BRISBANE: The battle for domination of the physical and digital public realms has been crucial to the fortunes of the Hong Kong protesters. Their overwhelming numbers in the tense stand-off has captured our attention over the past eight weeks.
However, there are less obvious dynamics at work as protesters use public space – both physical and digital – to maintain their advantage.
Hong Kong protesters have drawn the world’s attention to the fragile state of play in this Special Administrative Region of China. As many as 2 million people, out of a population of 7.5 million, have poured into the streets, protesting the erosion of their special status.
These protests have been remarkably effective in the face of a stubborn Hong Kong leadership, which has for now backed down on a contentious proposal to make it easier to extradite Hong Kong residents to mainland China.
In physical terms the public realm means places to gather freely with diverse others with high visibility. This makes them a focus for expressions of public conviction.
Many great cities of the world contain iconic public places, such as Taksim Square in Istanbul, the National Monument in Jakarta, Trafalgar Square in London and, of course, Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But not all of these places qualify as functioning public realms.
TAKING TO THE STREETS
Hong Kong, one of the most densely built and populated cities in the world, has few recognisable public places. None is capable of holding even a fraction of the numbers of protesters that have mobilised.
For that reason, crowds have taken to the streets. These are usually a degraded form of public space, but protesters have turned them from thoroughfares for vehicles to a public realm, allowing a show of willpower.
The protests have been well-organised and until last week were free from violence. The involvement of alleged China-backed triad criminals escalated the risk for ongoing demonstrations and the fragile public realm in Hong Kong is now threatened.
SEIZING THE DIGITAL SPACE
The success of the protests is not entirely dependent on the use of physical space. The speed and coordination of the protests would not have been possible without access to a public realm in the abstract.
We see it in an active press, and in the ability of protesters to communicate with each other quickly and freely through the digital public realm provided by social media and encrypted messaging apps.
The sheer volume of people on the streets implied spontaneous anarchy. However, the use of social media, even in the presence of surveillance by security forces and media, enabled organisers and protesters to retain a tactical advantage.
They have been using anonymous calls in encrypted chat applications like Telegram and Signal to coordinate efforts. These apps allow users to create public and anonymous channels to share information, as well as smaller, more private, group chats.
The protest was coordinated visibly on LIHKG, an online forum that ranks posts by popularity in a similar manner to Reddit. These forums allow protests to move fluidly and quickly, responding to changing conditions on the ground.
Protesters used social media to rapidly distribute photos to counter security authorities’ attempts to underestimate crowd numbers to downplay the strength and size of the opposition.
They have also taken effective evasive measures. These included simple physical acts such as standing in huge queues at the Metro for paper tickets to avoid being tracked on transit smart cards.
Protesters also used umbrellas, face and eye masks to prevent facial recognition and to shield themselves from teargas attacks and drone surveillance.
The digital public realm has been used successfully in other contexts as a potent intensification of physical protest. Digital spaces can amplify, broadcast and coordinate physical action.
For example, social media catalysed the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. In 2016 Philando Castile’s death was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend after police shot him through the open window of his vehicle. Twitter was used extensively to publicise and coordinate the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.
Urban protests in many cities, like Hong Kong, are defined by their limited access to sanctioned public space. The co-opting of other public commons like highways and inner-city roads becomes necessary.
Public space does not always look the way we imagine it. When access to public space is untenable, protesters with sufficient will can turn privatised or commercial space into a new public realm.
The Hong Kong protests have turned the international airport terminal into a temporary public realm for this purpose. The “yellow shirt” protesters did the same in Bangkok in 2008.
The continued visibility of these public sites and the desire by security forces to close down protest create an uneasy stand-off, testing authorities’ resolve to respond under international scrutiny.
There is now more to the public realm than just a place to gather.
Peter Walters is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of Queensland. Naomi Smith is lecturer in Sociology at the Federation University Australia. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.