Interview: Simon Herzog and the Cyberpunk Protests in Hong Kong

The Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill

On April 3rd, 2019, Hong Kong lawmakers were given a pretty straightforward extradition bill called the Fugitive Offenders Amendment bill. In response to a legal issue, the bill would have allowed extradition of suspected offenders from Hong Kong to mainland China under very specific conditions, and on a case-by-case basis.

A “Special Administrative Region”

While Hong Kong technically belongs to China, it is considered a “special administrative region” of China with its own set of laws, currency, and government with a strong pro-democracy, pro-independence movement. While this status is set to end ominously in 2047, many residents of Hong Kong are afraid of mainland China trying to end it early. This extradition bill could have allowed that to happen, because if Hong Kong residents are extradited through dubious claims to mainland China, they could then be made to disappear, and then who knows what would happen to them.

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Cyberpunk Protests in Hong Kong

Thus, the uprising began, and although the bill was later rescinded, protests have been going strong since April with many of them feeling very cyberpunk in nature due to the use of gas masks, bows and arrows, umbrellas, face masks, flashlights and lasers to avoid CCTV detection.

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In order to experience this firsthand and get a better understanding of the massive Cyberpunk protests in Hong Kong, my friend Simon Herzog decided to go there himself, where he spoke with locals and snapped some photos of everything he witnessed. He agreed to an interview with Cyberpunk Matrix to share some of his thoughts below.

Simon Herzog in Shades

Hi Simon. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

I translate between different disciplines and help bridge cultural and human differences through entrepreneurshipart, and design. I spend most of my time organizing or teaching workshops in innovation and problem-solving methodologies like design thinking and service design, helping organizations create more human-centric products and services. Other than that, I use photography and video for storytelling and have side projects like designing and making an ultralight backpacking tent from scratch.

Gibson Quote Street

Art by Benjamin Last

Why do you like Cyberpunk? What does it mean to you?

Like a lot of science fiction, cyberpunk casts a light on the worlds we have already built. I appreciate its stories for the resourcefulness of its characters in the face of overwhelming forces such as corporations, governments, or technology itself. It allows me to vicariously experience an extreme version of the adaptability, preparedness, and pragmatism I take so much pleasure and pride in in my own life. On top of that, I love the aesthetic and the sense of anarchy and possibility, and the sense of meritocracy that comes from an unyielding environment where skill is everything.

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The aesthetic is definitely pretty cool. And what brought you to Hong Kong recently?

I had been following the protests since their beginnings in March, and it felt right away like something important was happening. It’s difficult from afar to form a balanced opinion and to understand what is really happening when there’s social upheaval like this and both sides have a vested interest in presenting their side favorably, and I wanted to be in a place where the news is happening and talk to people on the ground. Also, I saw some of the resourcefulness and anarchic creativity that marks the characters in cyberpunk stories in the protesters, and was curious to see it for myself. When I had some business in Kuala Lumpur in December I decided to extend my trip and stop by Hong Kong for a few days.

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Can you explain what is happening in Hong Kong?

The introduction of a controversial extradition law that would have allowed mainland China access to people arrested in Hong Kong and Taiwan triggered severe resistance from a large portion of Hong Kongers who see themselves as a quasi-sovereign nation and are eager to preserve their relative independence from China for as long as possible. The Chinese government is keen to begin assimilating Hong Kong into its authoritarian system even before the official end of the “one country, two systems” arrangement in 2047, and in a way the protesters are trying to delay or prevent this most likely inevitable outcome. From the initial rejection of the extradition law the protests have evolved as a largely leaderless movement to include five demands, ranging from an independent investigation into police brutality to universal suffrage in deciding the government of Hong Kong. The government has been relatively unyielding, other than withdrawing the extradition bill, and clashes have steadily escalated over the past several months.

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Interesting. And what happened when you went there?

I have some friends in Hong Kong and I had relied on one of them in particular to invite me to some protester Telegram groups in the weeks before my arrival. That’s how I found out about what was happening that weekend, and I went to a small rally on Saturday and a gigantic one with over 800,000 people on Sunday, December 8th. This march was one of the few that had received official approval from the government, which is likely why so many people attended and it did not result in significant clashes. Still, as the masses of people were churning through the streets and reached the official end of the marching route, the overwhelming momentum of the crowd pushed it past the finish line, unable or unwilling to disperse, and into a large riot police blockade. The police had lined up across an entire wide avenue in full riot gear, trucks with water cannons behind them, and they were holding up the yellow flag warning protesters to not approach any further. The police use a color-coded system of flags to announce their increasingly severe response – from a passive warning to a vague threat of force to tear gas to live fire. That day, things didn’t escalate to real violence, and I didn’t end up having to use the gas mask or any of the emergency gear I’d brought. At the front lines, some provocateurs had dismantled street barriers and were wielding steel bars they had pulled from those barriers as weapons, but most other front-liners, though visibly prepared to fight, repeatedly pushed the line back and away from the police in order to avoid a confrontation.

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What do you think will come next for the city?

I had a chance to speak to people with a range of opinions on the protests, from young people that had been actively a part of them since the beginning, were in the streets every weekend, and boycotted pro-Chinese businesses, to professionals who were concerned with or disapproved of the methods of some of the protesters and were discontent with the disruptions the movement had caused. At its core, the issue is about Hong Kong’s quasi-sovereignty and its relationship with China, and even many moderate Hong Kongers have gotten used to and value the special privileges of living in a state with some of the features of Western democracies such as freedom of expression. Virtually everyone under 30 in Hong Kong now identifies as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese, a record figure. There is also a class dimension to the protests; many wealthier professionals rely heavily on business with China for their income and therefore tend to be more pro-Chinese as a group. Still, the recent elections represented a strong vote of confidence from the general population in favor of the protests. I believe they will continue for some time, but I do not expect either major concessions from the government – since showing weakness would embolden other dissidents and separatists – nor, hopefully, a major escalation of force. Eventually, I anticipate that some minor concessions will be made and that the protests will eventually lose steam.

Last, but not least, why do you think Hong Kong is one of the most Cyberpunk cities in the world?

There are certain places in the world – Dubai, Hong Kong, Chongqing – where the reality is already stranger than fiction. Hong Kong has the look that defined a lot of the greatest cyberpunk aesthetics, such as Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner. Few other cities have both the verticality and the claustrophobia of Hong Kong, where millions are crammed into a finite space, and buildings grow as tall as they can while apartments are as small as humanly possible. Hong Kong was also until 1993 home to the Kowloon Walled City, easily the most cyberpunk place to have ever existed, and also the densest human settlement in history. For readers of this blog not familiar with it, it’s very worth researching.

Kowloon Walled City

The Kowloon Walled City

Thanks for answering our questions here at Cyberpunk Matrix, Simon!

To see or learn more from Simon Herzog, you can contact him via his website here or follow him on his instagram.

Photos courtesy of Simon Herzog

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