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Protests and Movements

Hong Kong’s Protest 2019-20: A Neo-Foucauldian View

Demonstrators protecting themselves with umbrellas from police tear gas in Hong Kong, 2019. Photo by Joe Lee.

June 26, 2020

Hong Kong’s June 2019 protest was triggered by an Extradition Bill which, if passed, would allow the repatriation of Hong Kong citizens/visitors to mainland China for criminal prosecution under its rule by (and not rule of) law system. This ignites local fear of Hong Kong losing its “high degree of autonomy” under the One-Country-Two-Systems framework. The latter was guaranteed by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and China’s 1990 Basic Law when Hong Kong was returned to mainland China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) in 1997. Under this framework, Hong Kong is vested with executive and legislative power, an independent judiciary, as well as the right to a Chief Executive appointed by the central government based on elections or consultations held locally.

Since 2003, this fear of losing autonomy has been accelerating with mainland China’s sovereign One-Country life gaining further inroads. Examples include the rolling out of pro-China legislation that ranged from the Article 23 anti-subversion bill in 2003 through to the [Chinese] National Anthem Bill in 2019. These measures were accompanied by the rolling back of Hong Kong’s democratic elements, such as the rejection of direct election for the Chief Executive in 2015 and the disqualification of six pro-democracy legislators from holding office in 2017. Such encroachment by the One-Country life was further accentuated by the fast tracking of the 2019 Extradition Bill. The SAR government, with the support of the Chinese central government, even skipped the usual legislative scrutiny at committee stage and took the bill directly to the pro-China legislature for approval. In face of such urgency, first one, and then two, million people participated in peaceful marches on June 9 and 16 respectively. With delayed official responses and police brutalities, protests endure on a regular basis. The protestors had five demands: withdraw the Extradition Bill; stop describing the demonstrators as “rioters”; issue an amnesty for all arrested protesters; conduct an independent inquiry into police brutality; and grant universal suffrage for the elections of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council. The Bill was finally withdrawn on September 4, 2019. However, because of recurrent police brutality and the refusal of the Chief Executive to meet the protestors’ four other demands, resistance spiraled into a social movement.

In analyzing this protest as a social movement, this paper deploys a neo-Foucauldian perspective that focuses on the sovereign biopolitics of life/death. For Foucault, the sovereign sees itself as having the right to rule a territory and engages in the biopolitics of life/death to maintain its own security/safety. The degrees of sovereignty vary in modern societies and they are more visible in illiberal authoritarian contexts than in democratic ones. With the onset of the One-Country life in Hong Kong, the SAR government engages in co-sovereign rule with mainland China’s one-party regime in maintaining Hong Kong’s stability/security. Hong Kong protestors live at the margin of this authoritarian co-rule and have little room for maneuver. Their biopolitics of resistance thus involve frontline insurgents weaponizing their life to (near) death; and background supporters affirming the protection of insurgents’ life from (near) death.

Insurgent biopolitics: The weaponization of life to (near) death

In face of the stepping up of mainland China’s sovereign One-Country life and its triggering of the 2019 protest, the police (and law) play sovereign roles in the biopolitics of: a) debilitating street-level protest life; b) inflicting fear via arrest, prosecution, and trial; and c) causing bodily harm via disproportionate violence. With the Chinese central government condemning protestors as “close to being terrorists,” and the Hong Kong Chief Executive not responding to their five demands, the protest has turned from peaceful to more forceful/violent means. The riot police, with the Chief Executive’s support, have reacted more violently with tear gas, arbitrary/forceful arrests, brutal beatings, chemicalized water cannon, and even gunshots. They have planted moles and labeled protestors as “cockroaches” who can be erased to maintain security. This has degenerated into the scenario of “violence begets more violence” and protestors have begun to experience personal and public fear/hopelessness.


The frontline protestors resist by weaponizing their life in response to disproportionate police violence and their fear about the future - their own, and that of Hong Kong. Their refusal to be displaced provides a fertile ground for the growth of a Hong Kong identity. Some insurgents are prepared to sacrifice their lives as they want to defend/rescue Hong Kong’s autonomous life as set out in the Two-Systems. In war-zone type combat with the police, some have even placed their wills (and non-suicide notes) in their rucksacks. Personal reflections include “Give up Life for Hong Kong Society,” “Defend Hong Kong with my Blood,” and “Use Death to Exchange for Freedom.” These ways of weaponizing life in Hong Kong’s insurgent biopolitics are passionately framed in terms of hope/fear, shock, anger, tears, blood, and (near) death. Resistance involves the biopolitics of psychological trauma, self-sacrifice, fear of physical injuries, arrest, detention, prosecution, imprisonment, disappearance, and suicides.

Affirmative biopolitics: The protection of life from (near) death

The protestors’ insurgent biopolitics are inviting affirmative efforts to protect life. Protagonists from the previous 2014 Umbrella Movement learnt that leaders could be prosecuted and imprisoned. This experience contributed to the present movement functioning without a formal leader. It adopts a leaderless strategy and deploys the diffuse tactics of “be water” and mutual help. These are facilitated by the use of Internet applications like Telegram and Airdrop to share information and to coordinate actions/decisions amongst themselves.

The movement is cloud-funded and reinforced by mutual-help groups that cross occupational, generational, gender and racial lines. These supporters rally round to protect insurgents’ life from (near) death. An example is the Protect the Children campaign started by a “silver hairs” (senior citizens) group to keep watchful eyes and protect the frontline youngsters. Some choose to stand between riot police and front-liners; whilst others hold out placards with statements such as “Don’t Shoot Our Kids.” These life-shielding actions are also buttressed by biopolitical supply chains that provide donations, meals, water, face masks (for identity/safety protection), umbrellas, data protection, free transport, medical help, social care, legal advice, and open homes to embrace front-liners.

A mass demonstration in Hong Kong in 2019. Photo by Virginia Pak.

Other affirmative biopolitics include: a) building a thirty-mile human chain across both sides of Hong Kong Harbour to symbolize the wish for freedom; b) organizing public mourning for the dead to facilitate communal soul-healing and renewal of commitments; c) finalizing and recording new songs such as Glory to Hong Kong within five days to boost morale and unite the movement; and d) setting up new trade unions and electoral supports to consolidate the energy of street-level protest. Similar life-enhancing practices can be found (trans-)locally and (trans-)nationally. Hong Kong adherents join hands with the diaspora/supporters to undertake international advocacy and people-to-people diplomacy that target local communities, national legislatures, global media, and international organizations to “Stand with Hong Kong” in this struggle.

Concluding remarks

This paper adopts a neo-Foucauldian approach to Hong Kong’s 2019-20 protest. Given that it occurs under illiberal authoritarian conditions of the co-sovereign rule between the Hong Kong SAR government and mainland China’s one-party regime, the sovereign biopolitics perspective is important in understanding this protest. It highlights the 2019 conjuncture when the fuller rolling out of the One-Country life in Hong Kong is accompanied by the refusal of some Two-System citizens to surrender their “high degree of autonomy.” This One-Country-Two-System struggle is expressed via the sovereign’s increasing assertion of its control with the use of disproportionate police violence. This is met with protestors’ insurgent biopolitics of life/death that coexists with supporters’ affirmative biopolitical acts in this struggle over Hong Kong’s politics of displacement.

I would like to thank Brigitte Aulenbacher, Bob Jessop, Virginia Pak, Joe Lee and Lancaster Stands With Hong Kong Group for their support in writing this paper and supply of photographs.

Ngai-Ling Sum, Lancaster University, United Kingdom <n.sum@lancaster.ac.uk>

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