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(Published in Taipei Times)

Photo credit: Studio Incendo

 

Since the outbreak of the Anti-Extradition Bill Protests last year, Hong Kong protesters have evolved quickly by learning from experiences elsewhere. For example, they dressed up in the style of black block, 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 depressive facts on how hard tomorrow can be.

Life has not been more insulting than when free expression becomes a criminal act. And finally, this year, in 2020, Hong Kong officially enters the age of insult.

Thousands miles away from Hong Kong in a small and secluded square, there stands a wall, unique by connecting instead of separating people. The Lennon Wall in Prague has witnessed the rise and fall of totalitarianism as well as the elegant traces of resistant will. Back to 1980, after John Lennon was murdered, artists in Prague painted Lennon’s image and the Beatles’ lyrics on the now world-famous site in order to pledge allegiance to love and peace. Such an innocent move was politically defiant, since the then communist party forbade any spread of “Western values” behind the iron curtain. Despite immediate response of secret police to paint the wall over, it triggered more and more dissenters to spray anti-communist graffiti there. Neither surveillance cameras nor an overnight guard could stop the self-recreation of the artworks. Hide and seek at the wall continued until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. An ordinary surface since then becomes a universal icon of untamed souls.

In 2014, a surprising descendant of the Prague Lennon Wall appeared at the heart of Hong Kong. During the Umbrella Movement, when demonstrators were occupying the areas surrounding the government headquarters under the slogan of love and peace, passengers were invited to write wishes on colourful post-its and stick them on the open space of an outdoor staircase leading to the government offices, resembling a common practice of worshipers at religious shrines. Thereby a blank façade in grey theme was transformed into a lively message board, displaying the democratic aspirations of the people. Although the mosaic of post-its was soon erased by the authorities, the idea persists. Five years later, the Hong Kong Lennon Wall appeared again. This time, angered by the notorious proposal of the Extradition Bill, volunteers spread the concept to different residential districts, following the motto of making resistance “blossom everywhere”. Therefore copies of Lennon Wall were erected simultaneously over the whole territory. Bridges, tunnels as well as interiors of cafes and game centres were covered by post-its, posters, and handicrafts.

Just like the history of the original Lennon Wall, self-expression soon met violence. Youths volunteered to rebuild and safeguard the walls – for pro-establishment crowds repetitively destroyed the decorations – were hurt ruthlessly by knifes and hammers. Thereafter, hostility between the pro-democracy yellow camp and the pro-establishment blue camp escalated irreversibly.

This year, after Beijing passed a national security law for Hong Kong, even Lennon Walls become illegal. Police starts threatening “yellow shops” to remove all pro-democracy accessories. A used-to-be free port is undergoing an analogous fate of the Soviet satellite states.

The seed of Lennon Walls was sown already in the beginning of 1968, when Alexander Dubček, First Secretary of Czechoslovakia, initiated a series of reforms to liberalize the rusty state apparatus. Under the slogan of “socialism in a human face”, censorship was lifted, market was opened, centralization was eased. People enjoyed a short-lived euphoria known as the Prague Spring. Unsurprisingly, the sudden flourish in Czechoslovakia displeased the Soviet leaders in Moscow. In August, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square to crush the Prague Spring and to proclaim the supremacy of the Soviet model. Dubček, after being sent to Moscow for interrogations, stayed uncompromising. He was later replaced by Gustáv Husák in April 1969. Human face was again blurred. Mass punishments followed. The Husák government launched a surgical-like process of “normalization” by bringing the pre-Prague Spring temperature back to Czechoslovakia. Resistance went underground in the form of samizdat, private seminars, art exhibits, poetry readings, theatre performances, rock concerts, secret church services, etc. Thus far, we have traveled through the historic soil where the spirit of Lennon Wall grew. As Václav Havel, the playwright who became the first Czechoslovakian president after the Velvet Revolution, has advocated in his renowned essay “The power of the powerless”, the “hidden sphere” where people live within the truth is first and foremost “pre-political”, upheld by “painters, musicians, or simply ordinary citizens who were able to maintain their human dignity.”[1]

After all, front-line protesters in Hong Kong rarely make reference to Czechoslovakia as their history textbook, since in their context Dubček is nowhere and Husák everywhere, and the daring youths are not yet accustomed to totalitarian insults. They feel rather easier to sympathize with the Ukrainian insurgents in Kyiv’s Maidan Square.

Amidst the campaign against extradition to China, the documentary film “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” went viral within the pro-democracy camp. Open-air screenings took place in multiple locations in Hong Kong. Released in 2015 on Netflix, this film chronicles events of the Euromaidan Protests unfolding over three months in 2013 and 2014, which successfully toppled the country’s pro-Russian leadership. Meanwhile, audiences in Hong Kong are astonished by the many parallels between democratic struggles in these two distant places. Both Kyiv and Hong Kong witnessed peaceful demonstrations turning into fierce street battles. While the puppet government in Kyiv ordered the Berkut police, assisted by hired thugs known as Titushky, to strike civilians to death, the one in Hong Kong unchains police brutality to spread terror among activists with the aid of triads. Besides the obvious oppression from the authorities, dissidents in both places also shared the same hatred towards opposition leaders who intended to represent the peoples to make compromise deals with the authorities. Above all, the determination to resist till the last man in Maidan Square reminded Hong Kongers of their front-line protesters who paid heavy prices for the sake of justice.

