Batman and Superman in Hong Kong

A deep change is taking place in the national psyche—protest, once frowned upon, is near-universal

April 22, 2016
A meke-shift statue is seen holding an umbrella in downtown Hong Kong on Oct. 6, 2014. The protesters used the umbrellas to protect and shield from tear gas fired by riot polices and the Occupy Central movement is known as " Umbrella Revolution''. The pro
A meke-shift statue is seen holding an umbrella in downtown Hong Kong on Oct. 6, 2014. The protesters used the umbrellas to protect and shield from tear gas fired by riot polices and the Occupy Central movement is known as " Umbrella Revolution''. The pro
Read more: Hong Kong's new struggle: the battle for digital rights

“Everyone Could Be Batman.” This plea was scribbled on a large banner hung above Harcourt Road, a major highway in the north of Hong Kong, as pro-democracy protests began in September 2014. Like a searchlight sweeping across night-time Gotham City, it proved to be a call to action. Over the next few months, tent villages populated by hundreds of black T-shirted students and other citizens sprouted up, shutting down three of the city's commercial districts. Activists used umbrellas to shield themselves from the police's use of tear gas and pepper spray and the movement was dubbed the Umbrella Revolution. The demonstrations, over reforms of the electoral system which would hand more control to the Chinese Communist party, ended that December without political victory. Yet they are widely viewed as the most significant act of civil disobedience in Hong Kong's modern history.

And the troubles continue. In April 2015, the creative writing MFA programme at the City University of Hong Kong was abruptly and controversially cancelled—a number of its students had produced work in favour of the protests. This February, unlicensed street vendors selling fishballs, a Chinese New Year tradition, clashed with police. Meanwhile, the mysterious disappearance of five employees of Mighty Current, a publishing house known for being critical of China’s leaders, raised alarm bells (they have since reappeared). The accumulating threats to freedom have prompted calls for Hong Kong’s outright independence. Joshua Wong, a prominent teenage activist who resembles an undernourished version of Batman's sidekick Robin, has launched a political party, Demosisto, with the aim of the territory’s self-determination.

For decades, Superman was the comic-book character who ruled Hong Kong’s hearts and minds. The city's real-life version of the superhero is billionaire Li Ka-shing. Instead of a cape and immaculately brilliantined hair, he sports a business suit and oversized horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Li, who left school at 15 and founded a company manufacturing plastic flowers, is Asia's richest man. He was the city's patron saint, the personification of all it had to offer.

Hong Kong’s promise to its people had long been straightforward—here was a place where fortunes could be made. Regulations were light, as were taxes. The rule of law worked and there was a competent, independent monetary authority. Yes, living conditions were shockingly cramped, political self-determination had never existed and arts and culture lacked diversity or depth. But for a populace with a single-minded focus on creating wealth, Hong Kong was indeed a shining Metropolis. People could also say what they wanted without fear of persecution. The terms of the handover to China guaranteed Hong Kong its legal system, parliament and individuals' rights and freedoms—at least until 2047.

But Hong Kong's league of business tycoons and political leaders have proved to be anything but heroic. As their power consolidated following Hong Kong’s handover back to China, they squeezed out small businesses, favouring dealings with global luxury brands instead. They allowed foreigners, particularly those from the mainland, to hoard essentials such as baby formula, take up hospital beds, and raise property prices far beyond the reach of locals. CY Leung, Hong Kong's chief executive (head of government) is regarded as a Beijing yes-man who belittles his own people and demands that they bend to China’s will. In 2014, he took exception to handing political power to the “half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 per month.”

In general, people in Hong Kong are polite and well-behaved. More than anything else, they simply want the freedom and opportunity to work towards improving their lot. Public protests and street violence have usually been frowned upon as disruptive. The riots of 1967—when pro-communist forces battled against British colonial rule while China was engulfed in the Cultural Revolution—were seen as anomalous. The anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown is observed, but it tends to be a solemn, candlelit affair. In 2005, protests related to a World Trade Organization conference turned violent, but the protesters were principally Korean farmers who had flown in.

However, a fundamental shift has now occurred. The threats that Hong Kong people are facing are much more localised and strike at the heart of their livelihood. Politicians have broken promises and shredded the social contract with their constituents. Ordinary citizens lack special powers, and may be armed only with books, umbrellas or fishball skewers. Nevertheless, they are engaging in thousands of small but significant acts in defence of identity, economic fairness, and political justice. The people have become a swarm of bats energetically defending their colony. Everyone.

Phillip Kim will appear on the panel "Hong Kong State of Mind" as part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. This event will take place at China Exchange in London on 9th May