The Birth of a Meme: “I Want True Universal Suffrage” in Hong Kong
Jack Linchuan Qiu
In the morning of 23 October 2014, a group of 14, calling themselves “The Hong Kong Spidie”, arrived atop the Lion Rock mountain overlooking Kowloon Peninsula at the heart of Hong Kong. They unfurled a huge banner and stabilized it next to the "lion head" -- the shape of the mountain resembles a crouching lion holding its head up -- so that everyone looking from Kowloon could see their message: "I want true universal suffrage"!
Written in black against bright yellow background, this is a vertical banner of 6mx26m (20x85 feet), as tall as a 10-story building. It has five gigantic Chinese characters: 我要真普選, meaning word-by-word: "I want true universal suffrage". Above the message is the sketch of an umbrella, symbol of the uprising in town; beneath it, an all-cap Twitter hashtag: #UMBRELLAMOVEMENT.
With this simple message calling for democracy, the Lion Rock banner, as it came be known, turned out to be an iconic symbol for the Umbrella Movement, in mediated spaces and in the streets, attracting torrents after torrents of creative energy to this definitive meme of Hong Kong protest. Memes are symbols that traverse contexts, adapting and evolving beyond particular moments of a communicative act, for instance, a specific moment in digital activism. The question is, how and why does this banner become such an influential meme? What exactly does it mean to the Hong Kong people? What can be learned from its spread that reflects both unique features of the local political culture and more general patterns in comparison with protests else where such as the Arab Spring?
As the Deterritorial Support Group comments on the memetic value of Tahrir Square, Cairo: "really successful meme occurs when one of those ideas [communicated by the meme] chimes massively with the population it encounters, summing up a shared or individual experience or viewpoint to the extent that users wish to perpetuate it as somehow representative of their position, often amending it slightly on it’s way”. So what are the ideas that the Lion Rock banner hope to convey?
In their YouTube manifesto, the Spidies announced that their act “aims to redefine the beauty of the ‘Spirit of Hong Kong people’ – not merely shown in the city’s economic growth but in the recent Umbrella Movement to demand for democracy and universal suffrage.” On October 20, Hong Kong Chief Executive Chun-Ying Leung told international media that his administration cannot support full democracy because they fear the poor working class could become dominant. This spurred the Spidies. According to their spokesperson, “We were shock by CY Leung’s view point that the poor should not have equality in election, and hope this action (of unfolding the banner) would be able to call public attention on the importance of universal suffrage.”
Using this statement, the Spidies connect the democratic appeal of the Umbrella Movement with deeper, structural issues of the city, especially its economic disparity. According to a 2009 UNDP report, Hong Kong has the most unequal economy of the developed world. In March 2014, the Economist ranks Hong Kong as the world’s No.1 paradise of crony capitalism. The lack of democracy stems, at least in part, from appalling income disparity. Yet CY Leung tried to use economic inequality to justify manipulated elections. What a false tautology!
Defying Leung’s argument, the banner shows to the world that citizens of Hong Kong not only want genuine choice in selecting their leaders. Their struggle is, more fundamentally, a step towards economic democracy, towards larger goals of both liberty and equality. The appeal echoes Occupy movements elsewhere globally, blending social media and youth politics with the fight for social justice, creating a new wave of pro-democracy activism that since 2011 has been sweeping Asia and the world. In Hong Kong as in Tahrir Square, it may look like another uprising of the Liberal type. But under scrutiny, the currents of Left activism are clearly palpable as Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny (2014) contended with regard to the fundamental role of organized labor during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
Locally, the gigantic banner stroke at its very heart the official discourse on what it means to be a Hong Kong’er, represented in this case by the Lion Rock mountain whose symbolic significance is key to Hong Kong identity. The result was nothing less than re-branding the city, the semi-autonomous region now set in stark contract with China mainland under Beijing’s tight control. In so doing, the Spidies ambushed the authorities from a moral high ground, figuratively and literally from atop the Lion Rock mountain.
Lasting 79 days from 28 September 2014, the Umbrella Movement has been noted for being exceptionally prolific at producing memes and artistically symbols. Why? At least three reasons. Compared to Occupy elsewhere, what happened in Hong Kong was relatively less violent due to the movement’s paramount emphasis on civil disobedience. The police did crackdown, but overall the authorities exercised restraint to reduce bloodshed. A postindustrial society with almost saturated Internet diffusion, Hong Kong has thousands of angry youth, who are digital natives familiar with memetic communication — not only with fellow citizens but talking in their own innovative ways back to Beijing, the ultimate authority deciding Hong Kong’s democratic future.
The iconic symbols of the yellow umbrella, pop songs old and new, parodies, caricatures … the movement spawned many memes. Some of them had practical utility like the umbrella shielding protestors from the police’s pepper spray. Some were more of a universal symbol like the yellow ribbon calling for the release of arrested student leaders. Some born with pure serendipity, some with much ambiguity.
The Lion Rock banner is, however, one of its kind. It makes little practical sense and probably won’t travel far beyond Chinese communities. But the Spidies designed and executed it with an explicit goal so that, to ordinary Hong Kong’ers, there is nothing ambiguous. It sends the clearest message of democracy while re-claiming Hong Kong identity from the ruling class. After all, it is the working people, the poor whom CY Leung fears, who define the spirit of this great city.
