On Friday, for the fourth time in two weeks, protesters took to Hong Kong’s streets, responding to the government’s failure to withdraw a controversial extradition bill. Since there was no large space for the protesters to gather, Hongkongers had to be strategic. They peacefully surrounded and shut down the branches of power that most threatened their sovereignty: the legislature and the police.
In a city with limited room that has been defined by three decades of protest, the spaces that do exist are politicized in a way that is seldom seen anywhere else. It is impossible to read urban protest in Hong Kong without also noticing the city’s urban design. These demonstrations are no exception. The city itself has become a player in these protests, folding around demonstrators a in way that conveys their very message: that Hong Kong has a unique, immutable identity.
The images that have emerged from last Sunday’s march — of a “sea of black” filling a six-lane thoroughfare, sidewalks, overhead pedestrian bridges and alleyways — evoke a sense of togetherness that was born in the tight corridors of space winding around high-rises. They reflect the stubbornness that has made Hong Kong’s protesters so resilient to the obstacles in their way and remind viewers of Hong Kong’s distinctness from both China and the Western world.
Hong Kong was not designed to have expansive civic squares or wide boulevards like Washington, Cairo or Beijing. It was certainly not meant to backdrop large occupations. The way Hong Kong grew upward and inward should have impeded political sit-ins and rallies of dissent. Yet the precise physical barriers meant to stifle protest have instead given them even more poignancy.
Though the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has flagged crackdowns on civic space as an abuse of human rights, the government has tried time and again to limit public space: fencing off Civic Square, renegotiating the number of traffic lanes allocated to marchers and relocating where protests can begin in Victoria Park, sometimes forcing protesters out of the park altogether. Authorities even designed the new government complexes in a way that precluded mass gatherings — despite ostensibly modeling the government headquarters on an “open door.” By surrounding the buildings with a network of roads and a park that could easily be blocked off, the government likely thought it could control any protests that might arise.
But the more Hong Kong’s government attacks access to protest space, the more creative its people have become. When the police cracked down on the student-led class boycott in Tamar Park in 2014, the students resettled on the adjacent Tim Mei Avenue. Later, when the government tried to close off the small space that eventually became Civic Square, it accidentally unleashed a storm that turned nearby roadways into a city of tents and umbrellas.
Protesters also learned to use the symbolism of Hong Kong’s structures to their advantage, targeting rallies to indicate who, or what, the city is protesting. Marches once concluded at the old Legislative Council building, but recently, China’s Liaison Office has become a popular destination of many demonstrations. Where the city once protested the leaders of Hong Kong, it is now increasingly protesting mainland China.
Ultimately, Hong Kong’s identity — the crux of these ongoing protests — has been indelibly shaped by the factors that molded the city and its urban design. The ongoing power struggle between Hong Kong’s authorities and residents can be read through the city’s urban landscape.
That is why the moments that capture Hong Kong’s unified resistance have resonated across the world. The ocean of rainbow tents, the flickering of 100,000 candles, the heads of 2 million people crammed in the narrow space between buildings — these snapshots tell a far deeper story than just politics can convey.
As Hong Kong prepares to dig in its heels, it is unclear what will happen. One thing, however, is certain: The city itself — a collage of people and umbrellas and ramshackle pastel buildings — will be on center stage.