Edgy messages writ in 'hidden language'

City talk | Zhao Yan and Jerome Taylor 8 Jul 2020

Hongkongers are finding creative ways to voice dissent after Beijing blanketed the SAR in a new security law and police began arresting people displaying now forbidden political slogans.

Faced with the sudden threat of prosecution for anything that might promote greater autonomy or independence, residents are using word play and even subverting Chinese Communist Party dogma to express their frustration.

On a bridge in Causeway Bay - a key spot for pro-democracy protests - traffic thunders past newly daubed graffiti that declares: "Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves." The phrase is taken from the first line of the national anthem. And while the graffiti could conceivably have been written by a patriot, it is most likely a declaration of dissent.

Social media and chat forums have filled with suggestions for how to find safer ways to protest after Beijing last week imposed broad legislation that bans subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion.

In a place used to speaking its mind, people will find ways around the law, says Chan Kin-man, a veteran democracy advocate who has previously been jailed for his activism. "In a public space, one might either not say anything or use an 'officially approved' language to protect themselves," he says. "But hidden language is something that cannot be banned by laws."

The administration announced last week that since the popular protest slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" is now deemed illegal. For some, the phrase represents aspirations to split Hong Kong off from China - a red line - but for many others, it is a more general cry for democracy and an expression of rising frustration with Beijing rule.

But coded language is allowing people to keep the slogan alive. One version, "GFHG, SDGM," uses English letters from the transliterated phrase gwong fuk heung gong, si doi gak ming. Another more complex example mimics the tone and rhythm of the slogan using the numbers 3219 0246 in Cantonese.

Chinese characters themselves also provide ample room for linguistic subversion.

One phrase people have started adopting online is "seize back banana," a play on the similar characters in traditional Chinese for "Hong Kong" and "banana."

Others have gone for English slogans that appear positive but are a clear dig at Beijing - for example, the Trumpian phrase "Make Hong Kong Great."

The very first arrest made under the new security law involved a deliberate linguistic challenge.

During protests a day after the law was enacted, police announced they had arrested a man with a flag that read "Hong Kong Independence," posting a picture.

But eagle-eyed web sleuths zoomed in on the flag and spotted that a man had written a small "No" before his much larger phrase. The same phrase has since gone viral online.

Many restaurants and shops across the SAR have taken down their "Lennon Wall" displays expressing support for the pro-democracy movement after some were warned by police that they might violate the national security law.

The walls are often made up of colorful sticky notes with protest slogans on them. One cafe replaced its wall with blank memos.

"What is essential is invisible to the eyes," was written on the eatery's Facebook, citing popular children's book Le Petit Prince.

Another symbol of defiance that has replaced some protest art is the blank white page. That represents the inability to speak out and also "white terror" - a Chinese phrase used to describe political persecution.

"Suppression catalyzes people to fight back," says sociology professor Chan. He likens the situation with how people in the mainland reveal dissent or anger toward the government with a wink and a nod, adding: "Hong Kong people will definitely respond more actively. It's just that it might happen in a gray area."

A slogan that has gone viral is a Mao Zedong quotation: "Those who suppress the student movements will not come to a good end."


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