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A mimicry: Home of the free An analysis of performative utilization of American symbolism and the multifaceted purpose it serves in the 2019 Hong Kong Protests

How does the usage of American imagery by protesters in Hong Kong reveal outsider culture's approach to grappling with both America and performance itself?

My plan for my object of study is the inclusion of props and phrases in protest performative in Hong Kong recently. The people of Hong Kong, in protesting against the Beijing-backed government that they feel do not democratically represent their interest, have taken to waving American flags along the streets, emphatically repeating 18th century phrases evoking a supposed “American spirit” that to them represents freedom and fairness. The main idea that I hope to argue in my paper is that Hong Konger’s usage of American symbolism demonstrates a fundamentally altered perspective from the traditional critical (and realistic) one we have been presented with and discuss in lecture, and that although Hong Kong has suffered at the hands of western imperial colonialism, the American individualist ideal can still be seen as a positive force for good when drawn in comparison with Chinese collectivism.

In essence, I aim to discover how a country that was previously forcibly taken over by the anglosphere can in the modern era profess their adoration of the same culture. I plan to investigate my research question through analyzing both the rich and storied history of Hong Kong, from British control of the territory to the current two systems plan and dissatisfaction with Beijing influence in local politics, while also going through different examples of American symbols that Hong Kongers utilize in their vast, nationwide performatives in order to make the statement that Hong Kong fights for the liberty and prosperity that our founders envisioned as integral to the human experience centuries ago.

LEFT: Hong Kong protesters defy a new governmental regulation, donning facemasks while raising the American Flag above a massive crowd. Facemasks were banned by the government following months of protests, which some protesters saw as dictatorially increasing the police’s ability to unlawfully detain people with no respect to their civil liberties. CHONG JUN LIANG. RIGHT: A demonstration uses American flags to take direct calls for action against the United States Senate, among which laid the fate of the Hong Kong Human Rights Act. The crowd used hats, masks, and flags to hide their faces from facial recognition technologies, which detracts feel unfairly empowers an undeserving dictatorial government. KYLE LAM/BLOOMBURG NEWS. COVER: Protesters bare dual flags in front of a glimmering skyscraper, representing Hong Kong as its own independent territory, and the United States, the result of the first successful war of independence. XIOAMEI CHEN.

A Moment

I stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellows, attentive despite my lack of natural understanding of the dialect, safe (or at least I tell myself) despite what I’ve read on the news. A young man elevates himself, gaining full access to the collective line of sight.

He unfurls a flag, thirteen broad stripes horizontal along its plane, alternating between bright crimson and solid white. Along the left most corner, a flat, deep blue surface, along which sit 50 shining stars. To me, it is familiarity in a sea of strangers. To the over 300 million people that live in the United States, this simple item represents many things. To some, it is strength and patriotic excellence, to others it is hateful, genocidal colonialism. But this is not the United States.

A ripple extends through the crowd, as eyes turn towards the commotion. A broad figure is cast against the evening skyline: it is of a young man, tragic in his adolescence, donning a gas mask shared by many in the crowd. He is standing, fully spreading his body outwards and forwards, as if to declare his very presence as a statement against those opposed to its very presence. In his hands, he carries the weight of revolutions, the bloodstained banner that is tainted by centuries of bloodshed, both inflicted and instigated. In his hands, he grips this symbol that unites millions and divides countless more, before a gathering of people whose faces are so alike and yet remain so crucially different from my own, almost 7000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from the city I call my home. In his hands, he triumphantly raises the Star Spangled Banner.

Unanimously, the crowd erupts into cheers.

A Motivation

Taking a step back, the first question posed is why was Hong Kong protesting at all? The island nation, up until recently, was economically prosperous. In comparison to territories like Taiwan, whom the United Nations still refused to recognize as an independent nation due to Chinese pressure, or Chinese ethnic minorities like the Uyghur people, who are subject to intense de jure religious persecution, Hong Kong and its people were content.

The catalyst for the country-wide protests that even now capture all of the island was in March, when the Hong Kong government put forth a bill restructuring the existing extradition laws that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be deported to other countries if the government deemed fit. Among those other countries was China.

