15 July 2015

Polymer: Enlightenment to Hongkongers through the Korean farmers

Enlightenment to Hongkongers through the Korean farmers
Translated by S. Lai, edited by Chen-tang, written by Polymer HK Editorial Team
Original: http://polymerhk.com/articles/2015/07/04/17846/ (Originally on Issue 21, PolymerHK) 

‘Down! Down! WTO!’ Can you still hear any echo of this slogan in your mind? The World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference was held from 11 to 18 December 2005 in Hong Kong when a group of foreign protesters, mostly South Korean farmers, protested against globalisation. Not only did their struggle seize everyone’s attention, they even inspired all Hongkongers’ vision, sowing the seed towards civil disobedience. Our protest and struggle are never the same hitherto.

Before the Korean farmers came...
In the past, there is only one mode in demonstrating; Setting off from the Victoria Park, the crowd would march according to the designated route orderly, or even robotically, leaving no rubbish on the streets. As the pan-democrats led the march and the chanting, they made their speeches when the crowd eventually arrive at the Government headquarter in the evening, followed by people leaving and heading back home. This was the monotonous ceremony following the tradition of the1st July demonstration.

As Lau Sai-leung once said, “Mainstream middle-class people were the pivot of the 1st July Demonstration in 2003 together with barristers and professionals. They have a “fetish with order”, or are even in a state of indulgence. They fear physical conflicts, troubles and criticisms from the media, resulting in such a strolling protest. Protesters would walk around the venue and leave, forgetting the real target behind demonstrations and protests. As social movements are belittled to a way of living, they now lose their due impact, castrated by the host of the rally.’

Leung Man-tao (Translator's note: a leftard Hong Kong columnist renowned in China) also criticised such demonstration culture. He commented in  “They are almost burnt to death. We are yet still only the audience”, “ever since the 1st July Demonstration in 2003, “rationality” has become a phrase in a standard account of Hong Kong democratic movement. To those who study collective action, collective action confers a sense of identity to all participants, uniting them and even creating a brand new collective identity. For everyone who has gone to this rally, most of them must agree that “while we Hongkongers are determined to pursue democracy, we are too rational in our action.” “Rationality” thus becomes a Hongkongers’ proof of our own identity and a standard in determining whether protests are good or bad. Under such logic, “rationality”, under the eyes of Hongkongers, is afterall mere observance of orders. Unruly walking and running on the streets is not in accordance to order and thus irrational; demonstrating on stilts or skateboards are thus of course unruly and irrational as well. In case (just in case) when one makes use of self-immolation in protest, it shall be undoubtedly opposite to rationality, an act of complete insanity. In the other way round, it is absurd that we still find ourselves ‘rational’ when we generalise people as “irrationality” given that we don’t understand their reasons to protest or adopt totally different means in protest.’

‘Public intellectuals’ might be unsatisfied, but the general public took such practice for granted, or were even proud of it, until the Korean farmers shocked everyone.

A Moral Appeal: Protest through Performing Arts
Korean farmers might still go on demonstration and followed assigned routes to the protest areas, but they were not like the Hongkongers who had only made use of their mouths and their legs. As a blogger has once stated, the demonstration culture in Hong Kong limits the possibility and creativity of body movements to mere ‘walking’, restraining us from breaking through the current spacial settings.

The Korean farmers never confined themselves. They knew their aim to seek as much attention as they could in order to make their demands concerned by the general public. The classic three-step-and-a-kowtow is the most well-known act of the Korean farmers, which was somehow an impersonation of worshippers paying respect to buddhas at Tibet and showing an utmost pious attitude. Putting on knee pads and gloves and under the lead of the drum, for every three strides they took while shouting ‘Down Down WTO’, they kowtowed at the ground with their hands clapped together. These scenes were truly striking and moving to Hongkongers then. The media unanimously reported such protesting means from a positive perspective, i.e. the Oriental Daily described such asceticism as ‘The Moving Jang-geum Spirit’ in its headline, inducing Hongkongers’ reflection on the pros and cons of globalised trade.

