Hong Kong: To Be or Not To Be Oppressed

I have never been to Hong Kong. I have not seen its sleek skyscrapers, its mountainous and green terrain, its bay and port, or its famously designed man-made island international airport and transportation hub—but boy, would I love to see and experience it. It is a place I have always desired to go since I was a boy when my Grandma Jan showed me a stream of hundreds of pictures from her trip there in the late 90s. And remember, this was before digital cameras so there was clearly something striking about the place to her too over 20 years ago.

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Looking on from Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood at the Hong Kong Island Skyline  (Courtesy of Celestial Tiger Entertainment and Variety Magazine)

During the time that she was there, it was a new era for Hong Kong. They had been ‘relieved’ of there 156-year British Colonial rule just a year or so prior as they would continue under the “One Country, Two Systems” law with China until 2047—guaranteeing economic and social autonomy as a democratic and capitalist society for at least a generation. Even if it was the result a majority of people did not desire, it was a stable and happier time for Hong Kongers. At least now they knew their own reality after nearly 20 years of negotiations and questions. While they desired to be independent from Britain, they also do not feel a strong cultural bond with mainland China. In many ways, they are more British than Chinese, and their first language (Cantonese, along with English) is not the primary language of China either (Mandarin). Their economy functions as the gateway for China’s economy to the West, while continuing to thrive as its own economy and place. Human rights and their Right to Vote are of the upmost importance to them; however, those rights have begun to be slowly whittled away by the Central Chinese Government in this past decade, nearly 30 years earlier than the original agreement. At times I fear that if I were to visit Hong Kong today, it would no longer resemble the positive place that my Grandma experienced near the beginning of the new millennium. And after writing this post, I myself may have to fear for my life with a simple visit. Regardless of China attempts at oppression, there is a spirit that clearly remains. Because of these oversteps and threats by the Chinese government, our World has witnessed some of the largest, most organized protests for democracy that we have ever seen—The Umbrella Movement.

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Thousands of anti-government protesters take to the streets of Hong Kong on August 18, 2019. (Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Getty Images and Vox)

A little bit of background into the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which led to the handing over of Hong Kong (as if it is a possession) from British to Chinese rule, shows the remaining effects of the First and Second Opium Wars on the Chinese psyche—that the West was not going to continue to dominate Chinese policy and economic potential. Margaret Thatcher, well-known Prime Minister of Britain at the time, and the Crown were strong armed into the agreement, as the British and Hong Kongese (carrying a majority opinion of wanting to stay under British territorial rule) had very little leverage to ward off China’s demands to take back control of the territory and thus the economic powerhouse that it is. Simply put, it is easy to understand where the Chinese were coming from, with the feeling that this British Colony was rightfully “theirs” seeing as the geography is logically China and the people of Hong Kong are of Chinese origin. But the issue is not at all that simple with the growing differences in culture and the desire for a free and fair capitalist democracy by the more socially progressive, freedom-minded Hong Kongese people and government. The agreement led to mass emigration from the city. From 1990-1996 alone, over 300,000 citizens of Hong Kong (with British passports) emigrated to escape the eventual reality that they would just shift from being a colony of the UK to virtually a colony of China. I have been fortunate to make many Chinese and Hong Konger friends during my time in academia and abroad, and I have immense respect for their values and thoughts toward the geopolitical issues that stem from this history. Being American, I will never fully understand either side’s emotion, and being pro-democracy and human rights focused, I cannot help but have an opinion and a stronger relationship with one side over the other in the name of one important word, Sovereignty.

