Gaze Against the Machine: Counter-visuality and hyperreal strategies in the Hong Kong protests
Footage circulated widely in August 2019 of a young woman with blood streaming from her right eye, a broken pair of protective goggles lying next to her on the crimson-smeared concrete. It is alleged that the injury resulted from police firing beanbag rounds into crowds of protestors during violent clashes in the touristic nightlife district of Tsim Sha Tui, in the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong. Emerging in response to a mooted Extradition Bill that would allow the deportation of those arrested to the Chinese mainland, the ongoing student-led protest movement found in these distressing images its most resonant, rallying icon of dissent.
While the unnamed woman, believed to be a volunteer medic, fought legally to maintain her anonymity, an approximation of her wounded face soon came to adorn posters, placards and all other manner of protest messaging. This includes the bodies of the protestors themselves, as the bandaged single eye become a widely adopted symbol of defiance. With many believing this injury was part of a deliberate police strategy of targeting eyes, demonstrators showed their indignation with chants, graffiti and tweets reading combative ocular slogans such as ‘an eye for an eye’, ‘#Eye4HK’ and ‘return the eye’.
The fact this particular injury gained such notoriety (in a protracted struggle with an increasing amount of them) illustrates a dynamic underscoring the entire movement: the conflicts between demonstrators and the authorities in urban Hong Kong are structured by a logic of visuality, seeing and being seen. Pondering the ubiquity of screens and digital images in the modern world, the prophetic philosopher of technology Paul Virilio once remarked “what shall we dream when everything becomes visible? We shall dream of being blind.” As the rebellious Hong Kongers seized upon the potent symbol of the wounded eye, we saw that blindness is not the dream but the nightmare, of all those resisting the gaze of a voyeuristic state machinery whose lenses do not sleep.
The shifting shape of dissent
The shape of the recent wave of protests in Hong Kong is markedly different to the so-called Umbrella Revolution of 2014, which emerged from the anti-inequality Occupy movements of the early 2010s. As the name suggests, the strategy of Occupy protestors around the world involved maintaining a conspicuous presence in urban spaces. The familiar motifs of the movement were the tent, the mass sit-in and giant banners draped across largely static assemblies. This time round, demonstrators switched tactics and adopted an ethos inspired by local legend and Kung-Fu star, Bruce Lee: “be water, my friend.” Similarly to 2014, the protests sparked by the Extradition Bill are largely leaderless and non-hierarchical, though unlike the Umbrella Revolution, demonstrators have eschewed tactics of occupation and obstruction in favour of a reactive, spontaneous and highly fluid form of urban protest.
Even in a world where rights are abused with impunity, political and economic pressure from the international community has significant influence on the fate of local protests, and Hong Kong’s tech-savvy, young protestors have remained acutely aware that media exposure plays a crucial role in their outcomes. Yet, while the eyes of China’s global trading partners may preclude the occurrence of another Tiananmen Square, the events in the region have inescapably played out against the backdrop of an agitated superpower with both the world’s largest carceral complex, and the most sophisticated surveillance network. Clashes on the streets between activists and authorities are ultimately concerned less with capturing space, or bodies, than images and identity.
In the wake of Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam introducing colonial-era ordinance laws in October 2019, to criminalise public assembly and ban face masks, the iconic seas of umbrellas first witnessed in 2014 have recently found new purpose. Initially deployed to shield the eyes of protesters from pepper spray, they now shield from the eyes of authority. Even before the recent imposition of a draconian National Security Bill, simply being picked out of a crowd carried the potential of ten years imprisonment, for the vague charge of ‘rioting’. Paul Mozur writes in the New York Times of the demonstrators’ outrage as “police removed identification numbers, presumably to keep violent conduct from being reported to city leaders” while concurrently “riot officers carried cameras on poles just behind the front lines as they fired tear gas and rubber bullets.” Complementing the familiar instruments of urban warfare with new photographic tools, the weaponisation of the image continues apace.