Apart from asceticism, music was played, Korean ‘aunties’ danced in traditional Korean style and sang to raise the morale amid the rythme of the hand drums. According to report of ‘Cool Loud Web’,‘ another group of female Korean farmers held colourful sticks up high while two of them pushing the speakers and props forward. With their self-written songs, one led the crowd to sing with a microphone, the other followed and made their moves. During the bridge, on one hand, they chanted slogans of “Down Down WTO”, “Down Down FTA”, “Bye Bye USA” and “Bye Bye Bush”, or, on the other, yelled “We love Hong Kong” to the citizens energetically. Though I could never understand the speeches made by the one holding the microphone during the bridge or performance, the speeches are more like jokes among them, delighting everyone.’

As the ‘Cool Loud Web’ commented, chanting  in demonstrations in Hong Kong and Taiwan were mostly led by the leaders on stage and followed by the rest of the participants. Not only did it lack interaction among different groups, it failed to influence or interact with the general public or passers-by. Therefore, while people might have tried to mobilise as many people as they could for the demonstration, their chanting caused a totally opposite result. As the old Chinese saying goes, “Their spirit was aroused by the first roll or the drums, but was depleted by the second. And it was completely exhausted by the third”. The inability to gain an official promise from the government eventually exhausted the morale of the crowd. The Korean farmers’ demonstration yet allowed everyone to be starred, enhancing the camaraderie and even influencing the general public through interactions. The course of the demonstration manifested their aims.
The asceticism of Korean farmers moved many Hongkongers back then. (Apple Daily)

Dauntless towards bloodshed: militant protest and struggle
Still, it is afterall the intense physical confrontation that attracted the most flashlights. The Korean farmers had never given up on using physical confrontation ever since the start of the protest. The following are only some of  the ‘moves’ that were used:
  1. Pulling down rods from metal barricades and sharpening bamboo sticks to attack police
  2. Protesting through jumping into the sea and attempting to swim to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) (venue of the WTO Ministerial Conference)
  3. Using cling wrap and umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray
  4. Spraying extinguisher at the police
  5. Using metal barricades to form a L-shape bulwark for charging at the police cordon
  6. Burning coffins
  7. Attempting to push police cars over
  8. Occupying the Gloucester Road
  9. Seizing police shields (returned after the protest)
  10. Damaging public properties and charging through roadblocks

While these were only moves in 2005, can the level of protest in Hong Kong get closer to the Korean farmers’ today after 10 long years?

The protest entered its climax on 17th December. The Korean farmers upgraded their protest at Wan Chai that afternoon. A series of charging enabled them to go through the police cordon and attempt to intrude the new wing of HKCEC to stop the WTO Ministerial Conference. They eventually forced the police to shoot 34 gas grenades and mobilise armoured carriers and shoot super sock rounds. Unlike the original positive report, the media described the incident as ‘tumult’ or ‘uprising’, shifting the focus from anti-globalisation to violent confrontation.

Police using OC foam, commonly known as pepperspray (Apple Daily)

The several physical confrontations between the farmers and the police force allows Hongkongers the audience to discern the difference in level between  ‘violent protest’ and ‘physical confrontation’. As Lau Sai-leung explained in his article “The Logic Behind Mass Movement -- the Physical Showcase of Korean Farmers”, violent protest is to create the most chaotic effect with the major aim being disturbing social order through various means, namely: burning vehicles, throwing stones and assaulting shops, looting and attacking police with violence; another kind of violent protest has clear demands, attempting to put people’s political demands on the social agenda through the protest and inducing much discussion through the media. Physical confrontation then becomes a ‘theatrical performance’ in a mass movement. Farmers are required to be focused and passionate. Physical confrontation has to be vibrant from a journalist perspective and is thus capable to be starred in the headlines on the coming day. Still, when it is a mere showcase, one must recognises its bottom line. One cannot seriously damage the body of the opponent with offensive weapons, disturb the social order and attack other parties.

