Reshaping Hong Kong’s Identity through a Decentralized Protest

By Winnie Yoe

Illustrated by Shu-Ju Lin

In Hong Kong, civilians modernize resistance with a decentralized - and digitized - mass protest against extradition. As the movement takes shape, so does a new semblance of national identity.

On July 1, 2019, at 10 p.m. in Hong Kong, a group of protestors stormed the Legislative Council. At the same time, it was 10 a.m., July 1, 2019, in Boston, where I followed the livestream intently at my intern desk — and repeated following for days on end since. As of now, it has been the 23rd consecutive week of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests. The protests were sparked by a legal amendment allowing for the transfer of fugitives between jurisdictions with which Hong Kong lacks an extradition deal, including mainland China. This amendment would have overridden the intent to have a separate extradition agreement with mainland China, given the drastically different legal systems and human rights concerns, when the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance was first set up before Hong Kong’s handover from Britain in 1997(1). Many Hong Kongers fear the extradition bill will lead to politically motivated prosecutions and erode the city’s high degree of autonomy promised under the “one country, two systems” principle (whereby Hong Kong will continue to have a separate governmental, legal, economic and social system from that in China). Started in March and exacerbated since June, the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement has seen numerous instances of police brutality and sexual misconduct allegations, nine confirmed protestors suicides, and an armed and indiscriminate Triad(2) attack against subway commuters. 

The importance of digital tools has been noted in the current movement, which is largely coordinated through the online forum LIHKG, (dubbed ‘Hong Kong Reddit’, also referred to as Linden by locals) and messaging platform Telegram. Hong Kong, being outside of China’s firewall, enjoys open internet access, and its position as Asia’s largest internet exchange point makes outright censorship impractical. It is also one of the world’s most connected places(3), with vast and relatively cheap high speed networks, which facilitates high speed communication. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in Twitter and Tear Gas, while digitally-enabled movements seem to spread in a heartbeat, the choices of digital tools, their emergence and popularity is not random and is intertwined with complex political, social and cultural factors(4). A recent New York Times article has attributed the cause of the prolonged mass protests not only to the extradition bill, but “seismic changes in Hong Kong identity”(5), where more citizens feel it is impossible to be both a Hong Konger and Chinese. 

Earlier in September, a protest anthem named “Glory to Hong Kong”(6), written by a local musician, workshopped by and recorded with the help of LIHKG users, went viral. Values of freedom, liberty and democracy are expressed in the lyrics, capturing reasons behind this mass movement — “Hong Kong identity isn’t just based on the rejection of Chinese identity, but a collective sense of resilience and autonomy and saying no to oppression”(7). Many noted finally understanding the sense of pride athletes and audiences from other countries feel when signing their national anthems in sporting events(8). In fact, through protests and civil disobedience, Hong Kongers are forming new communities and reshaping their identities.

One Country, Two Systems vs. One Country, Two Nationalisms(9)

In the mid-1980s Britain and mainland China started negotiating over the sovereignty of Hong Kong as Britain’s lease of New Territories (one of three main regions in Hong Kong) was coming to an end.(10) What emerged is a Joint Declaration based on the “One Country, Two Systems” principle — where Hong Kong will maintain its capitalistic economy, retain independent judicial power, and enjoy a high degree of autonomy, with rights to speech, press, assembly, among others, for at least 50 years from 1997 until 2047. Since the handover, Hong Kong’s chief executive has been elected by a committee formed by candidates approved by the Chinese government. In Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, only half of the legislators are democratically elected, the other half are functional constituencies — trade and professional representatives voted by industry members. The Hong Kong Basic Law(11) indicated universal suffrage for both chief executive and legislators as an ultimate goal. In 2007, the Chinese government noted universal suffrage would be implemented for the 2017 chief executive election. In 2014, mainland China stated they were committed to universal suffrage in Hong Kong but nominated candidates must be “patriotic” and endorsed by a 1,200-member nominating committee similar to Hong Kong’s existing election committee(12). Pro-democratic activists and students criticized the criteria as “fake democracy”, which sparked the Umbrella Movement in 2014 — a sit-in protest for genuine universal suffrage that lasted for over two months. 

