Do Not Split: An Illuminating Look at Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Uprising
When asked to describe the Hong Kong protests, I always mention the tear gas, which, along with thousands of other people, I had the misfortune of choking on. The amount used by Hong Kong police was unprecedented in my many years covering and participating in protests. But people adapted. In the Mongkok district one night in November 2019, as hundreds of police loaded their guns with tear gas canisters for use on peaceful protestors, street vendors wearily pulled on gas masks. I saw someone laying on the sidewalk wearing only shorts, a blanket, and a gas mask.
It’s hard to convey in words the intensity and absurdity of those clashes. Fortunately, a brilliant new film, shortlisted for the Oscars, shows what it looked like, felt like, smelled like, and tasted like to be in the middle of a large-scale street confrontation with Hong Kong’s police.
Do Not Split, a half-hour documentary by Anders Hammer, simply and elegantly tells the story of the protests of 2019 and 2020. Shot after shot shows young protestors up against a barrage of police weaponry, including sound bombs, water cannons, and tear gas canisters, protected sometimes only by umbrellas. The film includes on-street interviews with protestors and features Joey Siu, a young woman activist who has worked closely with Human Rights First to push the U.S. government to support the democracy movement.
The documentary marvelously captures the uniqueness of the Hong Kong uprising, which was very different from any other I’ve seen. For one thing, an extraordinarily high percentage of the street revolutionaries were young women and girls. For another, the protestors were hyper-organized, showing up to demonstrations with shopping carts full of the accouterments of resistance, from water bottles to gas cans to medication for treating tear gas. And as the film shows, the pro-democracy protests were themselves democratic, with major decisions determined by ad hoc votes.
Another particular feature of the protest movement was the way it intersected with everyday life, which largely carried on. Police, protesters, pedestrians, shoppers, journalists, human rights monitors, and rubberneckers mingled together in one epic drama. I was astonished to witness a clash in the city’s central district where, as police fired at demonstrators who were throwing petrol bombs and bricks, other young protestors stood still in the mayhem holding out plastic bags, politely collecting litter from passersby. A scene in the film shows a young Mexican child, on holiday with her family, being treated by street medics after inhaling the ubiquitous tear gas.
There was an extraordinary mix of civility and violence in the resistance. During an attack on a branch of the Bank of China, some protestors mistakenly damaged a branch of the Bank of East Asia, after which someone spray-painted on the glass panel: “Sorry, wrong bank.”
The film recounts too how the outbreak of Covid put an end to large-scale protests, and how last year the central government in China effectively ended Hong Kong’s autonomy and imposed direct authoritarian rule.
Human Rights First worked closely with Hong Kong’s human rights defenders during those years, making frequent trips to the city to document abuses and listen to activists. We produced guides in English and Chinese on how to counter digital surveillance and how to delete your digital history. We also advocated successfully for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, and last year published a major report about attacks on the city’s human rights lawyers.
The protests have gone away, at least for now, but if you want to feel what it was like, take 30 minutes and have a look at this extraordinary film.