Protesters attempted to push over the police patrol car. (Cable News)
Farmers attacked police with fire extinguisher (TVB News)

The incident ended in peace at last, but the farmers’ protest shocked the youngsters participating in social movements then, giving rise to much opinion concerning the 1st July Demonstration and peaceful demonstrations. Such mode in protesting also gradually blends into the local protests.

How the Hong Kong "students" copied it
Quite a few of post-80s youngsters either directly participated in the anti-WTO protest, or witnessed their protesting means through the television. The influence from the farmers can thus be clearly seen in these youngsters’ participation in social movements.

The Korean "teachers" showed Hong Kong two ways out: peaceful protest for moral appeal with the element of performing arts, or militant protest to attract public concerns through physical confrontation.

We could clearly see the Korean influence from the protest against High Speed Railway in 2009. Post-80s youngsters impersonated "asceticism", initiating the 15-hour-per-day "5-constituency asceticism" in which participants knelt for every 26 steps they took, symbolising the 26-kilometre-long high speed rail (XRL). Protesters held rice and seeds with hands, representing public money and Tsoi Yuen Tsuen. It lasted for four days and three nights, from Sheung Shui Metropolis Plaza to LegCo until 8th January, the day of vote on the XRL appropriation, en route five Legislative Council geographical constituencies.

Anti-XRL movement is the beginning of the localisation of asceticism. (Apple Daily)
In subsequent social movements, i.e. strike at the container terminal, protest over the constitutional reform controversies, asceticism was also made use of by youngsters in showing their demands, in hope of raising people awareness on the issue as a result of such moral appeal.

Youngsters supported workers in the strike in the container terminal (2013; Apple Daily)
Some university students knelt and walked in Causeway Bay, asking people to join the 1st July Demonstration. (2014)
Apart from long kowtow, asceticism ‘had gradually mutated’, with examples of standing in silence, protest through reading or even throwing eggs on themselves. They are similar in the sense that they try to influence the indifferent people to beware of the concerned issues through afflicting their own bodies (long period standing, kneeling, dirtying the bodies). In doing so, they could expand their influence and have more people participating in social movements.

A "reading confrontation" by 21st Century Youth, with the meaning to defend independent thinking and be in pursuit of knowledge - said to be following an Italian movement, Sentinelle In Piedi.
A mother of two threw herself with 1,000 eggs, "to express the helplessness and guilt of not being able to change the future for the next generation", outside LegCo. (15 Jan 2015)

Yvonne Leung, president of 2014 cabinet of HKUSU, and other university students stood in silence in MTR stations and platforms to urge passengers not to forget the Tian'anmen Massacre. The placards they held read: "4th June 1989/Too sorrowful to remember/Dare not to forget".
Besides, singing is also an important item in performing protest in Hong Kong.

Such performing protest was once dubbed as ‘happy protest’ by Wan Chin, a political commentator, who said in his article,‘in terms of its modus operandi, happy protest is to face hardship, inspire and gather a crowd with contentment. It shall utilise the power of the crowd to make the suppressors fear, it shall spread the happy lifestyle of the public and thus make the suppressors ashamed and give in. By then we shall be freed.’ He disagreed with forced revolution back then,‘any beginning with forced protest would only make the disadvantaged even more frustrated: when the weaponry are so scanty and meagre as compared to the authority, it is a must to stir up an irrational hatred and an unprecedented war to annihilate humanity (e.g. terrorist attack), which shall only sacrifice many fellows. The authority would only put together an even more well-knitted ideology and implement even more brutal means.

‘Happy protest’ had quite a good impact at the first place, namely the much awareness raised after the 5-constituency asceticism during the protest against the XRL. Some of its participants are still pivots in social movements nowadays. But as time goes by, doubts have been casted on the effectiveness of such peaceful protesting means. People who are in favour of such means may even be called as ‘retards’.

