The Multiplicities of Freedom in Hong Kong

Loretta Lou is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Macau. She holds a DPhil in Anthropology from the University of Oxford. Her research interests lie in the areas of environment, health, gender, and activism in East Asia. She is currently writing her first book titled Green Living and Social Transformation in Hong Kong, which is under contract with the University of Washington Press. In this blog for Hong Kong Insight, she introduces her article, ‘Freedom as ethical practices: on the possibility of freedom through freeganism and freecycling in Hong Kong’, published in Asian Anthropology, volume 18(4), 2019.

In Hong Kong, freedom is widely considered a core value that defines many of its political and cultural identities, especially in relation to the “nonfreedom” in mainland China. When the people of Hong Kong talk about freedom, what they are usually referring to is economic freedom and freedom of speech—the two kinds of freedom that are thought to differentiate Hong Kong from the rest of China. And although there are clear signs of gradual erosion of free speech, Hong Kong people still have relatively more freedom than their counterparts in China in this regard. Ironically, as Laikwan Pang rightly points out, the freedom that Hong Kong people take pride in can also be inhibiting and alienating, as such freedom is deeply embedded in capitalism and in the neoliberalist values that shape Hong Kong on all fronts (Pang 2018, 2).

In recent years, the social movements in Hong Kong have prompted local scholars and public intellectuals to reflect on how freedom may be reimagined and re-conceptualized in the local context. Empirically, while many scholars have discussed freedom in relations to Hong Kong’s economic structures and its ongoing democratic movements, few have examined freedom beyond these domains. Theoretically, although freedom has been well studied as an ideal in political philosophy, relatively little research has focused on the human experience of freedom. As anthropologists Schut and Grassiani (2017, 8) observe, “studies of freedom, or of what it means to be free, are often characterized by a focus on its relative absence”. Since freedom tends to be examined within the purview of people’s struggle against oppression or as a dream held by the imprisoned, we know very little about freedom as an “experience” or a “subjective state” of those who claim to be free (2017, 8).

In my own research on people who strived to live a green and ethical life in Hong Kong (Lou 2017), the notion of freedom came up frequently among those who tried to practice freeganism and freecycling in their everyday life. Freeganism is a way of living “based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources” ( 2018). Derived from the words “free” and “vegan”, freeganism in the West includes anticonsumerist practices like dumpster diving, squatting in abandoned buildings, “guerrilla gardening” in vacant city lots, and foraging wild food (Barnard 2011, 420). Freecycling, on the other hand, is the act of giving and getting items for free, usually from people who live in the same town. It is a global grassroots movement that aims to keep reusable items out of landfills by “changing the world one gift at a time” ( 2019). While neither the freegans nor the freecyclers in Hong Kong claimed that their movements have succeeded in destabilizing the orders that make the “skeleton of this capitalist city” (Pang 2018), like practitioners in other parts of the world, they expressed a sense of liberation from the circuit of capitalism (Barnard 2011; Ernst 2010; Krøijer 2015) even though the entrenchment of certain neoliberal values was evident in their thoughts and practices.

In a recent article I published in Asian Anthropology (Lou 2019), I revisited the concept of freedom through the practices of freecycling and freeganism in Hong Kong. The research is based on 14 months of fieldwork in Hong Kong between 2012 and 2013, during which I conducted an ethnographic study of the “green living movement” and its implications for people’s self-understanding, social relations, ethics, and social movements. Freeganism and freecycling are two of the green living practices, among many others, that my interlocutors made an effort to adhere to.

In illustrating how freegans and freecyclers in Hong Kong make an effort to reduce waste and combat overconsumption by pursuing a simpler and less materialistic way of life, I argue that their actions are motivated by a sense of environmental responsibility as much as the desire to attain more personal and political freedom in Hong Kong. Most importantly, my study finds that both freegans and freecyclers in Hong Kong acknowledge the significance of ethical practices in their pursuit of individual and social freedom. In both cases, the freedom to which they aspire is not a freedom without constraints (i.e. Isaiah Berlin’s ‘negative freedom’), but a freedom that encourages self-denial and self-realization for a common good (i.e. positive freedom and social freedom).

By reimagining freedom as the ability to be an ethical being rather than a right that comes naturally with birth (and without obligations), the freegans and freecyclers in Hong Kong demonstrate that the attainment of freedom, however paradoxical it sounds, can be achieved through an exercise of self-discipline rather than self-indulgence. The multiplicities of freedom that this research discovered not only lays grounds for a greater understanding of how freedom is practised by ordinary people outside the activist circles, but also spurs hope and possibilities for the city’s uncertain future.

To cite this article: Lou, Loretta Ieng Tak (2019) Freedom as ethical practices: on the possibility of freedom through freeganism and freecycling in Hong Kong, Asian Anthropology, 18:4, 249-265, DOI: 10.1080/1683478X.2019.1633728


Barnard, Alex V. 2011. “Waving the Banana at Capitalism: Political Theater and Social Movement Strategy among New York’s ‘Freegan’ Dumpster Divers.” Ethnography 12 (4): 419–444. doi:10. 1177/1466138110392453.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1969. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Four Essays on Liberty, 118–172. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ernst, Kelly. 2010. “‘A Revolution We Create Daily’: Freegan Alternatives to Capitalist Consumption in New York City.” PhD diss., American University. 

Krøijer, Stine. 2015. “Revolution Is the Way You Eat: Exemplification among Left Radical Activists in Denmark and in Anthropology.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21 (S1): 78–95. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12167.

Pang, Laikwan. 2018. “Between Liberty and Equality: Lessons from Hong Kong.” Global-e 11 (3): 1–6. Accessed April 2 2019. liberty-and-equality-lessons-hong-kong

Schut, Thijs, and Erella Grassiani. 2017. “Introduction: Freedom.” Etnofoor 29 (1): 7–10.

Lou, Loretta Ieng Tak. 2017. The Material Culture of Green Living in HongKong, Anthropology Now, 9:1, 70-7