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Citizenship, Democracy and Civic Duties: Looking at the Hong Kong Protest Movement through Film

By Varsha Nitish, member of the Student Initiative on Asia (SIA)

The continent of Asia has a tumultuous history with establishing democratic regimes that work on the principle of popular elections. With war, [neo]colonialism and pseudo-communism, it has taken countries in Asia a long time to set up stable and thriving democracies. However, as recent as 2021, we see countries regressing by hundreds of years, with political instability and international relations threatening the foundations of existing vibrant democracies. One such recent instance is that of Hong Kong, a case which has tested the limits of human resilience, and showcased how far citizens are willing to go to protect the interests of their city, territory, or country, and their staunch belief in democracy.

Over the past fifty years, Hongkongers have fought for freedom and democracy, and the film “Revolution of Our Times,” directed by Kiwi Chow, sheds light on this good fight. “Revolution” was filmed during more than a year of civil unrest in Hong Kong that followed the city government’s attempt to pass a law that would allow extradition to mainland China. The government’s action sparked massive peaceful protests, followed by several months of civil disobedience and on-street violence. This in turn was met by unprecedented military-style tactics on the part of Hong Kong police, an aggressive prosecution policy by the government and the imposition by Beijing of a National Security Law.

The context for the movie begins in 2019, when the Extradition Bill to China turned Hong Kong into a battlefield against Chinese authoritarian rule. In July 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed the introduction of an extradition bill between the special administrative region and the mainland. The legislation effectively dissolved the legal barriers between two incompatible legal systems and exposed citizens and companies that had deliberately chosen to live and operate outside mainland jurisdiction to Communist law-making and judicial decisions.The 2019 movement was unique in its characteristics—it had a decentralised leadership system (i.e., there was no face of the movement), it adopted a strategy called “to be water” (which meant flexible tactics adaptable to different situations), and it was marked by sustained protest all over the territory. The film covers seven teams of protestors with different stories which, put together, deliver a comprehensive picture of the versatile movement.

The film also includes the introduction, in July 2020, of the draconian National Security Law (NSL). The NSL makes the pro-democracy protest slogan “Revolution of Our Times” illegal in Hong Kong, with the film facing the same fate. The movie chronicles the popular uprising in Hong Kong in a deeply personal way, by showing us the stories of the people involved—what they gave up, what they stood to lose and what drove them to action. Yet, notably so, each person who shared their story shared the same sentiment that resistance and revolution are not a sacrifice, but a duty to them as citizens of a democracy. Indeed, each person announces that they did not choose to be a part of the movement, but that the movement chose them. This is the central theme of the film, and one that shines through each chapter that weaves the powerful story of Hongkongers and freedom.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement dug in its heels in 2014 but was defeated by a patient territory government. When dissent spiked again in 2019, protests were met with strict consequences that included unprecedented levels of police violence and brutality despite the kind of popular support that brought 2 million people, nearly 30% of the city’s population, onto the streets two years ago.

‘Revolution of Our Times’ then chronicles in graphic detail the subsequent months of troubles: the storming of the Legislative Council, alleged collusion between police and organised crime; a protestor’s suicide; the militarisation of the police; and the “be like water” spirit that saw the protests constantly change shape and flow in new directions.

The ongoing revolution, conveniently paused by the Hong Kong government under the guise of Covid, marks a number of firsts for the special adminstrative region and its citizens, one of which isthe first death in the history of Hong Kong social movements in the form of a suicide of a 35-year-old man who died wearing a distinctive yellow raincoat. This gave birth to the first iconic symbol of the movement, adopted and known by all involved. It was also the first movement ever to occupy the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (termed “leg. Co.”), where activists laid out a set of coherent demands they wanted from the administration. This further emphasised that the movement was supported by academics and lawyers alike, instead of the narrative of “rioters” used by the government and media.

It seems unlikely that ‘Revolution’ will be shown in Hong Kong cinemas. Earlier in 2021, pro-Beijing forces in the city pressured cinema owners to call off their planned screenings of another pro-democracy film, “Inside the Red Brick Wall.” Furthermore, Kiwi Chow is the only name on the final version of “Revolution”  as his financiers and technical collaborators have all chosen to remain anonymous. “Revolution” was filmed by Kiwi Chow during more than a year of civil unrest in Hong Kong that followed the city government’s attempt to pass a law that would allow extradition to mainland China. The government action sparked massive peaceful protests, followed by several months of civil disobedience and on-street violence. This in turn was met by unprecedented military-style tactics on the part of Hong Kong police, an aggressive prosecution policy by the government and the imposition by Beijing of a National Security Law.

Unfortunately, the movie has been banned in both Hong Kong and Chinese cinemas. In fact, earlier this year, pro-Beijing forces in the city pressured cinema owners to call off their planned screenings of another pro-democracy film, ‘Inside the Red Brick Wall.’ Instead, ‘Revolution of our Times’ had its world premiere in July 2021 in Cannes. Director Chow didn’t attend Cannes and chose to stay in Hong Kong, where the work leaves him potentially exposed to sanctions under the territory’s far-reaching NSL. The law has been used to upend the education and election systems and has struck fear into those parts of the population dissenting from the government’s pro-Beijing line. Consequently, the pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily,  has been closed down and  eight staff members have been arrested. Upon conviction, these arrests could lead to imprisonment for life or extradition for trial in mainland China.

This movement, chronicled by Chow’s “Revolution of Our Times,” marks an important step forward for democracy in Hong Kong as well as Asia as a whole. It has sparked—and must continue to—important conversations about our citizenship, rights and responsibilities. More importantly, it reminds us that democracy can be fragile, and sometimes it is up to the citizens as a whole to hold up its tenets. And indeed, in a leaderless movement like the one in Hong Kong, the protestors say it well: everyone is nobody, and nobody is everyone.

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