The farmers’ image of militant charging has been influencing our local social movements bit by bit. While it was asceticism on this side, seizure of metal barricades and siege of the LegCo building were exactly the other side of the scene. There was even suggestion of occupying streets and roads (though it was rejected eventually).

After the WTOMC protest, grabbing barricades become one of the must-do in social activism, and is a symbol of "being radical". (left: Apple Daily)
The League of Social Democrats was formed in 2006 representing the proportion of radical democrats in Hong Kong politics. Three members of the League even became legislative councillors in 2008, enabling struggle with cooperation inside and outside of the Council.

Member of the League have had various so-called ‘radical’ actions over the years, namely ‘hurling bananas’or‘throwing eggs’at government officials. Apart from such radicalness in action, the League also initiated the ‘Five Constituencies Referendum’ with the Civic Party in 2010, which was regarded as a new attempt in Hong Kong democratic development. Though the League was split into two and led to the formation of the People Power in 2011, radical actions in the council and struggles on streets have never come to an end with ever growing support. In 2012, the People Power, the League and some independent councillors initiated a filibuster, shelving the new ministerial line-up proposal. Filibuster has also been adopted ever since by radical councillors as a usual practice in protest in the Council.

Hong Kong politics has only gone more gloomy after CY Leung took office. The Umbrella Revolution was the only result when the Hong Kong government ordered the police force to shoot tear gas grenades at the crowd gathering around the government headquarters on 28th September 2015 due to their opposition to the 31st August framework.

The Umbrella Revolution was regarded by quite a number as a milestone in Hong Kong social movement due to the various rare or even unprecedented protesting means adopted ever since the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong. Examples include self-initated blockade of roads leading to the total paralysis of all major highways in Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay and roadblocks reinforced with concrete and bamboo scaffolding.

Left: Breaking the glass of LegCo complex with barricade in Umbrella Revolution, 2014;
Right: Scrambling over barricades and shields in Korean farmers' protest, 2005.

Besides, protesters started to beware of the importance of self-defence. They purchased helmets, home-made shields and protective gears for cycling to defend against batons. They also protected their eyes from pepper spray with umbrellas, goggles or cling wrap. Face masks or even gas masks were used against tear gases.

Protesters even started having a sense to ‘attack’ instead of mere defending. Of course it was not like how the Korean farmers fought with the police in hand-to-hand combat or attacked with metal rods, but they did form L-shape bulwark and pressed against the police as how the Korean farmers had done. When the LegCo complex was charged, even though it stirred up much controversy, some might even criticise those initiators as ‘spies’, it shows that quite a number of people were no longer satisfied with symbolic radical actions like ‘hurling bananas’. They demanded and initiated more direct actions.
Left: Barricade bulwark in Umbrella Revolution; Right: by Korean farmers (Apple Daily)

These were never possible in the past ‘strolling demonstration’.

Localism has been on the rise since 2011 which even raised criticisms on traditional pan-democrats demonstration or even social movements led by the left wing. Wan Chin, the proposer of the City-state Discourse, said,‘the failure of the anti-XRL protest in 2009 was mostly due to its difficulty in carrying out populist promotion as a result of its relation with China's assimilation in Hong Kong, forced relocation of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen and agricultural conservation. Even though various means, i.e. filibustering, asceticism and conservation participation (I also assisted the post-80s social movement and proposed tactics in the ‘happy protest’) were used, it still ended in failure. I reflected for quite a while after that and made use of my own populist method in handling conflicts on China's assimilation in Hong Kong. Since then I went separate ways with the Post-80s social movement leaders. I made my decisions in 2012 on various matters -- to use populism or not, to summarise my discourse or uphold all truth, to succeed or fail and to protect Hongkongers’ livelihood or my own reputation. Many people has since recognised my changes. I am no longer all kind.’