The Lion Rock banner drew its clarity and memetic power from a popular TV series dating back to the 70s, “Under the Lion Rock”. Produced by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the local public broadcaster, it has more than 200 episodes using social-realism approach to depict working-class lives in Hong Kong, then a city of refugees, especially migrants who fled mainland China and was trying to make a living through hard labor. They were poor and could only afford to live at the foot of the Lion Rock mountain, an area of working-class communities. Hence the theme song of the series, also named “Under the Lion Rock”, ends with these famous line:
Rough terrain no respite, hand in hand we work hard to overcome adversities and create Hong Kong’s success that shall for ever lasts
Sang by Roman Tam, the “Godfather of Cantopop”, this song outlived the TV series and became so widely influential that it has been regarded as the informal anthem of Hong Kong, the former British colony returned to Chinese rule since 1997 under the “one country, two systems” political arrangement. But soon after the handover, Hong Kong was hit by the Asian Financial Crisis. Things worsened due to mismanagement by the administration and the SARS epidemic. Shopping malls were half-empty; news of bankruptcy-caused suicides became common. Under such circumstances, Anthony Leung, Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, quoted lyrics from “Under the Lion Rock” in his 2002 annual budget address; so did Zhu Rongji, then Premier of China, on his visit to Hong Kong. The message was that Hong Kong people should continue to endure economic hardship, keep their heads down while working hard, and have faith in the political system under the auspices of Beijing. The song of Hong Kong grassroots was thus hijacked to sing a conservative tune of neoliberal ethics.
A tent at occupied Mongkok district in Kowloon, where four versions of the Lion Rock banner were on display along with the message: “construction workers support students” (author’s photo)
Designs derived from the Lion Rock banner including sticker, calendar, and t-shirt (author’s photo)
Unfurling the banner on 23 October 2014 marked a key moment that reversed the statist re-appropriation of the Lion Rock symbolism since 2002. In so doing, it returned what officials call “Hong Kong spirit” to its working-class origin decades ago while adding to it the pursuit of democracy, justice and equality. The message was clear and its effectiveness way beyond expectations.
Via FaceBook, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and Instagram, images of the Lion Rock banner started going viral as the Spidies came down the hill. The banner was instantly recognized as a key image representing the Umbrella Movement. It was remediated via major newspapers and TV stations in town, including their traditional and online versions, and more importantly, a dozen alternative Internet opinion platforms such as the Dash and InMediaHK, which had gained influence since the beginning of the uprising. News organizations such as Apple Daily also produced an aerial video using drones flying over the Lion Rock mountain.
The Hong Kong government removed the banner due to considerations of “public safety”, but by then the meme had developed a life of its own. It was more than the banner, now reproduced and hung from countless office buildings, classroom windows, and scenic points around town. Along with famous pop singers, thousands at Occupy Hong Kong sang “Under the Lion Rock” while waving their smart phones. Art pieces such as t-shirts and calendars were created on the basis of the banner. A group of students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong even created a moving image of a running lion and projected it over their campus. This was a constant process of memetic communication, when creative energies were exchanged and accumulated from offline, high on the mountains and low in the streets, to various domains of social media, from news reports and online videos to twitter conversations and discussion groups.
According to my survey of 309 protestors on November 15, 89.3% of them recognize the Lion Rock banner as representative of the movement as a whole. Trailing only the symbols of the yellow umbrella (95.7%) and the yellow ribbon (92.1%), this is much higher than all other protest memes such as the song “Upholding Our Umbrella” (70.9%), the Umbrella Man statue (50.2%), and the Guy Fawkes mask (20%).
The banner became central to the self-identification of the movement because the Spidies intentionally used it to stimulate remediation and adaptation. Of the 14 Spidies, only 5 climbed down the cliffs of the Lion Rock mountain on October 23. The other 9 took care of logistics and, above all, debating, designing, producing, and disseminating the meme. Although most of them did not know each other until they met in an online discussion forum, it was no coincident that the group called themselves “Spidies” referring to both their climbing skills and the Spiderman movie, particularly the heroism of protecting a great city against evil invaders. Other than the YouTube manifesto, the Spidies also made a professional video showing “behind the scene” footage of them unfurling the huge banner. It went online in a matter of hours after the banner was up, showing excellent coordination and efficiency of the group. The faces of Spidies were, for example, already blurred in the video to keep the police from knowing who they were
Although by December 15 the authorities had cleared up the three main Occupy sites, to this day versions of the Lion Rock banner are still seen in the streets, residential communities, and on university campuses. The Spidies — no one knows if they are the same group or not — have kept up with their defiant acts by unfolding more banners on this and other mountain tops of Hong Kong. They did it over and again on the Lion Rock mountain on 29 December 2014 and on 3 January 2015, calling for true universal suffrage from this symbolic moral high ground of Hong Kong identity. So far the government has failed to hunt down a single Spidie.
Even less successful was the official effort to counter the meme of the Lion Rock banner, and they have decisively lost this strategic battle of symbolism. “The (former officially-sanctioned) spirit of the Lion Rock mountain promoted blind toiling and hard work under a social system that is unjust and exploitative,” wrote Ben Lam, a local commentator. “We cannot be brainwashed by this old Lion Rock spirit any more. Social problems need collective solutions rather than blind worshipping of self-salvation. Otherwise, the fruits of Hong Kong people’s labor will continue to be exploited by the unjust system, by the government, the rich, and the big corporations.”
Such is the birth of a meme, so powerful and infectious, with so much historical resonance from its origins in a grassroots TV series and its theme song, with so many twists and turns in official rhetoric and local protest culture, that it has come to define a movement, and re-define a people — their perseverance, their creativity, their new and old modes of mediated activism, and their struggle for democracy.
Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny (2014). Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. London: Zed books.