“We can only overpower them with sheer numbers and creativity,” says Hong Kong protester, known only as “Y” to protect his identity. Y, who contributes his skills as an artist, is among more than 5,000 members of a secret group on the Telegram messaging app, fighting for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.
“We knew we had an uphill battle against the government and police,” says Y. Over the last few months, hundreds of thousands have taken part in mass rallies, ignited by opposition to a bill that would allow residents to be extradited to China.
The bedrock of the movement is the ongoing creation and mass dissemination of protest art, communicated through online forums, chat groups, social media and on so-called ‘Lennon Walls,’ where people leave supportive messages on colorful post-it notes. At protests and on public transport, iPhone users often share images via mass Airdrops.
The art functions to inspire, unify and empower, and often uses humor to offer light relief to the exhausted, sometimes shaken, but fiercely resolute students. But the art must also function practically as well. “We have to digest a lot of information and condense it into visuals,” explains Y. The graphic artwork serves to inform protesters where to meet, what to wear, and what they need to know in order to be safe against tear gas and a police force which has become more aggressive in recent weeks.
A team of more than 200 designers, who work in shifts, translate the concepts and messages into the sharp, subversive visuals that have come to define Hong Kong’s protesters.
Since the British handover in 1997, Hong Kong and China have been party to a “one country, two systems” agreement that offers residents of Hong Kong a greater degree of independence than they would have in mainland China. Those who opposed the bill said it jeopardized Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy from China and, if passed, would endanger Hong Kong-based critics of Beijing, who could suddenly find themselves facing the Chinese legal system, where human rights groups have documented arbitrary detention and torture.
Hong Kong officials initially defended the bill, saying it would protect Hong Kong from criminals fleeing legal systems elsewhere. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam insisted the bill would not apply to issues of free speech. But protesters were not convinced. Though the extradition bill has been shelved, demonstrations have continued, with protesters widening their demands to include calls for greater democracy and police accountability.
While many are risking their lives in Honk Kong, there are those outside of China who are using their positions to show solidarity with the protestors. A Norwegian member of parliament, Ms. Guri Melby, has nominated the people of Hong Kong for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize in an effort to encourage international support for the city’s fight for freedom of speech and democracy.
Daxiong, aka, Guo Jingxiong, a comic book artist, editor, and publisher now living in the US is also lending his talents to a cause that is close to his heart. Currently one of the most successful artists in Chinese and European comics, Daxiong knows first hand about China’s censorship, gangster-like intimidation, and brutality. He had been arrested and tortured while still a citizen in China for his illustrations of ‘The Nine Commentaries,’ a series of in-depth essays which explain why every single nation that experienced communist party rule, be it Russia, South America or China, saw destruction of their traditional culture and a deterioration in overall quality of life in a physical, mental and spiritual sense.
Daxiong understands, firsthand, the importance and the danger that the Hong Kong protests face. “As I watched them marching on the street on television I felt that they need something to hold in their hands. So I thought, I will sketch something out for them,” stated Daxiong in an interview.
Daxiong created, “Hong Kong Withstand,” written in Chinese across one of his many posters. This slogan has become popular for throngs of protestors including pop singer Denise Ho, who wave the colorful images repeating, “Hong Kong Withstand,” to demand the full withdrawal of the bill. “They all held my work in hands and chanted the words on the poster. I felt that I was making an impact on their expression and their direction,” Daxiong said. “It reminds me to be more prudent in my words and not bring them into danger. The messages I deliver need to be very positive. Adults are mature, but slick, glib, and shrewd,” he said. “Youth are full of spirit, they have ideals and a pursuit for beauty in the world.” The style and imagery of modern-day uprising Hong Kong students, trained in computer programs like Photoshop, are highly skilled and savvy with design.
Dan Garrett, a political scientist living in Hong Kong for two decades and a protest photographer who has documented over 600 demonstrations, wrote the book: “Counter-hegemonic Resistance in China’s Hong Kong: Visualizing Protest in the City.” He observed that designers draw on many influences from a range of artistic styles for their poster images. They include Japanese anime, marvel superhero comic books, Hollywood movie posters, noting how dystopic, anti-authoritarian genres really resonate with the protesters.
The original Kill Bill movie poster appropriated by changing the face of the original Uma Thurman to Hong Kong politician, Carrie Lam, is a great example. “Heroes and heroines defeating evil totalitarian regimes and rulers, despite insurmountable odds are particularly motivating among the younger generation of Hong Kongers on the frontlines of the resistance movement,” said Garrett. “There are visual references to contemporary and past social movements such as the civil rights movement in the United States, the French Revolution, South Korean democracy and the labor movement.”
Humor, creative plays on words, Cantonese slang, referencing local music, global pop culture, and advertising also find their way into the imagery of the protest posters. “A lot of people are holding in their feelings, so some of these illustrations may offer them emotional relief,” says Arto, a satirist whose cartoons are hugely popular. “Fighting ridicule with humor is probably more effective than waging a public opinion war,” he told Time Magazine. History of Art and Protest History is replete with examples of humanity being triumphant over brutality through art.
Artists of all kinds; composers, writers, painters, and filmmakers have infused their work with seeds of faith, courage, and liberty, hoping it might take root and spread. From painter Goya’s commentary on the social injustices in his homeland of Spain to Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, who understood the limits to freedom well and used his popular operas as a political tool.
Or Ben Shahn who helped to call the world’s attention to the Nazis’ massacre of a small Czech village—an atrocity so shocking that it galvanized the Allies against Germany—through the power of printmaking.
Beethoven’s Ninth symphony has been used all over the world to evoke the theme of brotherhood since its premiere in Vienna in May 1824. Based on a poem by Friedrich, the “Ode to Joy” (1785), Schiller’s famous words state “in a new age the old ways will no longer divide people and all men shall become brothers.”
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Leonard Bernstein performed Beethoven’s Ninth as an “Ode to Freedom” on both sides of the Wall. In Chile, women sang the “Ode to Joy” outside of torture prisons where those trapped inside heard the street chorus offering both open arms and hope.
In Tiananmen Square in 1989, students played the Ninth Symphony over makeshift loudspeakers so that the world would hear their message of hope for China as the CCP troops came to crush their democratic aspirations. From the political anger of rap music and punk rock to the graffiti art of Banksy to the graphic novels of Joe Sarco, the arts impact people directly, influencing their minds and consciousness as well as connecting to emotions on a sensory level.
The arts are a powerful, non-violent weapon and effective apparatus for change that allows everyone to participate. Throughout history the arts have informed, encouraged and provided hope, clarifying messages, rallying the people, and providing the desperately needed songs for the choir.
As “P,” one of Hong Kong artists points out, “People like me who are in the peaceful camp and don’t dare to protest on the front line, can still contribute in a meaningful way.” Also, as Daxiong states, “The Chinese Communist Party is rooted in violence. So no violence or lies of any kind in the world can be their match. They would only conform to their characteristics and merge with them. What the Chinese regime fears the most is the opposite of violence: truth, calmness, and rationality.”
It was Medgar Evers, a famed African American civil rights activist who said, “You can kill a man, but you cannot kill an idea.” And all the more so, aren’t concepts and ideas the very ‘stock in trade’ of every artist? Perhaps it is right then that “P” of Honk Kong finds his pencil is still mightier than the sword. Click here to learn more about the Hong Kong Protest artists.