About the Future in Times of Crises Be Water – Insights into the Hong Kong Citizen Protest Movement

Be Water
Graphic (detail): © Eric Siu

An interview with curator Joel Kwong and artist Eric Siu about solidarity, collective intelligence and being water during the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2019-2020.

In the summer of 2020, Hong Kong protesters struggling to safeguard their democracy were awarded the Golden Nica by Ars Electronica for their innovative and creative digital action. This was the first time in the prize’s 33-year history that it was awarded to an anonymous citizens’ movement. Eric Siu and Joel Kwong were behind the submission, Be Water, to Ars Electronica. In this interview we talk about the protest movement, its unique organisational strategies, and the things that keep Hong Kongers hopeful for the future.
Joel, Eric, you emphasize that you are just the "messengers" of Hong Kong’s talent and creativity. What made you submit the Be Water movement to the Ars Electronica award?
Eric: As a media artist I follow Ars Electronica closely. When in February 2020 I checked the website, I saw that the digital communities category description fit well with the Hong Kong protests. Hong Kongers were using digital technology to organize and connect to one another, building communities through super-creative digital means. Time magazine had discussed making the Hong Kong protesters their person of the year, so with the same logic I thought, could Hong Kongers win this award? I had the idea but did not know how best to do it. So I connected with Joel and she was like “Yeah let’s do it”.
“Be water” was one of the guiding principles of the protests. What does it stand for? How did it set the 2019 protests apart from earlier protests?
Eric: Actor, martial arts star and philosopher Bruce Lee said, “Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” To adapt to situations, keep transforming—keep a floating, organic behavior.

The movement was so fluid the police couldn’t catch them.

Eric Siu

This philosophy became important because we wanted a decentralized political movement. The Umbrella movement in 2014 was centralized, with leaders who were targeted by the regime. There were arguments and disagreements. It wasn’t effective, it led to a dead end. In 2019, the idea “be water” became the movement’s philosophy. During protests, strategies and decisions evolved organically, there was collective decision making. People protesting in one area would suddenly move to another location. It was so fluid the police couldn’t catch them.
“Be water” is also a methodology. In Hong Kong there is no single solution to a problem. There are ten thousand different approaches and solutions—from all people, from all different stakeholders. Technology like social media, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and online forums allow things to be discussed online and circulated very easily. We can vote, we can push, we can submit ideas.
During the protests there was this notion of “Climbing the mountain in different ways”. What were your individual roles in the protests? How were you climbing the mountain with all the others?
Joel: As Hong Kong citizens we were involved from the very beginning. We had no choice but to be involved.  Every year on the first of July we have a huge street protest where Hong Kongers strike for universal suffrage and the right to select our own leader. But back when the extradition bill was raised in early February 2019, lots of people didn’t know what was going on. We do not vote for the leaders that make bills like the extradition bill. Nobody stands for us, nobody speaks for the general public. At the beginning I just followed the news. Nowadays we have so many media channels, so many ways of being informed, that it takes some time to digest. Slowly, people started to understand what exactly was going on and what the people on the streets were fighting for.

After each time on the streets I felt helpless. Ten hours of protesting, sweating, shouting and exhausting myself, and when I came home and turned on the live news, it seemed as if our protests weren’t changing a thing. I personally felt huge confusion about that. Especially as a creative practitioner, I did not know what I could do. After many sleepless nights, thinking and reading the news, I started to document and archive news and social media articles. I started to do really simple things, like screen captures, keeping information in Excel and other simple formats. No matter where this whole thing would go, it would be history. So when Eric contacted me, I already had news in my pocket that would be useful for the submission.
Eric (who lives in Tokyo): I have been trying to raise awareness about the protests in Hong Kong, here in Japan. My experience is different because I couldn’t participate in the movement physically. I’m climbing the mountain in a remote way. At first I felt that it was all about action, about voicing out—that you have to be an activist, rather than an artist. However, there was excellent protest art on the streets in Hong Kong, online, and in calls to action. I began thinking of how my creativity, my talent can contribute to the movement. I started to think about how art can make change within a society, be a unique voice. I decided to use my skills for the Ars Electronica submission.
The same digital tools that people use to organize are used by the government to surveil and crack down on protests. What strategies did people use to share information and to organize? How did the protesters manage to hide their identities?
Joel: Let me give you an example. Every day, people build long pdfs, pictures and motion graphics to communicate what is happening where and why in ways that are easy to understand. Information is distributed via social media and AirDropped everywhere.
AirDrop is simple and anonymous. Many people don’t even remember they have switched it on. I remember the first time, when I was on the metro. Ping! Ping! My phone vibrated and within seconds I had 25 pages of material, promotions and information about the protests.
Throughout, we have not only used high tech, but technology in all ways. People from all walks of life could participate. On site, at protests, you could vote live on Telegram to decide which way the crowd moved. Though people had different roles (for safety, for supplying materials, for transportation), there is no leader. People throw in questions and vote, they see the results and decide what to do. It is very tangible. Ideas are not realized until executed, so people take initiative. And everyone is anonymous.

