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Lessons from Serbia’s protesters to Hong Kong’s – celebrate your successes, however small

By Holly Fernyhough

This week, protesters at the Hong Kong International Airport printed out signs to apologise to tourists for Hong Kong’s current ‘sickness.’ Although these posters serve as a basic explanation of why there are ongoing acts of civil disobedience and protest throughout the city, they also express that many members of the anti-extradition movement are feeling a little dispirited.

Granted, the so-called “Symphony of Lasers” dance party on the August 6 raised the spirits of attendees, with even journalists getting in on the action and participating – perhaps somewhat unwillingly – in the festivities. But what followed that very same week, especially at the weekend, brought a new wave of frustration, grief and anger for the anti-extradition bill movement.

protesters apologising Hong Kong airport

A group of protesters apologising at the Hong Kong airport on August 14, 2019. Photo: Stand News.

Footage of protesters getting tear-gassed and arrested have become commonplace. Even those not especially well-connected on social networks such as Twitter or Telegram have likely seen posters of tear gas attacks stuck on Lennon Walls, or photographs in newspapers.

Yet the anti-extradition movement was not expecting to see photos of a young woman, bloodied and lying on the floor, alongside other photos showing the rubber bullet that pierced through her protective goggles, causing extensive damage to her right eye.

As if that wasn’t enough, Hongkongers watched in horror as riot police fired tear gas rounds inside the Kwai Fong MTR station to subdue retreating protesters on site. Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Tai Koo, many residents left their homes to complain at the police for storming the local MTR station in a similar bid to arrest fleeing protesters.

The protests in Hong Kong are into their 11th consecutive weekend, with tear gas and pepper spray used more and more regularly. Many protesters decided to occupy the Hong Kong International Airport for another day to voice their feelings and a new slogan of the movement emerged – “an eye for an eye.”

airport china extradition august 12

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The grisly and disabling nature of this woman’s injury has captured the imagination of protesters. In what seemed like a matter of hours, artwork and posters decrying the firing of rubber bullets and bean bag rounds emerged. That poor unnamed woman’s face has been printed and copied hundreds of times and posted on Lennon Walls throughout the city and at the airport.

Netizens were quick to comment on the spectacle, and word began spreading that the woman would lose her eyesight completely in the affected eye. At the time of writing, I am uncertain if this is the case and am desperately hoping that there is some way in which this woman can be spared losing her eyesight altogether.

This is a time when protesters are angry and upset. The sorrow on display is on par with the outpouring of grief shown when an alleged two million Hongkongers marched to the site of the suicide of Marco Leung, who fell to his death from upmarket shopping mall Pacific Place.

dead admiralty protester china extradition

Sunday, June 16. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This moment could indicate a turning point for the movement. Following ten consecutive weeks of protests, it would be easy to feel defeated or demoralised, especially as no acceptable concessions have been made by Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government.

If protesters do feel deflated, it might be time to consider the victories and achievements made thus far. One could argue that the general strike on August 5th was successful in the sense that the majority of the MTR network, which most Hongkongers are dependent on, suspended its services. The Cross-Harbour tunnel connecting Hong Kong island to Kowloon has been occupied multiple times, bringing traffic to a standstill (on one occasion protesters waved motorists through, waiving the toll booth fee).

Celebrating the successes of a movement is vital in ensuring its survival. Civic protest group Otpor, which eventually succeeded in overthrowing Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, recognised this. When political concessions were not granted after months of non-violent protests, they adopted a novel approach towards maintaining morale – they began to publicly announce their short-term goals, and celebrated loudly amongst themselves when they were achieved.

Otpor sign serbia

An OTPOR sign in Serbia in 2001. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Just some of their short-term goals included launching ten new chapters (groups of trained supporters within an area), and holding several simultaneous protests in different cities. Indeed, on one occasion they even occupied a road, blocking traffic for just long enough for the press to arrive and take photos, but short enough that by the time the police had mobilised to disperse the protesters, the roadblock had already been abandoned.

The entire occupation of the road lasted for a mere fifteen minutes. Regardless, Otpor publicised this as a monumental achievement, and thanks to many more morale-boosting moments, the movement was sustained for the two years it took for them to eventually oust what they saw as a corrupt government and overturn punitive, unjust policies.

These examples of civil disobedience will probably sound familiar if you’ve been paying attention for the past ten weeks. Although the anti-extradition movement is leaderless, with much of the organisation taking place in private social media conversations, if successes are trumpeted with the noise and fanfare a la Otpor in the early 2000s, perhaps morale will rise, oil will be added and maybe one day the anti-extradition bill group will join the likes of Otpor in being a victorious campaign.


Holly Fernyhough is a graduate of English and Philosophy and holds a PGCE in Religious Studies. She lives in Hong Kong and currently teaches English as an Additional Language and Philosophy.

Lessons from Serbia's protesters to Hong Kong's - celebrate your successes, however small