Political protest is an act of personal expression. It says: this is me, this is who I am and what I stand for, and you can’t take it away from me. As a teenager growing up in protest-free Singapore, sticking a photo of Tiananmen’s most-wanted dissident Wang Dan on my locker (as I wrote in my essay on Tiananmen and my father last year) was a declaration of identity, and my way of sticking it up to authority.
As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I experienced my first political protests in person, yet watching fellow students pumping their fists in the air and yelling slogans, I found myself more of an observer, rather than an active participant. Everything I had experienced to date felt shallow and inconsequential next to the male student wearing a keffiyeh holding up a sign: Israeli soldiers murdered my sister. Maybe I just hadn’t experienced enough injustice.
But there was both a hopefulness and futility to these protests that captured my attention, and I began to photograph many of them, which were an almost-daily event on campus. That tension continues to play out in my heart and head today: the pragmatic Singaporean side of me that says protests, or at least protests alone, achieve nothing, and the more idealistic, hopeful side of me that wishes they succeed.
Political protest is a central theme of my novel, set in 1980s Seoul. Why South Korea? Why this time period? I have many answers. Here is one: I’ve spent countless hours in the last four years watching video footage of the democracy movement, and from the first moment I just could not look away. I already knew about the overthrow of President Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, President Chiang Ching Kuo ending martial law in Taiwan in 1987, Tiananmen in 1989, and in Singapore, the arrest of twenty-two social activists in the name of anti-communism in May 1987, at the very same time protests were raging in the streets of Seoul.
South Korea’s political history was the missing piece in my understanding of the tangled web of Asia’s authoritarian leaders, American interests, and the war against communism. Unconditional American support for leaders in Asia who brought communism under control—no matter how much repression they resorted to, or whether ‘communism’ really was communism anyway—is the central theme of our post-war history, and continues to underpin today’s world order.
Ensuring the American system remained primus inter pares, first among equals, was always the US government’s number one priority. Democracy, human rights, civil liberties—these were all just labels, weapons used in their fight. The moment I realised that, everything I had ever believed about America and all its promise, shattered into a million pieces.
When I began writing my novel in 2016, few people had even heard about South Korea’s democracy movement in the 1980s. That’s since changed, with the growing popularity of South Korean pop culture, and hit movies like Taxi Driver and 1987. But I find the film title ‘1987’ misleading. And that for me, is the most interesting thing about South Korea’s democracy movement. Years of political protest, culminating in the June struggle, forced President Chun Doo Hwan’s hand and in July 1987, he resigned.
But his anointed successor, Roh Tae Woo, was democratically elected President in December 1987. (The opposition, unable to get its act together, fielded two candidates, inevitably splitting the vote.) Fearing the public’s wrath, former president Chun fled to a remote temple in the mountains for two years—where he quietly continued to call the shots. It took almost a decade for him to be brought to trial for plundering billions in slush funds, and another two decades for the South Korean government to even see any of that money back in its coffers.
That brings me back to my initial question: does political protest ever bring change? I think it depends on which point in time you stand. The results are not always immediate, sometimes we go backwards rather than forwards, and often we need the long lens of history to really gain perspective on the changes that protest movements have brought about.
Students who had marched in the June Struggle in 1987, watching Roh Tae Woo’s election six months later, were probably in despair. Were their efforts all in vain? Undeterred, they continued their tactics: violent protests continued to rock the city for the next two years. But the public by then, had grown weary. Sentiment began to turn against the students. I’m reminded of a scene from Shin Kyung Sook’s novel I’ll Be Right There, where the protagonist and her boyfriend, fleeing the protests, hide out at a florist. In the shuttered shop, the florist tells them:
“You kids may be in the right, but if you keep this up, the rest of us will have to protest as well. We’ll have to protest all the protesting.” She smiled bitterly. “You kids aren’t doing anything wrong, but we can’t live this way.”
Watching protests break out across Hong Kong last year, I felt an increasing sense of dread as the protests began to turn their rage on mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong, and increasingly, grew more and more violent. If you’ve seen enough protest movements, you know the playbook. Which is why I watched the past week of protests across the US with trepidation: protest movements are often ideologically fragmented, lacking in organisation and discipline. The role of the state is simple: to hold the line and goad protestors into more and more violence, until the public grows weary and sentiment turns. And I say this dispassionately: racial inequality is one of America’s deepest and most persistent fault lines, it is wrong and time after time nothing has changed.
The narrative this time may be different. Tanks in peaceful, prosperous neighbourhoods in California? A government able to mobilise tanks, helicopters and guns but not masks and PPE for its healthcare workers during a pandemic? And an utterly incompetent president with no interest in leading the country out of this mess? (What is democracy again?)
And uh, does anyone still remember the pandemic? There are clearly consequences to hundreds of thousands gathering in the streets during a pandemic when most of the rest of the world, including Singapore, remains under lockdown. This is not to equivocate or imply a moral choice between death by coronavirus or racial violence: both are bad, and one is clearly more abhorrent and unjust, especially given the hugely disproportionate coronavirus death toll in African-American and Latino communities (and mirrored in poor, disadvantaged communities around the world).
But will this be enough for the tide to turn? Or will the status quo, in the end endure? If we measure time in decades, South Korea’s protest movements in the 1980s fundamentally changed the country, moving its society in a more open direction. But its progress has never been linear, and there have been many points in recent history where the country seemed to be slipping back to its past ways. In the same way, China’s proposed National Security Law may seem to be a step back in the history of Hong Kong’s nascent democracy movement. And yet, for now, illegal protests—like tonight’s Tiananmen vigil—remain the only way they can register their unhappiness with the capital, thousands of miles away. It is, as in more ancient times, the common man’s way of ringing the bell: that all is not right, and it may well be futile, but maybe—just maybe—one day the emperor will listen.
Photo Credit: Taken by me at Sather Gate, Berkeley (2001)