Hong Kongers are finding creative ways to voice dissent after Beijing blanketed the territory in new security legislation and police began arresting people displaying now-forbidden political slogans.
Faced with the sudden threat of prosecution for anything that might promote greater autonomy or independence for the restless territory, residents are using word play and even subverting Chinese Communist Party dogma to express their frustration.
On a bridge in the busy shopping district of Causeway Bay, a key spot for pro-democracy protests over the past year, traffic thundered past newly daubed graffiti that declared: “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves.”
The phrase is taken from the first line of China’s national anthem. While the graffito could conceivably have been written by a patriotic nationalist, it is most likely a declaration of dissent.
Social media and chat forums have filled with suggestions for how to find safer ways to protest after Beijing on Tuesday imposed broad legislation banning subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion.
In a semi-autonomous territory used to speaking its mind, people would find ways around the legislation, said Chan Kin-man (陳健民), a veteran democracy advocate who has previously been jailed for his advocacy.
“In a public space, one might either not say anything or use an ‘officially approved’ language to protect themselves,” he told reporters. “But hidden language is something that cannot be banned by laws.”
The Hong Kong government on Thursday said the popular protest slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” would now be deemed illegal.
For some, the phrase represents genuine aspirations to split Hong Kong from China, a red line for Beijing, but for many others it is a more general cry for democracy and an expression of rising frustration with Chinese rule.
However, coded language is allowing people to keep the slogan alive.
One version — “GFHG, SDGM” — uses English letters from the transliterated phrase gwong fuk heung gong, si doi gak ming.
Another, more complex, example mimics the tone and rhythm of the slogan using the numbers “3219 0246” in Cantonese.
Chinese characters also provide ample room for linguistic subversion. One phrase people have started adopting online is “seize back banana,” a play on the similarity in Chinese of Hong Kong (香港) and banana (香蕉).
Others have gone for English slogans that appear positive, but are a clear dig at Beijing — for example the Trumpian phrase “Make Hong Kong great.”
The very first arrest made under the new security legislation involved a deliberate linguistic challenge. During protests a day after the legislation was enacted, police announced that they had arrested a man with a flag that read, “Hong Kong independence,” posting a picture.
However, eagle-eyed Web sleuths zoomed in on the flag and spotted that a man had written a small “No” before his much larger phrase. The same phrase has since gone viral online.
Multiple pro-democracy restaurants and shops across the territory have taken down their “Lennon wall” displays expressing support for the pro-democracy movement after some were warned by police that they might violate the national security legislation.
One cafe replaced its wall with blank memos.
“What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” the shop wrote on Facebook, citing popular children’s book Le Petit Prince.
Another symbol of defiance that has replaced some protest art across the territory is blank white pages.
The gesture represents the inability to speak out and also “white terror,” a Chinese phrase used to describe political persecution.
“Suppression catalyzes people to fight back,” said Chan, who is also a sociology professor.
He likened the situation with how people in mainland China reveal dissent or anger toward the government with a wink and a nod.
“Hong Kong people will definitely respond more actively, it’s just that it might happen in a gray area,” he said.
A slogan that went viral this week was a quote by Mao Zedong (毛澤東), which read: “Those who suppress the student movements will not come to a good end.”
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