Hide in the present, seeking a future
In the cat-and-mouse display of wily protestors eluding a high-powered police force around the city, we have distinctly seen the features of what French philosopher Gregoire Chamayou deems the “militarised manhunt” in his seminal work Drone Theory, an “unconventional form of state violence” emergent in the twenty-first century that “combines the disparate characteristics of warfare and policing without really corresponding to either.” Like the internet and other everyday staples, manhunting as form of warfare was dreamed up in the Pentagon, in this instance, as part of the Bush administration’s so-called War on Terror following the September 11th attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda. The “contemporary doctrine of hunting warfare,” Chamayou argues, breaks with Carl Von Clausewitz’s classical definition of warfare, for it no longer resembles a duel “of two fighters facing each other” but “a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him”; the hostile relationship now “boils down to a game of hide-and-seek.” The prevalence of cameras in the street battles of Hong Kong illustrate Chamayou’s point that “the primary task is no longer to immobilise the enemy but to identify and locate it.” The doctrine of manhunting represents an attempt by powerful state forces to balance out the asymmetries of modern conflict and counter the development of spontaneous, and adaptable actions by non-state actors.
Chamayou insists the “strategy of militarized manhunting is essentially preventative,” a policy of “prophylactic elimination for which hunter-killer drones are the main instruments” and is “not so much a matter of responding to actual attacks but rather of preventing the development of emerging threats by early elimination of their potential agents.” This logic is evident in recent use of Hong Kong’s Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, which allows citizens to request their own data, barring broad exemptions for “the prevention or detection of crime.” Jennifer Creery has noted in the Hong Kong Free Press that police requests to local and foreign service providers for users’ information, under the auspices of “prevention and detection,” marked a “55 per cent rise from the year before,” while the number of requests to remove user information was “more than a hundred times higher.” Creery suggests that the latter increase “coincided with a hike in the number of complaints over doxxing,” the practice of non-consensually sharing personal information, which has been used to expose the identities of protestors, police and government bureaucrats alike. Whether overturning or enshrining privacy, the vague rationale of ‘prevention’ belongs to the realm of state-led manhunting.
The political rationale, according to Chamayou, that underlies these practices is one of “social defence.” This is clear in the way that authorities have routinely framed the protests in terms of terrorism. In September 2019, police chief superintendent Chun-Chung Tse spoke of murderous protesters with “suicide tendencies” and warned of “apparent signs that hardcore violence will escalate in the near future,” concluding that “all acts are one step closer to terrorism.” This kind of future-inflected language serves the purpose of legitimating any intrusive measure deemed preventative.
As the authorities employ the language of prevention, antiterrorism, and future threats, the protestors rely on face masks and umbrellas to avoid future retribution should their spontaneous actions be preserved in the permanence of footage. What the protestors flee from is not so much the immediate pain of tear gas or a rubber bullet, but the promise of a violence-to-come ingrained in each identifiable photograph. Prior to the British ‘handover’ in 1997, and its semi-autonomous designation following the end of a 99 year colonial lease, the historian Richard Hughes famously described Hong Kong as a “borrowed place on borrowed time.” The clashes on the streets over the past year have indicated the enduring presence of this uncertain, anxious futurity.
Going stir-crazy in a Smart City
The philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously considered the challenge posed by photographic representation to the ontological reality of conflict in his controversial 1991 text The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Baudrillard argued through intentionally provocative prose that operation Desert Storm was best understood as a carefully scripted media event which cannot be understood outside of its visual representation; indeed, the conflict on the ground was choreographed in real-time according to popular parameters of ‘good TV’. Baudrillard’s take on postmodern conflict did not mean to say that real events do not occur, but that they are subjected to the concerns of aesthetics and representation: “we are no longer in a logic of the passage from the virtual to the actual but in a hyperrealist logic of the deterrence of the real by the virtual.”
This deterrence of the real by the virtual was clearly at play in August 2019 as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army posted a three-minute video on social media of ‘anti-riot drills’. The slick propaganda video employed familiar action movie tropes, with mock confrontations set to dramatic music, aerial drone footage of amassed forces and video-game style first-person POV shots of home raids. The thinly veiled threat to the protestors was reinforced by the appearance a Hong Kong taxi and local Cantonese dialects. This belligerent simulation recalls Baudrillard’s idea that just as “wealth is no longer measured by the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” so war is not measured “by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract, electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.” The PLA’s threatening video was precisely this virtualised, speculative unfolding of conflict.
We see that the forces bent on repressing the Hong Kong protest movement operate in ‘the same space capital moves’ upon noting that it was in January 2020, at the height of the unrest prior to the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, that the Hong Kong city stock exchange approved plans for a 500 million dollar initial public offering from the Chinese tech company Megvii. The artificial intelligence giant, known for its facial recognition platform ‘Face++’, has been blacklisted by the US following alleged involvement in human rights violations related to the repression of the Uighurs, China’s Muslim minority population in the region of Xinjiang. From mocked-up frontlines to the backroom deals of the business world, the most ominous threats facing the Hong Kongers come from the slow descent of a virtual net.
