Lessons in Dissent: The Documentary

A documentary on Hong Kong activists sheds light on the fears, frustrations, and achievements of youth movements in the former British colony, and shows parallels with Taiwan
Wong Shiau Ching

The opening sequence of Lessons in Dissent, a 97-minute documentary film written and directed by British filmmaker Matthew Torne, is a powerful feast for the senses. A group of youngsters, some in their secondary school uniforms, are on a makeshift stage in Civic Square, located at the government headquarters in Hong Kong, rousing the thousands of black-clad supporters who have gathered to oppose the administration. It was a special moment in Hong Kong’s history, and one that is aptly captured by Torne, who did not expect a movement of such gravity when he started his film project in 2011.

The documentary’s Chinese title, 未夠秤 (which reads as mei gau ching in Cantonese), means “not of age.” As the intentionally ironic title suggests, this documentary, set in 2012 — the year of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections, as well as anti-National Education movement — centers on two key characters: Joshua Wong, who was 15 at the time, and Ma Zai, 17. Thus both were under the legal adult age. However, their youth and the real chance that they would face prosecution did not stop them from getting involved in social and political protests.

The film charts the rise of Joshua Wong (a runner-up in Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2014) and Scholarism, the group that became a media darling and which led 120,000 protesters in one of Hong Kong’s biggest social movements to pressure the government to withdraw the implementation of National Education, a doctrinal-style of education designed to instill patriotism towards China. In contrast, Ma Jai works behind the scenes for the League of Social Democrats (LSD), a social democratic political party, where he does such menial work as setting and packing up promotional booths for the party. As Torne’s film aims to show, the two different forms of activism have been important in keeping Hong Kong’s fight for democracy alive.

Following the protagonists through their daily lives and activities, the documentary presents key facets of Hong Kong’s pro-democratic activist scene, from political radio broadcasts to televised public debates, to the June 4 and July 1 mass rallies, complete with huge colorful banners and the mobile booths of political parties, and the provocative repertoire of LSD’s prolific veteran politician, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung.

The documentary, though lengthy in some parts, flows relatively seamlessly. Though the seven lessons of dissent are likely to be partly forgotten by the audience at the end, the key message is nevertheless driven home: growing concerns about Hong Kong’s political future are making the youth step out of the path of political apathy which their parents (and most of Hong Kong’s population) are known for. Lessons in Dissent offers a good picture for previously uninvolved audiences to understand the motivations behind the youths’ decision to put aside their otherwise carefree lives to toil night and day planning protests and canvassing for support, attending back-to-back interviews (in Wong’s case), and facing pepper spray, public reprimand, and arrest. Most importantly, the film gives a good contextual lesson for those seeking to understand the roots of the recent Umbrella protests and the background of some of the key activists involved.

The anti-National Education movement changed Hong Kong society in some major ways. Key activists said it was the first time that Facebook and other social media were used in a well-organized and strategic manner to spread information about the movement and mobilize supporters to participate and diffuse acts of collective dissent online. Scholarism was formed from connections made on Facebook, and the other major group in the Civil Alliance Against National Education, the Parents Concern Group, was formed in a similar manner. Joshua Wong’s preoccupation with his iPhone, and how it has been integrated within his activism, exemplifies the pervasiveness of smart phones and social media consumption in the daily lives of Hong Kong’s youth and how these have naturally become the tools of communication and mobilization for collective action.

In addition to the thousands of Hong Kongers who gathered at Civic Square, overseas student communities also held their own protests on school campuses and sent petitions to their local governments. This movement was also well known for its distinct protest repertoire, such as crossing the arms at the chest as a rejection of National Education, and the wearing of black attire. Such images of “personalized action frames” multiplied, spread, and were diffused across social media platforms, and mainstream newspapers followed suit with large spreads of the protest and of the masses that gathered at Civic Square for 10 days until the government backed down and made some concessions.