We have not only used high tech, but technology in all ways.

Joel Kwong

Eric: As the majority of protesters were from the younger generation, the adoption of tech was quick. They are very much digital natives. They learn very fast and then evolve the tools. People would make tutorials for older generations and explain tools to one another. They would always help each other.
What insights did you have about the use of technology?  What surprised you about those insights?
Eric: What I learned is that there are many different technologies, platforms and systems—and depending on the cause, you select the ones that work best. We have freedom of choice right now. However, most of the tech that is available in China is controlled by the government. You can use WeChat, Weibo and Baido—but not Google. News and information is not circulated like in other countries. It makes you think about the kind of world citizens experience.
Joel: For me another insight was how the general public became more digitally literate, more smart. Before the extradition bill, Hong Kong citizens were using whatever technology was available to them. Today, many understand the strategies and tactics behind the different tools and technologies. When I curate shows today, I realize the audience is more knowledgeable. The questions they ask are deeper than before.
Let’s talk about the situation right now. How have things changed from the first mass protest against the extradition bill to the introduction of the National Security law?
Joel: Before the law was introduced, people were discussing it on social media, trying to understand what it is about. Still we have no clear understanding—it is ambiguous, especially for the general public. As creative practitioners, all we can do is to go with the flow. My curation this year is about public investigations. What we have seen here in Hong Kong is that people started to document things. It has become so easy to live stream these days, people can use their smartphones to document arrests for example. No matter what situation you encounter, you can still do that.
Eric: The National Security Law is about self-censorship. At the beginning, when the law was launched, people were scared. Things slowed down and people stopped coming out. Arrests didn’t have big impacts and there was also COVID-19. But I feel that Hong Kongers never give up. The reaction to this law is very creative. When the government made the slogan “光復香港,時代革命” (“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times") illegal, people started to find creative ways to voice out—for instance developing a hidden messages by transforming the 8 Chinese character to 8 symbols as simple as 8 square[1] [2] [3] s. Everyone understands that 8 square means something. And when people couldn’t protest with slogans, they held up blank paper on the streets. There were tons of creative responses. As Joel said: go with the flow and at the same time try to find a way to continue to make your voice heard.
Are artists starting to censor themselves?
Eric: As an artist, I never thought I would self-censor, I would always be true to myself. Nowadays, because of the National Security law, I see self-censorship has become an art. This is very much “be water” thinking. When people are holding up blank paper, it somehow gives the message an even stronger voice. I would never have expected that. People ask me why I am still doing things for Hong Kong. “Are you not scared?” I reply that the more people are heard, the more difficult it will be for the regime to stop us. To stop one is easy, but to extinguish the fire of all the Hong Kongers, all around the world will be difficult. We will keep them busy. And if they are busy, it is safer for every single one of us.
What gives you hope in times of despair? What is something that will stay with you that the movement has taught you?
Joel: Hope is hope. The people around you are anonymous. You connect with them online, they have the same aspirations as you, the same thoughts. You know many people share the same values. This gives me hope for the future. There is a traditional Chinese saying, 魯迅說「世上本沒有路,走的人多了便成了路。」(“Lu Xun says, ‘There was never a road, but when many people walk it, the road comes into existence.’”) I think that is the spirit. Most of the time, we do not see a road, but there are lots of people walking around, trying to find one. When you find a way, people follow. That is “be water”. We have seen it happen before and it will happen again. So, keep walking.
Eric: It is really hard for me to define where the hope is. I agree that what we still have is the people, the Hong Kongers, their devotion. People keep asking me in interviews where this energy comes from. “Why do Hong Kongers have such devotion to the struggle?” I don’t know. We just love the city so much! We are different, we are special, we have the history that built us. Early on in the movement people said it would be for the long term. We won’t be winning in one year. Think about other revolutions that took 10-20 years to really happen. Or 50 years. I think Hong Kongers have prepared their minds and bodies to go through this. They are water, they know when to do what. The people who are part of this movement will never forget the images, the blood, the sweat, the difficulty, the tears—everything that we have gone through. Young to old—everybody knows the truth. It will be difficult for the regime to wash away these memories.
Perspectives on post-digital cultures © @rainbowunicornstudio © @rainbowunicornstudio A contribution of the interview and essay series About the Future in Times of Crises by Goehte-Institut and Superrr Lab.
Goethe-Institut e. V. / Superrr Lab