These factors are crucial in creating the political and social environments leading up to the anti-extradition bill protests. An annual survey conducted since 1997 by The University of Hong Kong shows the share of residents identifying as “Chinese” hitting a new low, especially among younger generations (aged 18-29), with only 2.7% identifying themselves as Chinese (compared to 16.5% in 1997, and 21.6% in 2009), 21.7% as mixed identity and 75% identifying only as Hong Kongers(13). The drastic shift in the last two decades has been attributed to increasing social inequality, which many perceived as the result of an influx of mainland immigrants. Skepticism towards mainland China also grew as Hong Kongers saw reintegration attempts by the Chinese government and witnessed events that eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy, a status which many Hong Kongers take pride in. I remember when the Chinese national anthem started being broadcast every night before the evening news when I started middle school. I recall learning about protests against plans to implement Chinese national education when I was in the States for college, and reading about the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers who sold books banned in mainland China when I started my first job after graduation. For many Hong Kongers, the extradition bill confirms their skepticism about mainland China and, as researcher Alan Yau and activist Johnson Yueng remarked respectively, “it’s become a time when we need to choose [between the two national identities]”(14) and put up “a fight to save [our] unique status”(15). In this light, one can understand why so many Hong Kongers, despite high risks of arrest and injury, have joined the movement in various capacities.

A Collaborative, Decentralized Model
Following from Tufekci’s insights on social media and social movements and Cyrus Farivar’s observation on the emergence of the Internet, Hong Kongers’ choice of tools and methods for organizing is not arbitrary, but tied to local historical and social factors. While Hong Kong is no stranger to protests, there have not been many precedents of large-scale city-wide movements, nor many cases of non-peaceful protests. The development of a decentralized movement is partly a result of reflection on the Umbrella Movement. Some attributed the movement’s failure to reach its goal to division between main organizers and frontline protestors, causing an inability to “advance the momentum of the movement”(16).

The Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement saw a drastically different strategy: there are no clear representatives and it is thus seen as leaderless. Protesters do not occupy any locations but adopt a “be water”(17) tactic, combining “a guerrilla-style movement in addition to the traditional marches”(18) — moving fluidly across parts of the city and adapting strategies on the spot. Among different factions of protesters and activist groups, united under the name “Anti-ELAB”, collaboration and delegation is observed: the Civil Human Rights Front usually organizes peaceful protests on major dates; prominent activists such as Joshua Wong and Denise Ho focus on international outreach; protesters advocating for more radical means (勇武派) would often arrive towards the end of the rallies to confront the police when those who prefer peaceful demonstrations (和理非) are dispersing. Some volunteers and legislators will stall the police to “buy time” for protesters to leave the scene, such as “Guard Our Children” (守護孩子), a group started by a church and joined by senior citizens, parents, and social workers. The movement has also seen volunteer first-aiders, legal aid, and ride services (elaborated later). This collaborative model, in which each party assume roles they see fit, is captured in popular phrases emerged from the movement — “We fight on, each in his own way” (兄弟爬山,各自努力), and “Not severing ties, not snitching” (不分化,不割蓆,不督灰).

A decentralized leadership, composed of the “Civil Human Rights Front, student unions, labor unions, neighborhood groups, Telegram chat groups, and many more”(19), is strategic. As activist Joshua Wong noted, a centralized platform could easily be dismantled by Beijing(20). Without leaders to target, Beijing has blamed “foreign influence”. Pro-establishment legislators have insisted there must be “an invisible and meticulous mastermind” behind the “highly organized” protests(21). Police arrested student leaders and young activists despite the fact that they are not key leaders in the movement. This form of decentralized leadership, where everyone feels they have a stake, increased ownership and feeling of responsibility to each other. This sense of camaraderie and community has been facilitated by digital connectivity.

Building Momentum and Expressing Collective Identity

In this movement, communication platforms LIHKG and Telegram have become prominent coordination tools, and livestream by online news sites emerged as popular information sources. LIHKG, first released in 2016, is a local anonymous forum on which users can post, comment, and upvote or downvote threads. Originally a platform for casual, everyday topics, LIHKG has become a hub for protest idea exchange, information dissemination and strategy evaluation. In July, it had gained over 120,000 new users (I was one of them)(22)

The first reported use of LIHKG in collective action was in May, when a user asked fellow LIHKGers to create and distribute flyers to raise awareness about the extradition bill(23). The user then communicated with other volunteers on Telegram and met up to distribute flyers at a transportation hub. This model for collective action — where LIHKGers post ideas on threads, and coordinate through Telegram — was widely adopted, especially in the earlier phrase of the movement when key Telegram groups with different roles and agendas had not been established for more systematic organization. This model was credited for the successful crowdfunding campaign to post ads in international newspapers in June, and was later repeated in August and October. The June campaign exceeded its goal and received over $800,000 in nine hours(24). In two days, a team with backgrounds in design, copywriting/translation, public relations, accounting, and legal expertise organized amongst themselves to create ads that were published in 13 countries and 18 newspapers. Other ideas that sprung from these platforms include the first city-wide strike since 1967, the airport protest, and the formation of human chains on the anniversary of the Baltic Way (organized to demonstrate the unity among protesters and “make an international noise”(25)). 

