Communication Currents

Communication Currents

A Rhetorical Analysis of the Lion Rock Protest in Hong Kong

December 17, 2020
Critical and Cultural Studies

Hong Kong has long maintained some independence from Beijing and the Chinese mainland, due to its history under British colonial rule and a 1997 agreement that cemented Hong Kong’s independent governance in the decades following. However, that independence was threatened by a law proposed in 2014 that would have essentially mandated that any Chief Executive elected to lead Hong Kong could be rejected by the Communist Party of China (CPC) if they did not meet the party’s approval. This prompted widespread protest, particularly by youth and students in Hong Kong, who wanted free and fair elections without CPC influence. In one notable protest, young people climbed Hong Kong’s Lion Rock and affixed a banner reading “I Want Real Universal Suffrage” in traditional Chinese characters to the rock. In a new article published in NCA’s Quarterly Journal of Speech, David R. Gruber examines Lion Rock as a “theatrical event of dissention.”

Theatrical Event of Dissention

Gruber argues that theatrical events of dissention seize a moment in time and a particular place. They are “unrepeatable, and as such, puncture the stalemate of political entrenchment and indecision.” Done at just the right moment, these events “capture the moment in an especially poignant way.” The event at Lion Rock occurred about a month into the initial wave of Hong Kong student protests in 2014. A group of protestors, known as Hong Kong Spidie after the superhero Spiderman, scaled Lion Rock in direct response to threats to student protest leaders and a statement from Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that “Democracy would see poor people dominate the Hong Kong vote.” According to Gruber, the implication that “poor people” would “lead the region astray” was one of the driving factors behind the location of the protest. Because of the symbolism of Lion Rock, discussed below, the event made a particularly strong statement about who has been historically included and excluded from Hong Kong society.

Lion Rock and the Protest

Lion Rock looms over Hong Kong. In contrast to the nearby urban area, Lion Rock is a granite peak covered in brush. It is a difficult climb, unsuitable for a hiking day trip. The neighborhood directly below Lion Rock is known as Kowloon. It was once “the only place in Hong Kong from [the] 1950s to the 1980s where British colonial rule was, by and large, not enforced… [It was] dominated by gang activity, prostitution, and gambling.” In recent decades, the area became known as a place of refuge for people from mainland China who sought a new life in Hong Kong. This experience was dramatized in the television series, Below Lion Rock, which, Gruber writes, “told stories about the grassroots people who lived in the public housing estates and squatter huts in the working-class communities directly below Lion Rock.” Today, Kowloon is comprised of middle-class neighborhoods, as well as some “micro apartments” for low-wage workers. Gruber argues that because of its history, Lion Rock has served as a symbol of the opportunity for a better life in Hong Kong.

When the Hong Kong Spidie group scaled the rock, they noted that the climb itself was a symbol of the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong. The action also symbolized the protestors’ belief that the fight for democracy would improve the city. In an interview with local news media, a member of the group said that “The people fighting for real universal suffrage all over Hong Kong have shown great perseverance. This kind of fighting against injustice, strength in the face of troubles, is the true Lion Rock spirit.” Gruber also argues that climbing Lion Rock was symbolic of the economic struggles of those at the bottom of the social classes in Hong Kong, who lived in the shadow of the rock and had to “climb” their way up.

The protestors recorded their climb and set it to hopeful Cantonese music. The dramatic video shows how the climbers worked together throughout the arduous ascent that culminated in the placement of a yellow “Universal Suffrage” banner atop the peak. In addition to this video, the protestors also released a video of a protestor dressed as Spiderman sitting atop Lion Rock. The costume masks the protestor’s identity, but also symbolically conveys that the protestors are in a battle of good against evil, just as in the Spiderman comics. However, Gruber also argues that Spiderman’s hidden identity could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, “as an image of Hongkongers masking their true identities and cowering as they encounter large-scale and well-funded policing apparatuses.”


Gruber argues that Lion Rock connects Hongkongers to their history, as well as to Chinese culture. According to Gruber, “the lion shape of the rock could be interpreted as a traditional Chinese figure that represents a strong protector of the weak, thus embodying a historical point of cultural identification with China and resistance to the all-encompassing national project simultaneously.” The theatrical event also inspired discussion in Hong Kong’s newspaper, the South China Morning Post, about the history of the rock itself.&

The placement of the banner on Lion Rock also lent ethos, or authority, to the protestors. Indeed, ultimately, the Hong Kong government chose not to punish the protestors. The government did remove the banner itself, which may have been a recognition of public’s sympathy toward the protestors. The government’s decision to simply remove the banner also showed restraint, compared to other incidents during the protests in Hong Kong when protestors were tear gassed. However, in the end, the removal of the banner “reinforced their [the government’s] message, namely, that they were opposed to forceful declarations of ‘Universal Suffrage’ and hoped to disconnect Lion Rock from any desire for Hong Kong to become a truly democratic space.”

Gruber concludes that Lion Rock is one example of how theatrical events of dissention use local environments and their history to call for empathy. By protesting on Lion Rock, the climbers drew attention to the struggling neighborhoods below, where some people live in “micro apartments” that lack even a shower. According to Gruber, “Attention to Lion Rock—to the rock itself and to its range—challenges politicians to get outside and to experience the life of those that they govern.”

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: David R. Gruber (2020) The theatricality of Lion Rock: A new materialist theory for events of dissention, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 106:4, 453-469, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2020.1828607

About the author (s)

David R. Gruber

University of Copenhagen 

Assistant Professor, Department of Communication

David R. Gruber