The first time I wrote about masks, it had nothing to do with an epidemic.
Late in 2016, some artists in Chengdu were angry about local air pollution levels and the Chinese Communist Party’s failure to respond effectively to the problem. They were also annoyed by government bodies releasing misleading statistics, sometimes describing days with terrible smog as good days to be outside. So, the artists put surgical masks on public statues that are meant to represent ordinary urbanites engaged in ordinary activities. Their point was simple: the situation had gotten so out of hand that even inanimate objects needed to take precautions.
Learning of this creative act of symbolic protest and of the government’s efforts to stamp out all expressions of dissent on the topic of pollution, I invited a colleague specializing in Chinese environmental issues, Benjamin van Rooij, to join me in writing an article. In it, we noted that the Communist Party had shown some leniency toward protests associated with pollution earlier in the century, but it was now taking a harder line on all kinds of activism. Going back to the essay now, I’m struck not just by the symbolic uses of masks but also that the words “virus” and “contagion” appear in it. I had forgotten we used them. We were not referring to an actual disease but to Communist Party metaphors: Beijing claimed that social unrest could be “contagious,” and that China had to guard against the body politic being harmed by destabilizing ideas associated with “color revolutions” and related activities. We refer in the piece to a post on a Communist Youth League website that compared some political notions “to a ‘zombie virus’ of the sort portrayed in horror films, delivering ‘chaos’ to the ‘infected’ society.”
The second time I wrote about masks, my focus was again on art and dissent.
In 2019, more people took to Hong Kong’s streets—and police used more pepper spray and tear gas—than ever before. I was in the territory for the vigil held each June 4 to commemorate the massacre that took place on that day in 1989 in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I don’t remember seeing anyone wearing a mask in the crowd of more than 100,000 people who gathered in Victoria Park. Weeks later, however, as I followed the development of the movement from home in California, I saw footage of protesters wearing black masks, worn partly to protect themselves from the sting of pepper spray and tear gas and partly to conceal their identities. That second factor was especially important if they were youths of the sort sometimes called “frontline activists,” who were known for challenging police officers, often with taunts and on rare cases by lobbing Molotov cocktails. I did not write about those black cloth face coverings, but later in 2019 I described the most powerful video I had seen that featured “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song written during that year’s movement and quickly becoming its main anthem. The video, I wrote, showed “a philharmonic group clothed in black and wearing gas masks” performing the song.
The first time I bought a mask, I did not purchase it because of Covid-19.
On December 8, 2019, back in Hong Kong, I met up with a journalist to do an interview, and when I told her I was headed to observe a big protest march, she urged me to pick up a face covering. This demonstration might be free of confrontations and the police might not use pepper spray or tear gas. “Just to be safe, though,” she said, “you should get some kind of mask.” I took her advice. When I found a store that stocked them, I also picked up some liquid in a bottle. Not hand sanitizer, but saline solution. I had heard this can be useful for washing noxious substances out of one’s eyes.
I did not need to use my supplies. All was calm at the march, which drew a crowd of more than half-a-million people—an enormous turnout in nearly any other setting, but in Hong Kong that year merely a very big one. There were scuffles between protesters and police and tear gas cannisters were opened, but not near me. This was lucky, because the mask I had bought was pretty flimsy and ineffective.
I was glad I got to hear impassioned renditions of “Glory to Hong Kong” fill the streets as slow-moving marchers alternated between singing the anthem and shouting out the demands of the movement. I was also glad that I was able to take a photograph, nervously because of the riot police clustered nearby, of a poster showing Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the Hunger Games movies. That series of films, which features young people struggling against seemingly impossible odds, was one that many young Hong Kong activists identified with that year, as many protesters there and in Thailand had in 2014, and as many protesters in Myanmar now do.
By the third time I wrote about masks, in the spring of 2020, I was used to wearing them to guard against Covid-19.
Masks were the focus of my closing paragraph in a 2020 article about the Hong Kong protests of 2014 to 2019. In my piece, which ran in the Age of Revolution blog, I wrote about a recent twist in the Hong Kong political story that felt “Kafkaesque”:
In the fall, the Hong Kong authorities, in an effort to help the police arrest protesters, issued an edict making it illegal to wear masks in public. This was immediately challenged in the courts. Early this year, as a move to combat the spread of Covid-19, these same Hong Kong authorities issued an edict requiring that masks be worn in public. So far, this might seem merely an ironic turnabout. What makes it Kafkaesque is that even after issuing rules requiring masks be worn, the Hong Kong government has continued the court battle to defend its edict banning the wearing of masks.
Soon after the December 8th demonstration, I went to what felt like a funeral. And I left the gathering thinking about a theatrical-looking mask.
On December 13, 2019, I spent part of my last evening in Hong Kong at a gathering to honor a young man who, a month earlier, had plunged to his death from a parking garage. The movement claimed him as a martyr, because police were tear gassing the parking garage when he died. To protesters, he was not the first martyr of 2019: before him, another youth had fallen to his death while engaged in protest-related activities, and there had been people who committed suicide and left notes referring to their acts as a means of expressing their love for Hong Kong and concern with its fate. In the eyes of critics of the struggle, there had been no martyrs, just victims of ordinary accidents. Nearly everyone else at the vigil-like event I attended was young. Most had uncovered faces, but I kept staring at one person with a mask on.
What kind of mask do you wear to a funeral? The teenager who riveted my attention had donned a Guy Fawkes mask of the sort made famous by the V for Vendetta comic books and film. He wore it while listening to the speeches and chatting with friends sitting nearby, never taking it off. I stood a few yards to his left taking photographs of the speakers on the stage, of the crowd, and sometimes of him. I wish now that I had struck up a conversation with him.
Even though I never saw his face or exchanged a word with him, I’ve thought about him often since then. I’ve talked to a lot of young protesters in Hong Kong during the past few years, beginning with those I encountered sleeping in tents on the streets in occupy zones during the Umbrella Movement of 2014. He was, though, the last young protester I paid attention to in Hong Kong, because I left the next morning to fly home. I’ve not gone back since, and I am not sure I will ever feel able to return, much as I care about Hong Kong and its people.
Was he, I wonder, a militant who sometimes wore that mask to hide his identity? Has he left Hong Kong to go into exile? Has he been arrested? Or was he just a casual participant in the movement who rarely went to such events, but went to that one because his friends were all going? That is possible, too.
I will never know. But I do know that just a year later, when some people a few years older than he wore Guy Fawkes masks to a different ritual, the stakes were higher. The city had suffered blow after blow to its traditional freedoms by then, and a harsh new National Security Law had been imposed by Beijing. As simple an act as singing “Glory to Hong Kong” could potentially be grounds for arrest, taken as proof that the singer had been infected by a “political virus.” In November 2020, when some young people tried to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of the man who fell to his death from the parking garage, police moved in swiftly to break up their efforts to hold a vigil like the one I attended. A little later, some students put on V for Vendetta-style face coverings and made other gestures, such as carrying black balloons, in an effort to turn their college graduation ceremony into a moment for protest, an occasion for mourning lost liberties. Hong Kong had changed so much that they now risked facing long prison terms for their actions.
The air in Chengdu has become less toxic since those artists put masks on statues a few years ago. It can be much more dangerous now in Hong Kong, though, for ordinary people to do what once were ordinary things without covering their faces. And Covid-19 is by no means the only, and sometimes not even the main, reason why.
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