Aside from its popularity among the younger generation, who are key players in the movement, various reasons explain why LIHKG is predominantly used over Facebook or Twitter for information dissemination. Features of LIHKG cater to local users and increase users’ trust in the platform: registration is limited to users with a Hong Kong ISP or an email address from an institution of higher education located in Hong Kong; threads are usually written in colloquial Cantonese with culturally specific puns and satires. Cantonese is “intimately tied to Hong Kongers’ identity”(26) and distinctive from Mandarin, the official language of mainland China. To prevent prevent trolling, the platform allows users to trace each other’s posting history, and has recently added a feature to identify newly joined members. The platform has also made adaptations realizing its instrumental role in the movement. In June, LIHKG announced it will remove ads to increase performance, and reserve staff capacity against DDoS attacks(27). In September, it introduced a report system and account ban against misinformation(28). Moreover, unlike Facebook, LIHKG’s algorithm for displaying trending threads is based on a combination of upvotes, unique user browsing time and unique replies, which offers a better representation of popular information and ideas. 

Online news sites have emerged as popular news sources in the movement. The Stand News, established in 2014, is one of them and is noted for its success in live-streaming protest events. In some cases, the footage became the trigger for collective actions. On July 21, a reporter from the Stand News was live streaming when armed Triad members physically attacked her and other commuters at Yuen Long MTR station. Some Hong Kongers watching the livestream and seeing no assistance from the police drove out to the station to transport citizens to safe locations. This act, one of the first instances of its kind, is continued by volunteers who now mostly coordinate on Telegram and will drive to sites of confrontation to provide free ride services for young protesters in fear that they will be arrested on their way home(29). To establish their own narratives, especially against TV media that are mostly pro-establishment, Hong Kong protesters have also formed a Citizens’ Press Conference group.

Livestream and CCTV footage have been used to fact-check and establish legitimacy in a sometimes chaotic digital sphere. Hong Kong Connection, a public affairs program under one of Hong Kong’s oldest broadcasting services, compiled footages from the July 21 Triad attack to confirm police oversight and negligence(30). Footage of a high schooler being shot in his chest during the National Day protest contradicted the police account of the individual being shot “at his shoulder”(31). During a press conference, Hong Kong police showed an edited visual investigation by the New York Times — segments that “challenged police for using force excessively” were removed. (32) In early October a group of LIHKG users released a 270-page investigative report detailing unlawful tactics and cases of police brutality, supported by footage from more than 100 separate live videos.(33) Evidence of hypocrisy and police brutality re-energize and reunite protesters to stand up for a Hong Kong that aligns with their values. The evidence also motivated those who are usually apolitical and gained sympathy for radical protesters as many have grown to feel the police force, once known as “Asia’s finest”(34), is beyond recognizable and can no longer protect them. 

Committing to a Sharpened Identity

Despite the sense of helplessness and exhaustion facing a repressive regime and an emboldened police force, despite flaws and challenges with decentralized networked movements (e.g. lack of collective decision-making mechanisms, disinformation campaigns, DDoS attacks), Hong Kong protesters have nevertheless leveraged the affordances of digital tools to scale a mass social movement across industries and age groups. They have formed communities with a strong sense of camaraderie (even if the social ties are sometimes anonymous or weak) and developed innovative tactics for protesting and for appealing to the international community.

Protests are “locations of self-expression and communities of belonging and mutual altruism”(35). Hong Kong has long faced an identity crisis. It has never been a nation state and was under Britain’s colonial rule for more than 100 years. This history led to a pluralistic identity, with some identifying as Hong Kongers, others as Hong Kong Chinese people, Chinese people or Chinese Hong Kong people. Seeing a continuous erosion of autonomy, protesters stood up in various capacities with various methods to express their interpretation of a sharpened Hong Kong identity.


8,000 miles away from the protests, I also noticed a change in myself. Over the past months, I have reconnected with friends, an ex-partner, and acquaintances, whom I otherwise would not have (albeit also losing one of my oldest friendships partly because they now work in the Hong Kong Police Force). I have caught myself in an us vs them mentality being the only Hong Konger in my class among a large mainland Chinese student body. I have distanced myself from friends who have expressed pro-China sentiments and irrationally avoided interacting with Chinese students for fear of learning their political opinions (especially when I have failed to separate that from judgment of one’s character). I have even been resentful speaking with those from the States who drew parallels but missed the fact that they live under a democractic system, and despite how imperfectly, have electoral power. I have spent hours rethinking my trajectory, whether I, being in a privileged position sitting behind a computer, shielded from any danger, being in a country I could not call home, makes sense. I have questioned if the true intent of my protest-related research and creative work is to resolve my guilt, and whether my work will be at all relevant, especially as thousands of Hong Kongers are putting their physical bodies on the frontline. Never have I felt such a strong sense of belonging to the city I was born and grew up in. With immense anxiety, respect, and hope, 香港人加油 (Hong Kongers, Add oil(36)).

