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Andre Theng, Vincent Tse & Jasper Wu: Who is included in ‘Together’?

Conflicting Senses of Responsibility in the Hong Kong COVID-19 Landscapes


"We observe how an institutional sense of responsibility is both appropriated and recontextualised by different entities in Hong Kong. The high degree of intertextuality we find in our data, especially those which call upon in-group political discourses confirms that the pandemic has been a distinctly public crisis connected to broader discourses of consumerism and neoliberalism."

The COVID-19 pandemic has become invariably and inevitably entangled with broader socio-political concerns all around the world. This has been no exception to Hong Kong where the pandemic has come during an extended period of civic unrest concerning a loss of autonomy and civil liberties in the city. The political unrest was made visibly evident all throughout the city; aside from graffiti, posters and other protest-related material emplaced in public universities and other public locations. This heated political atmosphere formed the backdrop of the government’s response to the pandemic. It is thus perhaps not coincidental that the government’s slogan in its pandemic response has been 同心抗疫 (“Together We Fight The Virus”). The tagline foregrounds the idea of “togetherness,” giving rise to our question of who exactly might ‘together’ refer to amidst longstanding discussions about the quintessential Hong Kong identity, which have surely intensified as a result of the unrest. Sociolinguistically speaking, our understanding of “togetherness” draws from work interested in how solidarity is linguistically achieved (Snell, 2018), and our reading of signs bears in mind the ‘affective turn’ (Milani and Richardson, 2020) in the field.


Institutional Discourse

The government’s pandemic communication has revolved around the “together” slogan, as seen in a bilingual banner (Figure 1) commonly found in public areas such as parks, footbridges, and the harbour walkways. The institutionally emplaced nature of the banner is evidenced by the logo of the relevant government department in the bottom left corner. Instead of explicitly drawing attention to legal penalties for disobeying restrictions, an appeal to togetherness is foregrounded to discourage gatherings. A sense of togetherness forms the basis for following legalised responsibilities.

Figure 1


The government’s pandemic communication has revolved around the “together” slogan, as seen in a bilingual banner (Figure 1) commonly found in public areas such as parks, footbridges, and the harbour walkways. The institutionally emplaced nature of the banner is evidenced by the logo of the relevant government department in the bottom left corner. Instead of explicitly drawing attention to legal penalties for disobeying restrictions, an appeal to togetherness is foregrounded to discourage gatherings. A sense of togetherness forms the basis for following legalised responsibilities.

Figure 2


The tagline itself can be traced to government press conferences where it was used as a backdrop. ‘同心’ (which can be translated into ‘with one heart’) in the Chinese version of the slogan suggests that everyone in Hong Kong is on the same boat. This is not coincidental given the protracted anti-extradition protests which has polarised Hong Kong since 2019. The rhetorical strategy of togetherness can be seen running through the promotion of preventive measures taken by the government, including testing and vaccination, and has been reappropriated by other social actors.


Commercial Discourse

The rhetoric of togetherness has been adopted by commercial shops as well. The sign in Figure 3 recontextualises the government slogan and at least two different voices (Agha, 2005) (the shop’s and the government’s) can be seen. The slogan is found in the header together with photos featuring masked chefs and servers. This visual representation illustrates that the employees of this restaurant are abiding by legal obligations. At the bottom of the notice, mannequins in vibrant colours are shown to be fully stretching their arms, a representation that conveys energy as opposed to illnesses. What should be noted is the causal relationship constructed to demonstrate a sense of social responsibility. The reason for temperature checks is to ensure other customers and employees’ health. The restaurant draws on the voice of the government, both in terms of highlighting togetherness and in terms of presenting legalised procedures, to ensure that they can still operate during the pandemic.

Figure 3


Some small businesses foreground communal responsibility to attract local customers. This sign (Figure 4) is displayed on a street-facing window of a neighbourhood traditional Hong Kong noodle shop. The characters 益街坊 can be translated as ‘to bring benefit to one’s neighbours’ in colloquial Cantonese, invoking here a sense of communal ‘service’ and ‘care’ (see Tsang 2008: 189 for related idiomatic expressions in Hong Kong Cantonese). This harmonises with the warm orange writing surface. Compared to a typewritten text that is printed en masse, the dynamic hand-written text personifies the sign and builds solidarity between the author of the sign (presumably the shop owner) and the reader, or the potential customer. The market strategy of offering a discount is affectively charged with the morality of a neighbourhood noodle shop taking up the social responsibility of caring for the catering needs of the local community. In this way, the notion of communal togetherness is voiced through the market register of product discounts.

Political-communal Entanglements


Figure 5


Communal solidarity is also articulated through political solidarity. Parodying the opening narrative and in-game instructions from the popular boardgame The Werewolves of Millers Hollow, this sign (Figure 5) satirically mocks the government’s policy to ban dine-in only in the evenings (see HKSAR Government 2020), pointing to a logical fallacy that the virus only affects people after a certain time. The sign appropriates the voice of the policy, then subverts the argument to create a satirical voice. Resembling the material practice of posting ad-hoc paper political signs, the shop resonates with practices developed among protesters since the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 (Anfinson 2020). This affective resonance of the political discourse is backed by the black panels showing the ambigram that can be read as 香港 (“Hong Kong”) and 加油 (“Keep it up”), which are circulated among supporters of the movements. In the context of COVID, however, this could potentially be interpreted with a second meaning in cheering for Hong Kong in the fight against the pandemic.



Another requirement has been for shop visitors to check-in with the government-developed tracing app, Leave Home Safe. The satirical message found at a restaurant in Figure 6 voices concern that the app might in fact be employed as a tool for digital surveillance (see Li & Wan 2021: 225). Satire is suggested through the sign’s appropriation of the app’s colour scheme, and the resemblance between the scriptural arrangement of the phrase for ‘digital surveillance’ and that of the name of the. Fighting this ‘suspicious’ app is a tense looking pig holding a chopper, iconic of an online forum popular among supporters of the recent political movements (Pang 2021: 13). The figure of the pig invokes communal solidarity in staying cautious against government surveillance that might be carried out under the guise of pandemic prevention. Criticism against government policy is articulated through the communal voice of the online forum.


Conclusion

We observe how an institutional sense of responsibility is both appropriated and recontextualised by different entities in Hong Kong. The high degree of intertextuality we find in our data, especially those which call upon in-group political discourses confirms that the pandemic has been a distinctly public crisis connected to broader discourses of consumerism and neoliberalism. Our perspective from Hong Kong shows a further entanglement of consumerism with the political context, thus hopefully adding a useful perspective towards research into the manifold ways in which the pandemic is transforming cities.


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