Superfluous Words

Hong Kong Apostasy


The veteran journalist and commentator Lee Yee has been writing about Hong Kong’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China for over forty years. During the Hong Kong Uprising of 2019 he has expressed his views, his concerns and anguish, in the regular column that he contributes to Apple Daily, a leading independent media outlet in the city.

The title of the following essay is a reference to a meditation on politics and resistance written by Qu Qiubai (瞿秋白, 1899-1935), an early leader of the Communist revolution, which was written shortly before Qu was executed by the Nationalist government.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
20 November 2019


Superfluous Words

Lee Yee

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


After soliciting my views on the unfolding political situation in Hong Kong last week, a TV interviewer asked me if I had any message for Young Hong Kong [see Nabela Qoser’s interview with Lee Yee broadcast by RTHK; 香港電台視點31, 12 November 2019]. I said that I have no words of wisdom to share; they have shown themselves to be wiser, more daring and more strategic than people like me. They have a better sense of the consequences of their actions, and they are mindful of the price they will pay for what they are doing. All of it has far exceeded my original expectations. I have nothing but heartfelt admiration for our young people.


Over the past few years I’ve frequently been accused of encouraging Hong Kong young people to do this or that. Actually, that’s not the case at all. What I have done, however, is to say a few words in their defence when they have been criticised for what they have said or done. I have also repeatedly declared that I feel humbled by them.

In response to a question about what advice she had for the young, the celebrated Japanese actress Kirin Kiki remarked:

‘Older Generations have damaged this world; they have proven themselves to be wilful and domineering. Their time is up; they should have the decency to step aside and make way for the young.’

It is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly applaud.


Hong Kong’s Resistance is a struggle in which Freedom is pitted against Autocracy. Victory is yet far away. Nonetheless, in its sheer tenacity, in its appeal which has elicited the broad-based participation of society as a whole, in its ability to garner international attention the Hong Kong Resistance is unprecedented. All of this is the result of a particular set of factors which, in the wake of more important matters, may perhaps deserve to be revisited here; at best, however, what follows are but my ‘superfluous words’.


What, in the first place, is noteworthy is the inclusivity and broadbased acceptance that has been a defining feature of the protests. This is reflected in how people of different generations, different ideological positions (be they supporters of Greater China or local identity), of those with markedly contrasting approaches to protest (be they rational peacekeepers or confrontational militants) are involved. Moreover, this has been achieved without the existence of any overarching political organisation. The refusal of people who have participated in the protests to be divided, to betray others or to condemn those with whom they disagree — they are principles that have been widely acknowledged and accepted. All of this was already in evidence even before the mass demonstration of 9 June as the Liandeng online platform set up activity booths in all districts of the city in preparation for mass peaceful protests.

In the months since then much has happened to challenge these shared principles, but everyone has abided by a fundamental consensus, one that is based on an appreciation of the fact that only by sticking to these principles can there be any hope of victory.


Secondly, the call to ‘Be Water’ — that is, to be as fluid as liquid — encapsulates the gatherings and dispersals of the protest movement as a whole. Back in the day, Mao Zedong himself advocated a similar tactical approach to guerilla warfare. He famously summed it up in the following way:

‘When the enemy advances, withdraw; when he stops, harass; when he tires, strike; when he retreats, pursue.’

In March 1947, a Nationalist force of some 250,000 men under the command of Hu Zongnan launched an assault on the wartime Communist guerilla base of Yan’an with the aim of wiping out Mao’s insurgent threat once and for all. The majority of Communist leaders advocated defending Yan’an, the ‘Sacred Heart of the Revolution’, against the aggressors, but Mao Zedong chose to follow the advice of Peng Dehuai. He declared:

‘If by defending our territory we lose our forces, then it is inevitable that we will lose everything. If, however, we are prepared to give up this territory and save our army everything may be gained.’

That is why, preserving people is the most crucial thing. Now the protesters at the Polytechnic University have been encircled by the police and, like those at Chinese University last week, they have been trapped. Over the long term, the tactic of Be Water will be more important than ever. They must above all avoid getting caught in one place and ending up, as one Taiwan journalist put it, ‘Being Immoblile [Like a Fortress]’.

其次,Be Water,即如水般流動,或可稱為水聚散。其實毛澤東當年在弱勢時的游擊戰術也差不多這意思,他的具體運作是:敵進我退,敵駐我擾,敵疲我打,敵退我追。1947年3月,國民黨的胡宗南部隊挾25萬軍力,進攻共產黨巢穴延安,當時大部份中共幹部都認為應該死守這個「革命聖地」,但毛澤東接納了彭德懷的撤退意見,說:存地失人,人地皆失;存人失地,人地皆得。因此,存人最重要。儘管這次抗爭者在理大被圍困,是警方從各方面圍攻造成的,但從中大被圍到理大被圍,抗爭者以後更要緊記Be Water,盡量避免一位台灣作者所說的Be Castle(碉堡戰)。

The third thing is that Young Resisters enthusiastically participated in the mass protests of the 9th and the 16th of June; they worked on the global advertising push leading up to the G20 meeting [of June] and they maintained constant contact with the international community, thereby attracting the attention as well as the support both of their local community and of people around the world. This is something that will also be important in the days leading up to the district elections.

Although I have expressed a view that, given the Communist predilection to act in arrant ways that fly in the face of reason and reasonableness [輸打贏要, see 李怡, ‘世道人生:輸打贏要‘, 14 November 2019], it is more than likely that the elections will be cancelled, such an act would have negative reputational repercussions for the Hong Kong-Communist regime internationally, therefore the protesters must proceed on the basis of a belief that the elections will be held on schedule. Of course, the elections will be manipulated by the Power-Holders in their favour, yet despite this the world is watching, and the results of the elections participated in by all Hong Kong voters will be a de facto referendum, so the Hong Kong people should let the world know what we want. That is to say: they can show yet again that what matters is Freedom, rather than the so-called ‘Stability’ demanded by an autocratic government.

Everything that we do, as well as our ethical bottom line, is not about pandering to popular opinion or conforming to international standards. Rather what matters is that these things truly reflect what we are.


The night before last, after many of the students who had persisted at PolyU had retreated from the campus, a few stayed on, defiantly refusing to give themselves up or to surrender. They felt that once they knelt down in submission, they would stay on their knees forever. A few more left the campus yesterday, adamant that they were neither handing themselves in nor surrendering. Regardless of what they admit, the reality of the situation is that they have been arrested by the police and offered no further resistance.

To surrender is not the same as kneeling before the authorities. In times of war to surrender after being defeated is not an act of cowardice; nor is it a gesture of betrayal. It’s only that kind of extreme ‘heroic patriotism’ instilled by Communist brainwashing that makes surrender out to be a betrayal of the cause. To choose surrender and life rather than a meaningless death is the human and humane choice; it’s a principle understood internationally. Do not the Young People of Hong Kong cleave in all things to international standards and reject China Dogma?


I am reminded of the words of Julius Fučík, a Czeck journalist tortured and executed by the Nazis:

‘Humans, I have loved you all. Be vigilant!’