October 8, 2019

The Larger Reason China Wants to Strip Hong Kong Protesters of their Masks

Photo: Chris McGrath/ Getty Images Caption: A student wears protective equipment with his school uniform during an anti- government student rally on August 22, 2019.

When I read that Hong Kong was considering banning masks, I immediately thought of this iconic photo. It was taken by Getty’s Chris McGrath. Chris has been a steady presence throughout the uprising, producing remarkable photographs of the standoff.

On the surface, the mask decree seems purely tactical. If you take the masks away from the protesters, that leaves them vulnerable to the effects of tear gas, and to tracking by facial recognition. But it’s a lot more than that. Contemporary warfare, especially the populist kind, is as much about mind share as it is about dominance. And it’s as much about how you command international attention as controlling the streets or civic places in physical space. The Chinese and the Hong Kong police are powerful, but the democracy protesters have been cunning and creative. They pick their battles, including the location, length, and type, as much or for media and symbolic impact.

Back in the day, the “theater of war” strictly referred to longitude and latitude. It was where on the map the battle took place. The term today is necessarily ironic. That’s because war today–at least the democracy uprising in this densely urban, modern, and prosperous market economy–is also a performative and a demonstrative exercise. With everyone online and attuned to visuals, style and gesture are inextricably woven into the cause.

The proximity of the student in the protective gear to the logo on the building is no surprise. The way the helmet and the face mask compliment his school garb isn’t either. For all the ways that the headgear protects this young activist, it also serves as branding. It’s the uniform of resistance. If it was just about banning masks, the masked kid on the left or the masked woman far right would be as much of a threat and a target as the kid in the center. But we know that’s not true.

Yes, China’s crackdown on the mask is about negating the protester’s defense against tear gas and facial recognition. But surely China also appreciates the attention the democracy movement earns from these handcrafted battle outfits and the moral power they gather from them. The blue-collar loading of a hard hat. The apocalyptic quality of the gas mask. The woman absorbed in her cell phone, aligned with the masked student. How the anonymity of the helmet contrasts with the monogrammed shirt. What the portrait presents is the tone and the millennial signature of the resistance. We have the democracy movement exposing the abuse of capitalism by accessorizing it. And that is iconic indeed.

-Michael Shaw

Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images. Caption: A student wears protective equipment with his school uniform during an anti-government student rally on August 22, 2019.

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Michael Shaw
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