In late August 2019, footage went viral of protesters using an electric saw to fell one of the city’s newly installed ‘Smart Lampposts’, which are equipped with not only lights but cameras and Bluetooth beacons. Those involved cited concerns over facial-recognition technology, echoing growing fears as private tech companies play an increasing role in developing urban infrastructure. Yuan Yang has noted in the Financial Times that “the moment the lamp post was felled, protesters scavenged components” to analyse their functions, with “one anonymous researcher warning that facial-recognition algorithms could run on any video footage with sufficient resolution, even if the cameras didn’t contain hardware that suggested links to facial-recognition firms.”
While the Hong Kong government has denied the cameras are facial recognition-equipped, law enforcement authorities are known to possess artificial intelligence software which can match faces in footage to police identity databases. Blake Schmidt writes in Bloomberg that police have “been able to use the technology from the Sydney-based iOmniscient for at least three years, and engineers from the company have trained dozens of officers on how to use it.” Carrie Lam’s administration have declined to clarify whether this software has been utilised during the protests. While the lamppost assault may have sought after evidence which did not exist, this event shone a light on the deep-rooted paranoia of a generation who increasingly feel that the built environment is poised against them.
The live-map precedes the territory
While the encampments of the Umbrella Revolution attempted to resist state power by physically realising new formations of urban space, the tenacity of the recent protests has owed much to innovative projects of digitally visualising the city as it stands. In words pertinent to Hong Kong, the postcolonial philosopher Edward Said famously argued that “maps are instruments of conquest” since they are “first drawn by the victors” throughout the history of colonial occupation, yet “geography can be the art of resistance if there is the counter-map.” In the unusual position of witnessing a protracted struggle for political independence after the end of colonial rule, it is notable that the protests have relied upon participatory and collaborative mapping of the city, by its own citizens and for their benefit.
Among the Hong Kongers’ most effective tools has been hkmap.live, an easily accessible digital blueprint of the city which is marked up in real-time with symbols to indicate the location of various hazards. As Mary Hui notes in Quartz, this volunteer-run public resource utilises a coded set of emojis including “a dog for police, a worker in a yellow hardhat for protesters, a dinosaur for the police’s black-clad special tactical squad, a white speech-bubble for tear gas, two exclamation marks for danger.” Known only by the pseudonym of Kuma, the founder of resource explained its necessity to Quartz in terms reminiscent of Chamayou’s manhunting paradigm: “the huge asymmetric information between protesters and officers led to multiple occasions of surround and capture.” HKmap.live signifies the protestors’ own understanding that the data-driven visualisation of space is a key tenet of contemporary civil disobedience. In the midst of unfolding protest activity, Hui writes, teams of volunteer “runners” disguised as regular passers-by work “with pen and paper on a clipboard,” or an iPad illustrator app, to “mark up a blank map” with their observations. The “integrator” in the control room then assembles these updates, “adding additional information from live-streams and news sources” to collate all available data at that moment into a single map.
Illustrating not just administrative boundaries but also the social phenomena which affect public life, this counter-cartography runs contrary to the reductive maps dictated throughout history by colonial powers. These were blunt tools of imperial will that marked straight lines through messy realities and measured land as a precursor to its exploitation. Nor does this technological visualisation of urban space accord to the logic of the private companies which have robbed states of their cartographic hegemony. Peter Alec Hall argues that space is “increasingly inscribed by software,” to the extent that “where we go, why we go and what we do is dictated” by our smartphone satellite navigation systems, with the world largely reduced to a “small horizonless screen” where “obstacles are a nuisance and overall orientation is sacrificed for the expediency” of the quickest, shortest possible route. Resources like hkmap.live do not index and nullify the unknown quantities of moving through space but enshrines their possibility. This is not a vision of the city borne from the passive, inhuman eye of the CCTV camera or the drone, but a vital and evolving terrain which shelters the contingency of protest as the authorities look to foreclose freedom of movement through force. Indeed, one integrator tells Quartz that this role is “a kind of a public service to people to know what the situation is so they can make their own decisions.”