The success of the anti-National Education movement led some to draw parallels to the impact of the half-million turnout at the July 1, 2003, protest against Article 23, which led to its abandonment. I would argue more similarities could be drawn with Taiwan’s anti-media monopoly movement which erupted during the summer of 2012; these protests were largely led by students, using social media to mobilize and endorsed (although ambivalently in Taiwan) by mainstream media. The legitimization of these large-scale (non-political) citizen-driven protests motivated other students and young people to join subsequent protests, notably the Umbrella movement last year, where many students in uniforms camped at protest sites for months, doing their schoolwork at mobile study stations — a distinct landmark of the Hong Kong protests.

Last June, in the midst of my fieldwork in Hong Kong, I attended a screening of the documentary. Matthew Torne, Joshua Wong and Avery Ng, activist and vice chairman of the LSD (who also features in the film), were in attendance. Many people in the audience teared up on seeing Joshua Wong and Eva Chan, convener of the Parents Concern Group, crying at the rally, when activists, angered by the nonchalance of the Hong Kong government, decide to join the hunger strike which had been organized by three Scholarism members. Something inside me tugged a little when Ma Jai said with an awkward smile that he would fear staying in jail for a year should he be sentenced for illegal assembly and desecrating the Hong Kong flag.

Although he lets the activists do the bulk of the talking, Torne’s dedication in his “love letter” to Hong Kong’s fight for democracy has nothing to envy from the youth he documents. As a non-commercial project, the film was made with a modest HK$950,000 (US$122,500), instead of the originally budgeted HK$3 million (US$387,000), as the producers went unpaid for three years, and many others worked on the film for free. Torne put in the £25,000 (US$37,000) deposit he had originally saved for a house, while the remaining 70% came from Hong Kongers. During the question and answer session following the screening, Wong joked that Torne was insane (“癡線” or chi sin in Cantonese) to have sacrificed so much to make the film. However, what matters is that he brought the story of Hong Kong to an international audience, and has motivated other individuals to spread the message.

The film has been shown in Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Prague, various cities in the U.S., and at public screenings in some Australian cities. Some of the screenings have been made possible through donations by academics and students. Whether for its artistic or educational value, the effort to spread awareness of political developments in Hong Kong will hopefully generate substantial enough a force to pressure the Chinese government against making unilateral decisions on the political freedom of Hong Kong.

In a follow-up Facebook discussion after the screening in Melbourne, one person expressed his frustrations and helplessness about what overseas-based Hong Kongers can do to help, especially against a powerful Chinese government that has tremendous political and economic leverage against most other states. Avery Ng’s response was that people must keep “poking at the wall relentlessly” until it collapses.

Ng’s words resonated with the film’s final lesson of dissent, which cited the lyrics of Hong Kong songwriter Albert Leung (commonly known by his pen-name 林夕): “Let’s think of it as going hand in hand, you and me, to a lesson new.” The anti-National Education movement was part of an ongoing continuum of Hong Kongers’ fight for political rights, together with the Occupy Central/Umbrella Movement, and subsequent movements going forward. More lessons in dissent are in the making in Hong Kong. Participants and observers of Taiwan’s social and political movements can identify with the frustration and hopelessness at the lack of concrete policy changes achieved by numerous protests. Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement arguably scored a modest success in comparison with the Umbrella Movement, but both Hong Kong and Taiwan face a common crisis in preserving their freedoms and fighting for more democratic participation.

Like the sobering messages delivered by Ma Jai and Joshua Wong at the end of the film, Taiwan and Hong Kong cannot rely solely on the occasional charismatic leaders or “one-hit wonder” movements to lead the fight for political freedom. We need “perseverance” and more chi sin people to continue poking at that wall relentlessly.


Wong Shiau Ching is a PhD candidate with the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research thesis, based on the anti-National Education movement in Hong Kong and anti-media monopoly movement in Taiwan, investigates the activists’ tactical engagement with social media and mainstream media, and their mutual interactions, in order to reassess the symbiotic movement-media relationship.

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