Hong Kong and China have a complex relationship. Formerly a part of the Chinese state, Hong Kong was conceded to great Britain in the Treaty of Nanking, following the first Opium War. It was returned to China in 1997, though not fully: instead, both China and Great Britain agreed to a unique form of governance now referred to as “One Country, Two Systems”. Essentially, although Hong Kong is part of the homeland of the Chinese people, they would be allowed to govern themselves under their own principles.

Hong Kongers thus took the Extradition Bill as evidence of the increasingly nefarious Chinese threat of taking over Hong Kong’s government, thus nullifying the distinction between the two systems. The rest is history.

Yet perhaps because of the unique arrangement Hong Kongers find themselves in as advocates for independence, not separation, whatever performatives they can muster at protests must be unique to Hong Kong culture, and fully dissociated from Chinese culture. This explains why many are exploring usage of symbolism outside of their own ethnic history. Perhaps to Americans like Colin Kaepernick, Betsy Ross’ original flag symbolizes a nation whose very ideals were blatant lies. To Hong Kongers, the flag is a mythic figure of its own right, a representation of the purity of democracy and the demands for a free government.

But that is not the only imagery that Hong Kongers have incorporated into their displays of anger, nor is their motivation as pure as the ideals they espouse. Although utilization of American imagery in the Hong Kong protests may seem to concern only the citizens of the small island, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about both American representation and perception abroad and the nature of truth in performatives themselves.

LEFT: Political cartoon equating the American revolution of 1778 with the Hong Kong protests of 2019, complete with an asynchronous depiction of the two revolutionaries, fighting different wars but for the same causes of liberty and freedom from tyranny. U/REDDITBUDDYHASNOT. UPPER RIGHT: Statue of “Lady Liberty”, unveiled by the Hong Kong protesters that depicts a young female revolutionary, brandishing a flag with the message of her people, backpack by her side and face adorned with mask and goggles. Her name is a clear reference to the eponymous American figure, connecting her further to associations of freedom. U/WATASHIWAGENKI. BOTTOM RIGHT: A wall along a deserted street in Hong Kong, where the phrase “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” appears hastily scrawled. The line was popularized by Patrick Henry, a founding father of the United States, and has since been enshrined in the popular mythos. Orange riot barriers can be seen in the background. LUKE RUDKOWSKI.

A Mythos

Protests in Hong Kong not only simply incorporate elements of American symbolism in their formation, they integrate it within the very core of the movement itself in an attempt to merge the two. Protesters in Hong Kong, mostly youth and those dissatisfied with the Chinese government, have grown up in a world dominated by Western values, and because of their defiance to the Chinese insistence that these Western values were corrupting and unsound, they listened with added intensity. The end result is that the protesters in Hong Kong by and large have grown up with stories about the revolutionary heroes that are the Americans, who fought in wars centuries ago for the god given right of self governance.

In effect, they have been raised on a mythos. As Jorge Huerta noted of American students, when asked “to identify mythical heroes and their narratives, they usually refer to the Greeks and the Romans, for these are their legacy through any number of Western European representations” (Huerta 16). In contrast, the legacies that Hong Kongers have learned to admire are the enduring mythos of the American freedom fighter, that permeates their belief systems and their values. In this way, performative usage of American symbolism can be seen not just as usage of a tool, but as living out one’s imagination. The Hong Kong protests thus shape out to be emblematic of restorative behavior on a collective group scale. Schechner notes that “restored behavior can be of long duration as in ritual performances” (Schechner 19), and the Hong Kong protests, which have endured for months upon months, lack better ways to be described than a freedom ritual, an evocation of sacred democratic values.

Early July. Crowds of protesters walk through the street of Hong Kong, only partially dressed in black for most, facemasks largely absent. At this time, protests have not yet fully transitioned to violence. Photo taken by Author.

A Muddling

Yet the ways in which Hong Kong protesters evoke America often are conflated with the current administration, appearing to conflict with the ideals of the movement by demonstrating that the true purpose of American symbolism is to court support from the United States. Hong Kongress have been seen proudly displaying Trump merchandise, including posters and hats emblazoned with variations of his signature logo. Indeed, in the video linked, the protestors accompany their flag waving with the repeated chant to “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Jong”, calling for the United States Senator to pass an act supporting Hong Kong. This quite obviously calls into question the protestors motivations, and even their willingness to support a President who has espoused white supremacisf ideology when they themselves are not white.