Comparing Hong Kong’s popular uprising to Ukraine’s touches a raw nerve in China. Xinhua News Agency, the party’s official mouthpiece, recently described the so-called leaderless protests in 2019 as a maneuvered colour revolution, which aimed to overthrow Chinese rule in Hong Kong through destroying its economy.[2] Indeed, Beijing has long been worrying about an implosion of colour revolution on Chinese soil, and thereby keeps forestalling it before it has any shadowy likeliness to happen. If we look into the stories behind the Euromaidan Protests, we can understand better the tyrant’s mania.

Ukraine is seldom respected as an independent state in the Russian narratives. Since the imperial age, 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 hybrid 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 its independence, and moved on to foster its own cultures as well as the prospect of European integration. Russian legacies persist though. The country is thereby divided into a pro-European west and a pro-Russian east, partly due to manipulation of Moscow. This division is dramatized as the competition between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 presidential election, which then became the prelude of the Orange Revolution.

The Orange Revolution is internationally deemed as a peaceful demonstration. Entrenched corruption and electoral frauds turned voters into furious protesters in Maidan Square. A tent city with carnival atmosphere was set up there by students to support Yushchenko, the then opposition leader who incarnated the hope for clean politics. Protesters all dressed up in orange as the signifying colour of Yushchenko’s election campaign, in contrast to the blue-clad supporters of the Kremlin-backed Yanukovych. After roundtable negotiations, foreign interventions, and the final decision of the court, the orange camp eventually brought the election back to justice and propelled Yushchenko to the presidency.

Nine years after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians flooded Maidan Square again, chanting “Ukraine is Europe”. The “second Maidan” was provoked by the pro-Russian policy of Yanukovych, elected as the fourth Ukrainian president, who abruptly refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union in 2013. This time, the people entrusted their future to no leader, but only to their audacious presence on the square. As a result, they caused Yanukovych to flee to Russia, even though the country bears the cost of Kremlin retaliation through sanctions, military operation in Crimea, as well as separatist forces in the Donbas region.

It is not unreasonable for Beijing to feel alarmed by Ukraine’s example. From the failure to overcome western-styled “universal values” by pan-Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong, the division between pro-democracy yellow ribbons and pro-establishment blue ribbons since the Umbrella Movement, to activists’ sincere request for interference from foreign powers, all signs warn the Chinese policymakers of an imported colour revolution, with Hong Kong being a loophole of “national security” – in the sense of a threat to their one-party dictatorship. While the burning scenes of Kyiv’s winter have encouraged many to hold the fire to fight for dignity, the film triggers other interpretations from the pro-Beijing hardliners. For example, Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying once suggested on his Facebook page that Hong Kong government should imitate Yanukovych’s measure to impose anti-mask law, even by means of the emergency power inherited from the colonial era. Former Secretary for Security Ip Lau Suk-yee asked her readers in her personal column if they want Hong Kong to become the next Ukraine, widely disgraced by Mainland Chinese commentators as a failed state with poor economy and lasting civil war, in order to arouse disgust towards anti-government resistance.[3] In short, the establishment becomes even more determined to rule by insult, concretized as the new national security law.

When I was entering Victoria Park to attend the annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil this year,[4] police stationed around to announce that the assembly we participated in was unlawful and further raised the risk of community spread of virus. I wondered if we were the virus they referred to. This reminds me again of “The power of the powerless”, where Havel mentions that the “virus of truth” will slowly spread through the system, and gradually shatter the world of general demoralization.[5]

Hong Kong is at a point of no return. The moment of truth has arrived. The itineraries of Czechoslovakia and the independent Ukraine are two mirrors through which Hong Kongers can see their own possible images. To play the hide-and-seek game or to let the tanks roll over my dead body? It is going to be a hard choice every freedom lover must make.

May the life of truth blossom everywhere.

 

[1] Havel, V., “The power of the powerless”, trans. Wilson, P., in Living in Truth, ed. Vladislav, J. (1989), London: Faber & Faber, p. 60.

[2] “香港須認清真相“再出發””, Xinhuanet (2020, May 17), URL= http://big5.xinhuanet.com/gate/big5/www.xinhuanet.com/gangao/2020-05/17/c_1125997323.htm.

[3] Ip Lau, S. Y., “香港是下一個烏克蘭嗎?”, etnet (2019, Sept 16), URL=http://www.etnet.com.hk/www/tc/lifestyle/internationalaffairs/regina/62072. She also criticized the one-sidedness of “Winter on Fire” in her personal column, and recommended “Ukraine on Fire” to readers for a comprehensive view. The documentary “Ukraine on Fire”, released one year after “Winter on Fire”, is a production of the Hollywood director Oliver Stone. In this counterwork, instead of filming on spot and talking to the civilians, Stone chose to recover “the real story” by sitting indoor, interviewing Yanukovych.

[4] For my memoir of the annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil, see my previous article “Hong Kong’s next yellow bird” on Taipei Times (2020, Jun 27), URL=https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2020/06/27/2003738926.

[5] Havel, V., “The power of the powerless”, trans. Wilson, P., in Living in Truth, ed. Vladislav, J. (1989), London: Faber & Faber, p. 60.

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