Hong Kong’s Lennon walls: protest goes on in colourful collages of sticky labels | World news

On Tuesday evening Ines Wong gathered seven pieces of cardboard, attached to them colourful sticky labels with messages demanding the Hong Kong government retract a controversial extradition bill, and placed the notes under a busy footbridge in Kowloon Bay.

There, dozens of passersby helped themselves to the labels, wrote their own messages and put those on the “Lennon wall”, a form of protest inspired by anti-communist activists in 1980s Prague.

Why are people protesting?

What started in early June as protests against a new extradition law have broadened into a pro-democracy movement concerned about the wider relationship between Hong Kong and China and the future for the special administrative region.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has offered a ‘solemn’ personal apology for the crisis and also hinted that she had in effect shelved the controversial legislation. However, protesters criticised her as insincere and said she had ignored their key demands. The demonstrations have continued.

What was the proposed extradition law?

People have been demonstrating against legal changes that would make it easier to extradite people from Hong Kong to China. Supporters say the amendments are key to ensuring the city does not become a criminal refuge, but critics worry Beijing will use the law to extradite political opponents and others to China. Under the amended law, those accused of offences punishable by seven years or more in prison could be extradited.

Who is supporting the change?

The government claims the push to change the law, which would also apply to Taiwan and Macau, stems from the killing last year of a Hong Kong woman while she was in Taiwan with her boyfriend. Authorities in Taiwan suspect the woman’s boyfriend, who remains in Hong Kong, but cannot try him because no extradition agreement is in place. 

Officials have promised to safeguard against abuses, pledging that no one at risk of political or religious persecution will be sent to the mainland. Suspects who could face the death penalty would not be extradited.

Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said the bill has not come from the central government in Beijing. However, Beijing has voiced its backing for the changes.

Why are Hong Kongers so angry?

Many fear the proposed extradition law will be used by authorities to target political enemies. They worry the new legislation spells the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, eroding the civil rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents since the handover of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997.

Many attending the protests said they could not trust China as it had often used non-political crimes to target government critics, and they also feared Hong Kong officials would not be able to reject Beijing’s requests. Legal professionals have also expressed concern over the rights of those sent across the border to be tried. The conviction rate in Chinese courts is as high as 99%. Arbitrary detentions, torture and denial of legal representation of one’s choosing are also common.

How have authorities responded?

After the current crisis, analysts believe the Hong Kong government will probably start a new round of retaliatory measures against its critics while the Chinese government will tighten its grip on the city. Police have said that 32 people have been arrested over the recent demonstrations and five have been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. Six pro-democracy members of the legislature have already been ousted.

Lily Kuo in Beijing and Verna Yu in Hong Kong

“Before, we have occupied roads and held rallies but we were told we were in the way of other people doing business,” said Wong, 24, who works as a florist. “So this is the most peaceful, unobstructive, way to express ourselves. It is not in anyone’s way.”

After a turbulent month of protests and rallies joined by millions to fight against a proposed law that would allow individuals to be extradited to stand trial in China’s courts, more “Lennon walls” have emerged across the city this week, including in some unlikely suburban neighbourhoods such as the politically conservative Tai Po, Sha Tin and Tsuen Wan districts in the New Territories.

The walls have their roots in the 2014 civil disobedience “umbrella movement”, when protesters decorated the wall next to a staircase near the legislature building with colourful collages of sticky labels of support and encouragement to each other.

The Lennon wall was inspired by the original graffiti-decorated wall in Prague dedicated to John Lennon; by the late 1980s it had become a source of irritation for the communist regime on account of its many critical messages.

A girl pastes a sticky label on a Lennon wall at a pedestrian bridge.

A girl pastes a sticky label on a Lennon wall at a pedestrian bridge. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

To keep up the spirit of the anti-extradition bill campaign, Hong Kong protesters have now created “Lennon walls” on any available space, including on pillars outside underground railway stations, in underground tunnels,and on footbridges.

“We Hong Kongers never give up!”, “The Hong Kong spirit will never die!” , “Where there is suppression there is resistance!” say some of the messages across the city.

Many protesters who are unsure about their next step say the messages are a way of showing that they will continue the fight. They have been experimenting with creative ways of demonstrating against the extradition bill and demanding democracy. But the hours-long occupation of the tax office and immigration buildings last month proved to be unpopular with citizens.

“Only when the messages are everywhere would people know we are still here,” said a young man who had helped create a Lennon wall on a footbridge in downtown Causeway Bay. “It’s a way of expressing ourselves under an authoritarian regime.”

The wave of protests which started on 9 June forced the government to suspend the bill and Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said this week that the legislation was effectively “dead”. But the protesters were not reassured by her personal promise, which they said was no guarantee that the bill would not be revived later.

One of the Lennon walls in Hong Kong.

One of the Lennon walls in Hong Kong. Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty

They continue to demand that the government fully withdraws the bill, releases all those arrested in protests and launches an independent investigation into police use of teargas, rubber bullets and truncheons on largely peaceful crowds.

The emergence of Lennon walls across the city came a week after the storming and vandalising of the parliament building on 1 July, also the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule. The government has strongly condemned the protesters’ actions.

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said the Lennon walls, which she viewed as installation art, were “the best outlets for our young to vent the anger and resentment in a peaceful manner” and were “effective reminders of the governance crisis”.

But even this mild form of protest has attracted the ire of government supporters and stirred unease among the authorities. Local media reported that on Wednesday morning more than 200 police officers, some armed with shields, descended on a Lennon wall in Tai Po, where some messages supposedly exposed some police officers’ personal details.

A man punched two people guarding a Lennon wall in a pedestrian walkway in Kowloon Bay later in the day, and hundreds staged a noisy rally outside the Yau Tong underground station in Kowloon late after several students guarding a local Lennon wall were assaulted by unknown attackers. At one point during the impromptu rally people swiftly passed round sticky labels, wrote on them and stuck them on to nearby pillars.

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