A group of students at a Hong Kong secondary school take the stage at an assembly and stand for the Chinese national anthem, staring straight ahead. As the initial orchestra stabs of “March of the Volunteers” ring out, the students stumble into a different song entirely. “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of angry men?” they sing, struggling at first to get on the same tempo and key.
Yet, as the national anthem continues, we see the young men and women on stage find their coordination, eventually cutting off in unison to the music with a final line: “There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!” The ensuing silence hangs in the air, then breaks under an uneasy and excitable murmuring floating through the audience. It’s hard to know what anyone on stage is thinking, but clearly, this was an act coordinated long in advance. The song they chose to drown out the national anthem, meanwhile, speaks multitudes despite it being written in a foreign tongue.
“Do You Hear the People Sing?” is the iconic, theme-defining center of the 1985 stage musical Les Misérables. Adapted from the 1862 novel of the same name by writer and activist Victor Hugo, the story details the struggles and injustices faced by common people amid a backdrop of the French Revolution. The song is used in the production as a literal rallying call for people to take action against oppression. “It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again,” it declares.
Hong Kongers have taken to the tune with a frenzy. It’s obviously a volatile period in the peninsula, which has had its own economy and government separate from that of mainland China since Britain “handed over” the region in 1997. A series of moves by the Communist Party in Beijing, however, has challenged Hong Kong’s sovereignty over the past five years, culminating this year with a fight over a now-defunct extradition bill that would have given Beijing unprecedented power.
Though that bill is now off the table, protesters are demanding that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down, Hong Kong police be investigated for brutality and overreach and more democratic rights. This isn’t just about governance — it’s about cultural independence. And the protest movement, led by mostly young people in a decentralized fashion (as with Antifa in the U.S.), hasn’t lost momentum through the summer. Instead, they’ve kept clashing and singing, in English and Cantonese, in airports and shopping centers and central streets.
Marva Barnett, a University of Virginia professor who is an expert on Hugo and Les Mis, tells me that the musical makes for good protest material because of Hugo’s own philosophy on life: That people’s humanity, love and strength for each other can overcome anything, as long as we pay attention. Hugo wrote the novel to shine a light on the plight of common people everywhere, Barnett says, with sweeping, relatable themes to anchor the characters.
“‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ is attractive to so many as a protest song for a lot reasons. It’s a battle cry, a rousing anthem that stirs one’s blood,” she tells me. “It’s a progressive demand that we notice people at the bottom of society. At the same time, the words and music express hope and optimism in the midst of human distress — agony, even.”
The musical debuted in 1980 as a French production, with the English version following in 1985. Ironically, lyricist Herbert Kretzmer didn’t realize his adaptation could become such an iconic and recognized song. “The original French lyrics for the signature song warned of the ‘will of the people.’ To me, that felt like political grandstanding — so I rewrote it to link the idea of liberty and democracy with the song title itself,” Kretzmer wrote in the Daily Mail. “But I never imagined ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ might become an anthem for protesters everywhere.”
It most definitely has. In fact, Hong Kong is just the latest example. In just the last decade alone, the anthem has been used in the U.S., Turkey, Korea, Ukraine and beyond.
Wisconsin, 2011: A proposed state budget bill that would take away major bargaining rights and limited raises for public workers inspired the ire of a reported 100,000 protesters over the course of early 2011. Gov. Scott Walker claimed that without the changes, the state wouldn’t be able to balance its books. The public responded by flooding the capitol and singing a Les Mis tune at the top of their lungs.
Turkey, 2013: It was a simple sit-in protest in opposition to an urban development that would change Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul. But a violent breakup of the sit-in by police led to a series of strikes and protests in late May that became a referendum on Turkey’s future, with cries for greater protections for a free press, freedom of expression and the right to protest. More than 5,000 demonstrations took place across the country. One group decided to sum up the message by performing a rousing rendition of “Do You Hear…?” at the park that started it all.
Ukraine, 2013: The Euromaidan was one of the most significant protest movements of the last decade, given its size and influence within Ukraine and around Europe. At its heart was the decision by Ukrainian leaders to forgo an agreement to join forces with the European Union in favor of a similar agreement with Russia. That sparked protests in Kiev that spread around Ukraine, with young people leading the fight. This video shows a group of students in a public transportation hub, waving signs to encourage people to support the protests while singing in Ukranian.
Hong Kong, 2014: The “Umbrella Movement” is a direct precursor to the 2019 protests, and it turns out that translated versions of “Do You Hear…?” were being sung in public spaces back then, too. In fact, that’s probably a big reason why the Chinese government started censoring all forms of the song off of streaming services, while leaving the rest of the Les Mis soundtrack intact.
Miami, 2016: Always one to play the victim and never one to really be cowed by irony, then-Republican candidate Donald Trump walked out to the song on the campaign trail as a direct reaction to Hillary Clinton calling his supporters “deplorables.” As the song blared, Trump grinned and mugged in front of an edited image of rebels from the musical that now depicted Trump flags and the label “Les Deplorables.”
South Korea, 2016-2017: Damning accusations of corruption and improper influence in South Korea’s highest office led to unprecedented numbers of people coming together in protest of then-President Park Geun-Hye in 2016. At one massive 2017 rally in Seoul, not long before the president’s impeachment and arrest, a crowd gathered to sing along to a Korean translation of “Do You Hear….?”
Which brings us back to today’s Hong Kong protests. Curious about what a Hongkonger would think about the use of the song, I reached out to people on Twitter and heard back from Tommy Leung, a 25-year-old citizen there. He tells me he’s heard the song become far more common in the last several months, with crowds singing it in malls, schools and public squares. “Since the song is about how people overcome adversity and fight for freedom, it matched the current situation in Hong Kong: A government that never listens to the people and only obey the order from the government of China,” he explains. “For me, everyone who stands on the front line is a hero. They knew the price for freedom. Some of them had been charged for riot, which is a maximum of 10 years in jail.”
I also asked Barnett what Hugo would make of this. “Hugo supported democratic movements, territorial independence and revolutionary activity against absolutist kings in countries and territories as far-flung as Cuba, Mexico, Poland, Crete, Haiti and elsewhere,” she says. “As a lifelong believer in what he called ‘universal pardon,’ Hugo even lobbied for amnesty for French revolutionaries and exiles.”
Sounds like he’d probably support the demands in Hong Kong to give arrested protesters clemency. In the meantime, the movement on the peninsula has gotten more creative in the last few weeks — a new song, titled “Glory to Hong Kong,” has risen from an online community of protesters. Written by a young man only known as “Thomas,” the new anthem is now officially the B-side to “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” being sung in malls and streets and glossy YouTube music videos.
All of this singing could land people in jail, thanks to a 2017 clause inserted into the Hong Kong constitution by Beijing that makes it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem or flag, punishable by jail time. Leung, though, is betting on the “courage of the Hong Kong teenagers” to keep the movement sharp despite that kind of pressure from the authorities. “We never surrender,” he tells me, which is a significant theme that runs through the entire Les Mis musical.
In fact, I think Kretzmer, the lyricist, probably summed up the feelings of protesters in his Daily Mail piece: “If you have to worry about being punished for singing a song that gives voice to the beliefs of masses of people,” he wrote, “it only shows that the government itself is in deep trouble.”