Hong Kong: when the citizen-birds rebel

A Buddhist monk releases birds, symbolizing the spirits of the victims of the 2004 tsunami. This Chinese tradition of analogy was taken up by the demonstrators in Hong Kong. Samantha Sin/AFP

While the current protests in Hong Kong bear some similarities with other popular uprisings around the world – in Lebanon, Algeria, Bolivia, Chile or even France – observers have noted specific characteristics that set apart those in Hong Kong.

The unrest in Hong Kong began in March 2019 after the city’s governor, Carrie Lam, introduced a bill that would allow citizens to be extradited to the People’s Republic of China, of which Hong Kong is part under special administrative status with a high degree of autonomy. The controversial bill was withdrawn in September, yet the movement continued, with protesters demanding the right to directly elect their government. This was a promise made by the United Kingdom after the 1997 handover of its formal colony, but since has been indefinitely delayed by China.

Hong Kong citizens are concerned about their increasingly uncertain future and in response have invented new forms of solidarity. Small groups of hyper-connected youth and students have been joined by other segments of the population such as union workers or even expatriates.

Less noticed by observers are the explicit references to nature in two of the movement’s mottoes, “Be Water” or “Blossom everywhere”. Both inscribe the Hong Kong protests into a specifically Chinese cultural space.

A fluid conception of collective action

A number of media have highlighted the connection between the motto “Be water” and the memory of Bruce Lee, the hero of the Hong Kong movie industry who made kung-fu globally famous. In the 2000 documentary A Warrior’s Journey, Lee quotes a line he wrote for the 1970s TV film Longstreet: “Be formless, shapeless, like water”. This motto is inspired by an ancient principle of tai chi chuan: to control one’s inner energy, it must be perceived as water circulating throughout the body.

By encouraging protesters to spread rapidly when police arrive, the Hong Kong movement has adopted a fluid conception of collective action that is deeply inscribed in the Chinese tradition.

“Be water, my friend”, Bruce Lee.

The second motto, “Blossom everywhere”, is an unexpected echo of one of the slogans of the Maoist period. In 1956 Mao Zedong launched the “Hundred Flowers Campaign”, which encouraged Chinese citizens to openly express their opinions about the new communist regime: “Let hundred flowers blossom! Let hundred schools dispute!” (Bǎihuā qífàng, bǎijiā zhēngmíng). The campaign was an unexpected success – so much so that it was severely repressed the following year by Mao himself.

When the Hong Kong protesters subvert a Maoist slogan to protest against a regime that claims to be fulfilling Mao’s dream of a unified and developed China, they are borrowing from a tradition that belongs to the long history of China.

Nature as a source for criticism

At first glance, these two mottoes may seem contradictory. “Be water” refers to an element that is invisible and yet permanent, evoking the durability of the movement. On the other hand, “Blossom everywhere” refers to beings that are highly visible yet ephemeral, conveying the vulnerability of the protests. Rather than contradictory statements mixing the orders of nature and culture, these mottoes are performative statements through which Hong Kong citizens learn to perceive their collective environment in new ways.

The explicit reference to nature by protesters, who are highly aware of the current environmental crisis, bears an analogy with the thinking of alternative movements in France, who advise their members to “think like a jaguar” or like a forest. But instead of borrowing animist concepts from Amazonia, Hong Kong protesters follow their own Chinese traditions.

In an upcoming book presenting ethnographic research conducted in southern China in the last 12 years, I show that Hong Kong citizens have identified themselves with birds since 1997, the year when the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty and when the first cases of the influenza virus H5N1 emerged among humans and birds.

Bird market in Hong Kong. Frédéric Keck, Author provided

Such an identification was highly ambivalent, since it could focus either on domestic chickens, which were slaughtered by the millions in an attempt to blunt the spread of the disease, or on wild birds, suspected to carry viruses, although they were rarely infected because they carry the virus asymptotically.

Bird-citizens

The Hong Kong citizens I met during my research often compared themselves with birds to convey their contradictory feelings of living in tiny apartments like chickens trapped in the cages, and yet being able to escape like migratory birds by flying with planes all over the world. Such an ambivalent identification is clearly visible in the film made in 2008 by Johnnie To , Sparrow.

Trailer from the movie Sparrow, 2008.

In 1997 the Hong Kong government ordered the slaughter of all poultry living on its territory – 1.5 million chickens, roosters, ducks, geese and quails – and citizens perceived the killing as a violent demonstration of China’s new sovereignty over the city.

A traditional Chinese saying goes : “Kill the rooster to scare the monkey” (shā jī xià hóu). Hong Kong citizens considered that chickens and other birds were the sacrificial victims of a political spectacle offered by the Chinese sovereign to its new subjects, warning them that they could be next on the list.

Such a sacrificial interpretation of what seems like a radical yet legitimate public health measure resonates with the current motivations of the most engaged Hong Kong demonstrators, who say that they are ready to die to denounce China’s power, as a previous generation of students did in Beijing in 1989.

The 1989 repression at the Tiananmen Square (INA).

Symbols, sacrifice and active images

This is where the symbols used by the protest movement in Hong Kong distinguish it from others around the world. In 1989, the students in Beijing built a “Goddess of Democracy” (zìyóu nǚshén), based on the US Statue of Liberty. They placed it in front of the People’s Assembly and the Forbidden City. Such gesture implied an opposition of Chinese and Western symbols. The act prompted the Chinese government, led by Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, to justify the repression of the protest movement and to erase it from the memories of the Chinese population.

An art student works on the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ statue in Tiananmen Square on May 30, 1989. Catherine Henriette/AFP

But the Hong Kong citizens mobilise active images rather than cultural symbols – that is, images through which they act like natural elements to divert the forces of the police. In the same way, when they wanted to criticise the precautionary measures taken by the Hong Kong government against bird flu, they identified not with the chickens that were massively slaughtered but with migratory birds that fly across borders. Rather than becoming sacrificial victims of the Chinese government, they see themselves as sentinels of the global environmental crisis.

Analogical thinking has dominated the Chinese tradition. It was centred around the sacrificial operation through which the “ten thousand beings” composing the world are made to hold together. Yet as anthropologist Philippe Descola has shown, it is also compatible with some forms of animism, which contest and subvert the polarities of analogism.

Following this hypothesis, I suggest that the Hong Kong citizens have reinserted animism within analogism. Similarly, some alternative movements in France, such as the successful struggle against the construction of the Notre-Dame des Landes airport, reinserted animism within naturalism.

When they identify with water, flowers or birds, Hong Kong citizens contest from inside the sacrificial power of Chinese sovereignty. While anthropology is neither a predictive science nor a universalist model, we can bet that their movement has a future, and that it concerns every human being.


Created in 2007 to help accelerate and share scientific knowledge on key societal issues, the Axa Research Fund has been supporting nearly 600 projects around the world conducted by researchers from 54 countries. To learn more, visit the site of the Axa Research Fund.

This article was originally published in French

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