The phrase “soft resistance” (軟對抗) began to be invoked with dizzying frequency in May 2023 by state-run media in Hong Kong and top city officials, including Chief Executive John Lee, Secretary for Security Chris Tang, Police Commissioner Raymond Siu, and Legislative Councilor Michael Luk.
None of the phrase’s heavy users have defined its meaning or parameters, but they have variously lobbed the accusation at people who sprayed water at police during the traditional New Year’s water festival; Cathay Pacific cabin crew who mocked a mainland passenger’s poor English; “yellow” book fairs; and local residents who chose to withdraw from a voluntary organ donation scheme ahead of its integration with mainland registries. It’s also been vaguely associated with any attempt to incite dissatisfaction with the government through media, culture, and the arts. The familiar mix of ubiquity and ambiguity shows how “soft resistance” is rapidly becoming the favored catchall for any behavior SAR authorities wish to stamp out.
With no more opposition to vote for, protests to attend, or openly critical media to consume, Hongkongers have been learning to find subtle, roundabout ways in their daily lives to assert their own autonomy and hold onto their beliefs — even as they are forced to hide them. The response from the government is unequivocal: no act of disobedience is too small to ignore. No resistance is too soft to break.