Through its continual (re)production in real-time, the odd relation of live-mapping tools to physical space pointedly recalls Baudrillard’s notion of simulation. The philosopher’s most famous mantra is spelt out in cartographic terms, inasmuch as our image-saturated experiences of the world mean that “territory no longer precedes the map,” rather the “map precedes the territory”: “it is the map that engenders the territory.” Simulation refers precisely to this precedence of representation, producing a plane of hyperreality which is sheltered “from any distinction between the real and the imaginary.” HKmap.live operates according to this logic as the runners on the street mark up an image with their contributions towards the digital map, which in turn comes to dictate events on the ground as it forms the basis of demonstrators’ decision-making. That this process occurs in real-time means that the shifting contours of the map engender the shape of the territory and, in Baudrillard’s words, “it is now a principle of simulation, not reality, that regulates social life.” The projection of a symbolic digital visuality into the demonstrators’ perception of urban space serves to problematise distinctions of virtual/actual and short-circuits the cat-and-mouse strategies of the police. The improvised cartographers of hkmap.live melt down the solidity of the city and allow the Hong Kongers to be water, eluding the authorities in a maze of the hyperreal.
Watching the watchmen: from targeting to spectacle
While demonstrators have deployed technologically augmented modes of vision to avoid harmful confrontations, they have also found means to directly challenge the punitive gaze of the state. With their kaleidoscopic beams of light piercing through darkness like a scene from a science-fiction dystopia, laser pens have produced some of the most photogenic and media-friendly images of the protest movement. Against the threat of identification, protesters have routinely armed themselves with cheap and easily accessible laser pointers in order to disable facial recognition cameras and disorient police as the light refracts from their Perspex visors and riot shields.
When one activist was arrested after the police deemed his pens to be ‘offensive weapons’, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside a space museum to perform their own ‘laser show’ in the style of the daily light show organised by the local Tourism Board. Having no shortage of truly ‘offensive weapons’ themselves, the claims of the police were ridiculed as this frivolous performance quickly descended into a party of music and dance. This mesmerising visual spectacle did, though, encapsulate why the lasers may prove a potent tool of dissent. In the hands of the Hong Kong protesters, the laser pen not only blocks the surveilling gaze and denies its function of identification for punitive purposes, it also makes this operation plain to see and turns the logic of exposure against the system.
Drawing an unmistakably eye-catching line of sight through the air, laser pens draw our attention to the innumerable acts of targeting to which we are subjected every day, and yet which remain invisible. A natural counterpart to the disembodied, all-seeing modes of airborne visuality which have defined military perspective since World War II, the logic of targeting has increasingly seeped in to the everyday. Ian Shaw and Majed Akhter argue that “from the use of GIS sciences that spatialize, calculate, and ﬁx Cartesian wanderings” to the “vicarious gazing and gaming of a far-away war, targeting is now woven into the fabric of mundane life.” As the drones which were formerly exiled to far-off warzones come home to roost, Shaw and Akhter seem increasingly vindicated in their provocative claim that “in this age, ‘to be’ is to be locked within the cool certainty of a crosshair.” The laser pens of the Hong Kong protestors not only refuse to be reduced to a target but decry the entire operation of targeting.
Discussing the Chinese Communist Party’s recent clampdowns on uncensored instant messaging platforms, Vietnamese theorist Trinh T. Minh-Ha argues that “ultimately, what matters is not so much who wins or who loses in these real and cyber conflicts but how, through winning and losing in public, the comprehensive censorship network has been forced out into the open.” Trinh notes that this move was referred to by discontented WeChat users as a “pre-emptive strike,” suggesting the symbolic potency of targeting for those who consider themselves on the receiving end. Whatever their outcome, the Hong Kong protestors have succeeded in dragging even the most covert regimes of state power into the light.
The new face of protest
The sudden arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic saw severe social restrictions imposed worldwide in order to reduce viral transmission, and looked set to — unlike the widely flouted existing prohibitions on public gathering — finally extinguish the demonstrations in Hong Kong which had raged since March 2019. With billions around the globe confined to their homes and many looking for entertainment in the form of video games, the virtual tendency underscoring events on the street was now fully realised as protesters found a new home for dissent in the unlikeliest of places.