He gradually constructed his own localist discourse since the start of the incident concerning the‘Action Plan for Livable Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary’ and proposed the brand-new ‘valorous struggle’. Such is certainly a backlash to his formerly proposed ‘happy protest’, a criticism on past social movements which were only ‘peaceful, rational, non-violent and non-swearing’ (PRNN). People now must make a change in society through threatening the government with blood shed on and conflict with the police and the government.

Theory on valorous struggle has gained widespread support from youngsters. The direct confrontation between the crowd and the police force at Mong Kok during the Umbrella Revolution is regarded as an example of ‘valorous struggle’. Apart from that, one can also see light of valorous struggle from the restoration activities against parallel trading.

There is yet criticism on the bad impression on citizens that militant struggle may create and its damage on the image of democratic movement. Some also claimed that while the proposers of militant struggle never took the lead at the front and led the charge, they stirred up supporters to be mere ‘pawns’.

Saying Korean farmers enlighten the protection awareness of Hongkongers directly might not be so accurate, as Hongkongers already know what to do when the cops are pepperspraying. (Apple Daily)

Taking separate ways, or it is ‘all roads leading to Rome’?
Supporters of ‘happy protest’ and ‘valorous struggle’ have been criticising, teasing or being hostile towards each other in current social movements. The animosity may even be deeper than with the pro-Beijing camp. Both criticise one another’s tactics to be useless or may be counter-productive. Yet looking back at the display of the anti-WTOMC movement by the Korean farmers, we can see a total combination of ‘peacefulness, rationality and non-violence’ and ‘valour’: Korean 'aunties' gave out flowers and balloons to the police on one hand, digressed from the designated route when the police were inattentive or even assaulted them on the other; they influenced the passers-by with the pathetic asceticism, and attracted the media attention through physical confrontation at the same time.

Besides, a controversy over whether the crowd need any organisation or a stage with a leader has always been raised during the Umbrella Revolution. The Korean farmers’ manoeuvres were well organised and trained, who had even examined the venue and street environment before the WTO Ministerial Conference was held, according to the information from a participant; they also rehearsed their manoeuvres in their residing holiday camps during their period of protest in Hong Kong. Their actions were all well planned and drafted, considering the reaction from the locals. As Dae Jang-geum was then popular in Hong Kong, they thus played its theme song.

Both soft and hard approaches were adopted by the Korean farmers. While seizing the shields from the police, they returned right after the demonstration; flowers were given on one hand, fight was in the air on the other. They took different means according to the situation. No matter it was the militant or conciliatory side, they never criticised one another and cooperated closely together.

Militancy and peacefulness may seem to be two separate ways, they actually go back to one single path. Struggles in Hong kong yet further divide the two. Will there ever be a day when the two can be joint and their might can be fully manifested?

1 comment:

  1. Honestly, the Korean farmers' WTO protests didn't impress me. Their theatrics failed. You have to understand the history of political protest in Korea to put their protest-style, or "tactics" if you will, in context. I rather highlight extremely successful WTO protests in Seattle which actually succeeded in stopping the WTO meetings in Seattle completely and postponed the WTO implementation for nearly 2-years. Most importantly, the WTO protests in Seattle were nonviolent protests. Discussing violence as a tactical option in the age of police militarization, mass surveillance and terrorism hysteria is very short-sighted. Maintaining the moral high ground is essential for protestors. I can't fault the Korean farmers. Most of them were older men doing the only thing they knew how to do. To be successful, study successful actions. Successful actions are actions that achieve their objective. The nuclear option for Hong Kong democracy are boycotts. Massive boycotts. You have to conceive, organize, publicize and implement boycotts that hit the Hong Kong and Beijing elite most. In their wallets. Ghandi's protest against UK colonization was based on boycotts. MLK's protests was based on boycotts. Did you just witness reddit action against their new interim CEO? It was boycott. Within 5-days of the action starting she was fired. Hit their wallets. They'll start paying attention. Fast.