Emojis on the Wall5 min read

On Hong Kong campuses, a bulletin board Cold War – Ting Guo


As someone who grew up in post-Tiananmen mainland China, democracy walls on Hong Kong university campuses always evoke a sense of bittersweet nostalgia in me, for the liberal era I was just young enough to miss. The campus walls pay tribute to the original Democracy Wall in Beijing, where in 1978 people put up posters expressing their political opinions and recalling their suffering during the Cultural Revolution. The Democracy Wall and the “Beijing Spring” it had ushered in were both shut down in 1979, foreshadowing the bloody end to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

At the same time, the way that notices and discussions are posted on the Hong Kong democracy walls also bear resemblance to big character posters, or dazibao, a powerful tool of propaganda during Mao’s era. Many were publically humiliated and attacked by anonymous dazibao, written quite often by peers or even family members.

The university democracy walls have become the center of disputes between students from Hong Kong and mainland China. It started in September, when Hong Kong independence banners appeared at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. These banners were quickly removed, which led to the student union accusing the university of suppressing free discussion about the Special Administrative Region’s future.

Students from mainland China showed a remarkable amount of political engagement, but also their lack of experience in such discourse. Hence, emojis became a popular means of response on the democracy walls, sometimes in patronizing and sexist ways. For instance, on the Chinese University of Hong Kong Democracy Wall – a common feature of Hong Kong universities – we see posters of popular emojis with captions such as “Too ugly to be independent, jackass,” “You make your daddy laugh,” and “I’m the flower of the nation, what the heck are you.” These emojis, commonly used on China’s ubiquitous social media platform WeChat, express emotions rather than arguments.

At the City University of Hong Kong, a separate campus in Kowloon, where mainland students make up only about 10 percent of the overall student body, their Democracy Wall on the ground floor entrance greets visitors with a different outlook. Next to a replica of the Goddess of Democracy, a symbol of 1989 Tiananmen student protests, we see phrases such as “Communist spies get the hell outta here” and “Mao’s bandits bring trouble to the globe,” harkening back to Cold War discourse.

These messages are more sophisticated than the emojis on the Chinese University of Hong Kong Wall, but their judgmental tone drifts away from the original intention of democracy walls, that is, for democratic political debates aiming to better society. Furthermore, the fact that students who mainly grew up in the 1990s and even 2000s need to go back all the way to the Cold War modes of communication to express their discontent is a worrying sign of political and social distance between mainland and Hong Kong youngsters.

Dazibao took over public discourse in the first decades of the PRC. During the Cultural Revolution, in particular, such posters were employed more widely, conveying everything from satire to denunciation, sometimes used as weapons of aggressive personal attacks. As Hua Sheng, has noted, dazibao used to be able to create a social spectacle with “minimum cost.”

Social media in China, while a freer space for expression than traditional media, is tightly controlled and monitored. In the age of social media in the free world, by contrast, people are given the freedom of choice as they are entitled to their own opinions as well as selecting what and how they would like to be informed of. Younger generations in particular, have grown accustomed to being able to choose what they read, and how they are being communicated.

However, as the fallout from the 2016 US presidential election has laid bare, Facebook and Twitter give the illusion of choice, but users are often fed what the algorithm predicts they might want to read, a fact exploited by advertisers and “fake news” purveyors alike. Behind freedom of expression, we have also gradually lost our ability to confront and articulate different opinions. If there is a debate, we debate within the headings and hashtags that Facebook and Twitter have provided for us, while very few words are needed to elucidate our ideas.

Democracy walls are different. These walls occupy an interesting place on campus today because they represent a paradox: they are both a transformation and a reminder of what it was like in the past, when a board in public was the most effective and often only platform to disseminate news and ideas – or for the state to control and monopolize them.

But young students have grown unfamiliar using with such formal engagements to express their political opinions. Mainland students who grew up in the apolitical post-89 China, in particular, are not familiar with political discourse and the history of protests. And yet here they are, finding themselves in a more politically charged environment in Hong Kong, where some of their local peers took part in the Occupy Central movement three years ago and have become disillusioned in and even hostile to the Communist regime.

Hong Kong students have relatively more experience in political engagement, or at least the idea of it. For instance, there are guidelines for how to communicate on the democracy walls at universities, including eligibility, usage, content, prior notice and so on. Furthermore, local students grow up with the idea of freedom of expression, though whether they know how to effectively execute such freedom is a different matter.

The ratio of mainland students to locals in Hong Kong is surprising. For instance, although mainland students comprise only about 14 percent of the overall student body at Chinese University of Hong Kong, when the Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai gave a talk there this month, she was warmly received by hundreds of students, most of them students from the mainland who have long admired her work back home. Some locals remarked that it felt like the Republican Era again, when students and teachers from mainland China flocked to Hong Kong, but under quite different circumstances.

Emojis, as exaggerated cartoon faces, can be an easy resort that holds us back from effective communication. How to engage with each other on open platforms in more articulate and effective ways is the untaught lesson that universities, society and students themselves need to catch up on.

Instagram images by Ting Guo @ting_microway.