UPPER LEFT: A protester brandishes an image of Donald Trump, edited to show him riding atop a tank emblazoned with his name, with an eagle and fireworks following him. GETTY IMAGES. UPPER RIGHT: A sign pleading for President Trump to liberate Hong Kong, appearing to call for United States support for the fledgling revolutionary movement in an appeal to "traditional" American values of liberating countries that are under communist regimes. GETTY IMAGES. BOTTOM RIGHT: A man dons a red hat, similar to the MAGA hats worn by Trump supporters, edited to present a call to “Make Hong Kong great again”. Behind him, crowds of people sit, dressed in black, the official color of the movement meant to reflect seriousness. SUSANA VERA. BOTTOM LEFT: Protestors march in solidarity, with those in front sharing the burden of holding a banner that calls for the liberation of Hong Kong by President Trump. Marching with them is a crowd of people, each holding an American flag. AFP.

A Moral

So what does this mean for our understanding of performatives? The example of Hong Kong demonstrates how our perspective of whiteness can often be characterized by an innately American experience. Additionally, it displays the uniquely powerful effects of the American mythos in international influence. Finally, Hong Kong’s performative usage of American imagery for specific purposes demonstrates how performatives can be used for a specific motive without compromising their intrinsic value as acts of performance.

I wish I could tell myself these things, on that sweltering summer day. Ask him what he thought about conclusions, about performance as a means of protest, how the two were interrelated. I'd have liked to see the look on his face.

But it's absolutely true. Protest in Hong Kong has adopted performative elements, and it is only through an analysis of this context can we move towards a deeper understanding of their motivations, their hopes and dreams, and what pushes each and every one of them to stand up and fight.

They try to be like us, but it is us who could learn to be like them.

Works Cited

“23,000 Students, Alumni and Teachers Sign Petitions against Extradition Bill.” South China Morning Post, 28 May 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3012119/petitions-against-extradition-bill-80-hong-kong-schools.

Blakemore, Erin. “How Hong Kong's Complex History Explains Its Current Crisis with China.” National Geographic, 13 Aug. 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/hong-kong-history-explain-relationship-china/.

Cherney, Mike, and Dan Strumpf. “Hong Kong Protesters Flood Streets to Call for U.S. Support.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 9 Sept. 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/hong-kong-protesters-call-for-u-s-support-11567931423.

Huang, Claire. “Tens of Thousands Rally in Hong Kong in Support of US Bill.” The Straits Times, 14 Oct. 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/tens-of-thousands-rally-in-hk-in-support-of-us-bill.

Hughes, Helier Cheung & Roland. “Why Are There Protests in Hong Kong? All the Context You Need.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Sept. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-48607723.

Law, Violet. “Hong Kong Prepares for Protests as Beijing Parades Military Might.” Hong Kong Protests News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 1 Oct. 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/hong-kong-prepares-protests-beijing-parades-military-191001051410133.html.

Moore, Mark. “Hong Kong Protesters Beg Trump to 'Liberate' City.” New York Post, New York Post, 8 Sept. 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/09/08/hong-kong-protesters-beg-trump-to-liberate-city/.

“r/HongKong - FOR LIBERTY WE ALL FIGHT.” Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/HongKong/comments/dfbojj/for_liberty_we_all_fight/.

“r/HongKong - Lady Liberty Hong Kong.” Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/HongKong/comments/cxsl9g/lady_liberty_hong_kong/.

“r/HongKong - Stand with Hong Kong.” Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/HongKong/comments/dhqlba/stand_with_hong_kong/.

Rogin, Josh. “‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death." Hong Kong Protesters Quoting American Revolutionary Patrick Henry. Fighting Tyranny Is Common Cause of All Humanity. Https://T.co/VtFesNjTGk.” Twitter, Twitter, 1 Sept. 2019, https://twitter.com/joshrogin/status/1168158219535028224.“

White House Faces Growing Calls to Toughen Hong Kong Stance.” South China Morning Post, 15 Aug. 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3022963/us-congress-support-hong-kong-protests-adds-pressure-white.