Released to huge popularity in March, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a Japanese social simulation game for Nintendo Switch where players are invited to “create a home, interact with cute animal villagers, and just enjoy life.” A decidedly low-stakes and therapeutic game, the objective of Animal Crossing is simply to cultivate and customise a “personal island paradise on a deserted island brimming with possibility.” This promise was realised in terms far more radical than the pastoral utopias imagined by Nintendo as, leading student activist Joshua Wong wrote on Facebook, “a creative light exploded and almost a million people turned an unmanned island into a demonstration venue.” Hong Kongers rejected the apolitical, escapist premise of Animal Crossing and took advantage of the game’s customisation to adorn their islands with bold protest artwork and slogans, to renewed attention from the international media. The game was duly removed from sale on the Chinese mainland in April.
Among the most striking features of the protesters’ migration to the world of Animal Crossing was the frequent recurrence of their ultimate boss, Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Often featuring alongside Chinese president Xi Jinping and a black flag reading ‘Free Hong Kong — Revolution now’, official portraiture of a smartly-dressed Lam has been a surprisingly prominent resident on the islands of the rebellious gamers. Smiling up at the aerial perspective from which the player surveys their dominion, the images of Lam in the widely publicised protest islands are framed in a way which is notably jarring. While the humanoid avatar of the player is rendered in a cutesy style with large doe-eyes and simplistic graphics consistent with the rest of the game, the face of Carrie Lam is always depicted in a formal, photorealistic style. Lam’s unmistakable humanness is made to stand apart from the stylised pixels of the surrounding video game environs. Upon noting that many of the protest islands are populated by avatars wearing bandanas, surgical and gas masks, it becomes apparent the creators of these consequence-free worlds remain deeply attuned to the punitive logic of the face which has defined the events on the street.
Emmanuel Levinas famously argued that encountering the face is the originary foundation of ethics, it is “the way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me.” According to Levinas, the inscrutable power of the face initiates the moment we realise that the other is more than just a body, for there is a nakedness in the face which is “exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence” though at the same time, “the face is what forbids us to kill,” it “presents itself and demands justice.” The Hong Kong protests provide a clear illustration of how contemporary surveillance regimes have twisted Levinasian ethics upside-down: the face is no longer the locus of a realisation that someone is more than a body, it is the node through which they may be reduced to a series of data. The face must be shielded at all costs when its ethical demands are ignored by the cold gaze of the camera, and unheard by the algorithms of artificial intelligence. The protesters’ customised islands ultimately serve to parody this real-world logic of the face.
The jarring effect of witnessing Carrie Lam’s visage in Animal Crossing owes to the inscription of a recognisably human face in a decidedly inhuman, computerised world, never mind a face invested with all the political prestige of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Flanked by masked avatars, the exposure of Lam’s face marks a challenge to the dehumanising modes of vision which have permeated the demonstrations taking place in political reality. In the protestors’ islands, the real world forcibly intrudes upon the digitised perception of the game, this is a relation that subversively mirrors the condition of those living under the technological gaze as it intrudes upon and shapes the real world.
With Beijing’s recent imposition of a National Security Law for Hong Kong that criminalises any act deemed to promote ‘secession’ or ‘subversion’, the public protests which led to the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill appear to have won only a Pyrrhic victory. The new law crucially makes China responsible for Hong Kong’s internal security and allows Chinese state forces to openly operate in the region for the first time. Many of the actions taken to protect anonymity against future retribution appear to have been vindicated sooner than expected. Within hours of the bill’s passing on June 30th, pro-independence groups, such as Joshua Wong’s Demosisto, began to disband, and just six days later the first defendant prosecuted under the new law appeared in court, charged with ‘inciting secession’.
From the wounded eye which became a rallying symbol to the laser pens used to blind the city’s surveillance infrastructure, the protesters have remained acutely vigilant to both Beijing’s open designs on their home, and the local administration’s tacit forms of control. It remains clear that they will not lose their much-valued freedoms without a fight. On the streets and in the global media, the protesters’ most effective tactic has been their profoundly postmodern awareness that real events no longer take place solely in the real. Through digital tools such as hkmaps.live, and Animal Crossing, we see that China’s heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong will invariably fail to stifle this tech-savvy new generation. The CCP’s struggle to stay one step ahead of technological change — clearest in the so-called ‘Great Firewall’ — indicates the extent to which China’s rulers know the power of simulation, yet this censorial vision of cyber sovereignty remains blind to the litany of new opportunities that the internet affords for subversion, parody and play. Whatever restrictions are imposed in the coming years, events thus far suggest that as Beijing turns its gaze towards Hong Kong and its citizens, the fledgling superpower will be startled to find that many will, like water, gaze right back.
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