the authorities, dissidents in both places also share the same hatred toward opposition leaders who pledged to represent the people, just to make deals with the authorities at first chance. Above all, the determination to resist until the end on Maidan Square reminded Hong Kongers of their protesters who paid heavy prices for the sake of justice.
Comparing Hong Kong’s popular uprising to the one in Ukraine touches a raw nerve in China. Xinhua news agency, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, described last year’s protests in Hong Kong as a maneuvered “color revolution,” which aimed to overthrow Chinese rule in the territory and destroy its economy.
Beijing has long been worrying about a “color revolution” on Chinese soil and keeps forestalling it before it has any shadowy chance of happening. If we look into the stories behind the Maidan protests, we can better understand the tyrant’s mania.
Ukraine is rarely respected as an independent state in Russian narratives. Since the imperial age, the Kremlin has dreamed of building a pan-Russian nation encompassing all East Slavs. Ukraine, once known as “little Russia,” thus became a constant target of hegemonic annexation.
Yet, due to influences from the West, a separate identity continued to grow and stood in the way of “russification.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine declared independence, and moved on to foster its own culture and the prospect of European integration.
However, Russian legacies persist. Ukraine is divided into a pro-European west and a pro-Russian east, partly due to manipulation by Moscow. This division is dramatized as the “two Maidans.” The “first Maidan,” after the Orange Revolution in 2004, is internationally deemed as a peaceful demonstration.
Entrenched corruption and electoral fraud turned people into furious protesters. A tent city was set up on Maidan Square by students to support then-Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who represented the hope for clean politics. Protesters dressed in orange as it was the color of his campaign, in contrast to the blue-clad supporters of the Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych. The orange camp eventually propelled Yushchenko to the presidency. Nine years later, Ukrainians flooded Maidan Square again, chanting “Ukraine is Europe.”
This “second Maidan” was provoked by then-Ukrainian president Yanukovych, after he abruptly refused to sign an association agreement with the EU. This time, the protesters entrusted their future to no leader, but only to their audacious presence in the square. As a result, Yanukovych fled to Russia, even though the country was to bear the severe cost of the Kremlin’s retaliation.
It is not unreasonable for Beijing to feel alarmed by Ukraine’s example. All signs warn the Chinese policymakers of an imported “color revolution,” with Hong Kong being a “national security” loophole — in the sense of a threat to their one-party dictatorship. While the protests in Kiev have encouraged many to hold the fire to fight for dignity, it triggers other interpretations from pro-Beijing hardliners.
For example, former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) once suggested on Facebook that the Hong Kong government should imitate Yanukovych’s policies and impose anti-mask legislation, even by using the emergency power inherited from the colonial era.
Former Hong Kong secretary for security Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀) asked readers of her personal column if they want Hong Kong to become the next Ukraine, widely disgraced by mainland Chinese commentators as a failed state with a poor economy and lasting civil war. In short, Hong Kong’s establishment has become even more determined to rule by insult, embodied as the new national security legislation.
When I entered Victoria Park to attend the annual Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil last month, police announced that the assembly was unlawful and raised the risk of community spread of the COVID-19. I wondered if it was not us protesters who were the virus they feared. This reminded me again of Havel’s essay in which he mentions that the “virus of truth” would slowly spread through the system and gradually shatter the world of general demoralization.
Hong Kong is at a point of no return. The moment of truth has arrived. The itineraries of Czechoslovakia and Ukraine are two mirrors through which Hong Kongers can see their own potential images. To play the hide-and-seek game or to let the tanks roll over my dead body? It is the hard choice every freedom lover must make. May the life of truth blossom everywhere.
Chu Ming-hon is a doctoral candidate in Germany specializing in the philosophy of consciousness.