Remarks & Credits

This article is part of a larger, on-going research project. Special thanks to the generosity of many individuals in Hong Kong, as well as valuable advice from Clay Shirky. 


1. Sum, Lok-kei, “Row over Extradition Bill Grows as Legco Legal Adviser Questions Proposal,” South China Morning Post, 4 May, 2019.

2. Traditional criminal organizations operating in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and south-east Asian countries.

3. Carter, Jaime, “Hong Kong Still the World’s Most Connected Place; Singapore Not Even in Top 10,” South China Morning Post, 11 May, 2016.

4. Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: the Power and Fragility Of Networked Protest. Yale University Press, 2018.

5. Fisher, Max, “One Country, Two Nationalisms: The Identity Crisis Behind Hong Kong’s Turmoil,” The New York Times.

6.《願榮光歸香港》正式進行曲版 “Glory to Hong Kong” Formal March Edition, YouTube, 12 September, 2019.

7. McLaughin.

8. Victor, Daniel, “Hong Kong Protesters, Without an Anthem to Sing, Create One Online,” The New York Times, 12 September, 2019.

9. Fong, Brian C. H. “One Country, Two Nationalisms: Center-Periphery Relations between Mainland China and Hong Kong, 1997–2016.” Modern China, vol. 43, no. 5, Sept. 2017, pp. 523–556, doi:10.1177/0097700417691470.

10. A.K. “What is China’s “one country, two systems” policy?” The Economist.

11. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Place of publication not identified: Consultative Committee for the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, 1990.

12. Full Text: Chinese State Council White Paper on ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in Hong Kong. South China Morning Post, 10 June, 2014.

13. 巿民的身份認同感 “People’s Ethnic Identity,” 港大民研 HKUPOP, Public Opinion Programme, The University of Hong Kong, 27 December, 2018

14. Fisher

15. McLaughin, Timothy, “Hong Kong’s Protests Have Cemented Its Identity,” The Atlantic.

16. Tufekci, 234.

17. From late martial arts star Bruce Lee’s famous saying, “Be water, my friend”, which for protesters means being anonymous, spontaneous and evasive to avoid being arrested.

18. Duhalde, Marcelo and Huang, Han, “History of Hong Kong Protests: Riots, Rallies and Brollies,” South China Morning Post, 4 July, 2019.

19. Hui, Victoria,“A Leaderless Movement, or Leadership Decentralized but Coordinated?” Political Science, University of Notre Dame. 11 July, 2019.

20. Wong, Joshua, 「大台,不了。」後想說的話. Facebook. 12 August 2019, 11:46am. Accessed 8 September, 2019.

21. Remarks were made by Regina Lau and Ip Kwok-him during a radio talk show on Commercial Radio Hong Kong on 8 August, 2019.

22. “Hong Kong Protests Fuel Uptake of Telegram, LIHKG Apps,” South China Morning Post, 15 August, 2019.

23. 鄭佩珊, “連登仔大爆發:「9up」中議政,他們「講得出做得到」”, 端傳媒, 27 June, 2019.

24. “眾籌登報喚G20關注 9小時670萬 – 20190626 – 要聞.” 明報新聞網 — 每日明報 Daily News, Ming Pao.

25. Reuters, and Ellen Loanes, “Hong Kong Protesters Are Forming a Human Chain 30 Years after the Baltic Way Democracy Protests,” Business Insider, 23 August, 2019.

26. Hui, Mary, “Cantonese is Hong Kong protesters’ power tool of satire and identity,” Quartz. 20, June, 2019.

27. 卓柏安 連登討論區暫停顯示廣告 棄收入提高瀏覽速度獲激讚 香港01, 12 June, 2019.

28. [公告] LIHKG 常見問題公告 2019-09-25

29. Especially since the closure of MTR stations, which is the most popular public transport in Hong Kong. The ride services is now largely coordinated through Telegram platforms.

30. 香港電台 RTHK. Hong Kong Connection: 721 Yuen Long Nightmare, Hong Kong Connection, 29 July, 2019.

31. 立場新聞. The Stand News, 【中五生中槍】肺部中彈 曾使用人工心肺 警:開槍為拯救自己及同袍生命 1 October, 2019.

32. Chueng, Eric. “While @hkpoliceforce were trying to be seen as trustworthy by citing @nytimes footage in defending their decision to fire a live round, they have edited out segments of the video that challenged police for using force excessively.”. 2 Oct. 2019, 5:16AM. Tweet.

33. 戰死記者. “呢份嘢搞到三萬黑警都要接受國際審判” 7 October, 2019.

34. Sataline, Suzanne, “From Asia’s Finest to Hong Kong’s Most Hated,” The Atlantic, 1 September, 2019

35. Tufekci, 120.

36. Added to the Oxford English Dictionary last year, “Add oil” is a widely used Cantonese phrase roughly translated as “keep going” and is used to express support.

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