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Having recently watched the 1995 documentary, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, about the brutal 1989 military crackdown on Chinese protests in Tiananmen Square, I have been following the mass protests in Hong Kong with a wrenching feeling of hope and anxiety. What began as a campaign to resist a bill that would have enabled China to extradite Hong Kong’s citizens has evolved over the past three months into demands for civil liberties and continued independence from Beijing. Last weekend, for the 12th weekend in a row, Hongkongers flooded the streets, with the New York Times estimating over 1.7 million in action. The airport has been intermittently shut down, and there are reports that Beijing’s patience is wearing thin after outbreaks of violence. Armored vehicles as well as military personnel are assembling in Shenzhen, on China’s border with Hong Kong, and the temperature is rising on what seems an increasingly volatile situation.
In the midst of street actions and demands made of local authorities, artists have also been at work. In parallel, a wave of zine production has gotten the messages of the protests, as well as documentation, first aid, and solidarity campaigns, into circulation both in real life and online. The Asia Art Archive, a transnational nonprofit devoted to collecting materials about the most recent art from Asia, has assembled 13 such zines, all of which have been produced since early June, and the vast majority of which are created by artists and collectives operating in Hong Kong.
I recently spoke with the source of many of these zines, ZineCoop, a collective on the ground in Hong Kong. ZineCoop not only organizes zine-making workshops but also makes exhibitions of the zines coming out of Hong Kong to further spread the word internationally. A member of the collective confirmed to Hyperallergic that the protests have drawn attention to the issues at hand and galvanized ing a huge number of Hong Kong’s residents to fight for human rights and democracy. So far, the Chinese government has not directly addressed the protestors’ demands. “We have to ‘be water,’ and inject our creativity into this movement,” the ZineCoop member, who asked not to be specifically identified, told Hyperallergic. Add to this the leaderless structure of the huge protests that has made space for people to contribute their own expertise, and it is no wonder that creative ideas are taking off. Aside from these zines, other campaigns include the FreedomHKG newspaper advertisements, the #eye4HK hashtag which flooded social media feeds with people covering one eye in solidarity with a young protestor who was shot in her eye (see Ai Weiwei’s Instagram feed), and an explainer of ways to support Hong Kong from near and far.
“Firsthand materials like zines, posters, flyers are so powerful during this time, and can be seen everywhere from online to offline,” the member of ZineCoop said. “Comparing to traditional media channels, it’s responsive, affordable and effective,” they said, contrasting the process of creating them with the myopia of Hong Kong’s most influential local media outlets — which are largely supportive of Beijing — and the limited bandwidth international outlets have to cover this movement.
Several of the zines aggregate necessary information ranging from basic first aid and tips on how to avoid incapacitation from teargas and pepper spray — like Yan YU’s Chinese-language guide Save Hong Kong Ourselves that belies its subject with cheerful pink and green illustrations. Others are more concerned with the ongoing mental health of protestors beset by anxiety and fatigue, or the benefits of mutual aid and support, like Humchuck’s Post-Protest Emotions. Others take on a more didactic tone, such as the Dear Travellers zine created in English to explain to those stuck at the airport what the protests are about, including details of the Anti-Extradition Bill and the more recent demands being made of authorities; these were distributed from August 9-13.
Two other such zines, produced by the US-based 6am Projects, compile images and text via collage in solidarity with Hong Kong protestors. One is poignantly titled, This is Hong Kong, Not China…Not Yet and pairs evocative photos of protests from June 9 through 14 alongside quotes from international media. The last page assures that there is more to come, which predicts Stand With Hong Kong, another in a seeming series that similarly chronicles the early July protests. There are likely further iterations, tracking the move of the protests to more general demands for democracy and human rights. The most veiled of the group comes from Tiffany Sia, and is titled Salty Wet and imitates a soft-core mag via its appropriated images however, the essay inside unpacks what it might mean to support Hong Kong from afar, particularly in the highly mediated media landscape of the moment. Documentation features heavily in several other zines including the anonymously-produced, Documents of a Protest, which presents opinionated takes on the troubled “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement that has allowed for Hong Kong’s unusual independence from China, as well as the collectivism and solidarity networks engendered by protest.
All the zines provoke thinking about the complex facets of political policy, action, and collective resistance. The speed with which they have been distributed, collected, and exhibited is remarkable. This on-the-run assembly of such documents gives us an alternate, sometimes practical, sometimes poetic view of the interventions of artists in such times of upheaval. The zines are simultaneously canaries in the coal mine of a protest movement that may be at the edge of state violence, and offer a glimpse of the protestors’ very real conditions, fears, and aspirations.