The day that my eyes opened wider to what was happening in Hong Kong was the day that the peaceful protest elevated to another level. The protesters were continuously being pushed by police, literally and figuratively, and Carrie Lam had intended on putting up an Extradition Law (to extradite “criminals” to China whenever they see fit—obviously dangerous, as China could give no reason for an arrest) for a vote prior to election in a slightly skewed Pro-China legislature despite mass outcry in the public against it. So, they began smashing windows of the government building and vandalized the voting chambers because their life depended on it! These events caught my attention, and my first reaction was not to shake my head in disgust at the “violence” that is smashing windows after having been beaten and tear-gassed the night before, it was to look deeper and realize this needed to happen. The world needed to see this to actually HEAR the Hong Konger chants, to see their umbrellas, to see their methods of peaceful protest for a pro-democracy state. It was only then when videos of police brutality, casual subway riders with children being beaten, were released into larger view on the internet.

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A man sprays paint over the Regional Emblem of Hong Kong after anti-extradition bill protesters stormed the Legislative Council Complex (with no police interference) on the 22nd anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 2019. (Reuters)
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An anti-government protester, who later identified himself as a university student, is chased by riot policemen after skirmishes at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on November 12, 2019. (Reuters)

Today, I was awakened by a Hong Kongese friend who shared a video of “The Hong Kong Way” protest, a human chain of protest under the mantra, “let’s hold each other’s hands, connect millions into one under the dark,” to represent their civic duty under democracy and their five demands to the Chinese government (demands that any reasonable person would agree with). They held hands, they held their cell-phones flashlights high and proudly in the air, they chanted like their life depended upon it, and yes, they blocked certain streets at strategic locations throughout the city. This protest was not permitted, it was not allowed, but they persisted to get into “good trouble” in a huge way. There were 210,000 Hong Kongese of different generations, different class, and different experiences stretched across 60 kilometers—over three railroad arteries and the Lion Rock overlooking the entire city and representing the Hong Kong spirit. Protest leaders chose the night of August 23rd, 2019, to link hand-in-hand, heart-to-heart to show the determination of the Hong Kong people to the world. If the world had not already been awaken by sometimes “violent,” most times massive umbrella covered protests, they were going to be awaken by the beauty of humanity asking for one simple thing once and for all, Freedom. The purest of forms, Freedom from Oppression.

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Hundreds of anti-government protesters gather after climbing to the peak of Lion Rock as a lighted sign is held high in the air, in Hong Kong on September 13, 2019. (Reuters)

This summer, similar to the previous summer in Hong Kong, we were finally awakened to the atrocities that our Nation has committed against People-of-Color similarly under the veil of economic prosperity (only not for everyone). We witnessed mass peaceful protests fighting for what is right, for all citizens, no matter color, creed, class, gender, or sexuality, to have a seat at the table. Protests to stop police brutality, especially against poverty and racist-policy-stricken black and brown people. Protests to wake us all up to the collapsing stability and growing divide politically, economically, and racially of our own capitalist system. The few at the top dominating the rest of us, much like the Communist Party dominates its own people and does very little for those of less privilege. In its simplest and purest form, we united as Americans, are also fighting for Freedom from Oppression.

However, instead of paying close attention to the issues and listening, many people chose to take the shallow view (which is exactly what the oppressors want) to focus solely on the property damage that took place in some cities during these protests. But ask yourself, would we still be discussing these protests and the potential solutions that could come of it if the “violence” had not occurred? Based on my experience in caring so deeply about Hong Kong’s woes, connected only by several friends on both sides of the fight, I think not. Undoubtedly, there were mixed opinions on protest methods in Hong Kong too, but they did not wither from the fight as soon as a window was broken. They remained united against the common enemy. All different methods of protest are welcome and necessary when calls for change are being screamed out but still not yet heard. The moment they are heard is when the basics of humanity get their soapbox and our spirit is heard. Whether we want to believe it, or recognize it, or not, our national stability for the majority is at risk—just as it always has been for the less fortunate. I am with everyone else who says this is all very overwhelming, especially during a time of a virus that discriminates against no-one given the same risks. This America has always been an experiment of politics and humanity. Our democracy is at stake, because it is fragile and always has been. We must challenge ourselves to continue to listen, to continue to demand change for a better nation, and to continue to fight with empathy, decency, and optimism for a better tomorrow just like our Hong Kongese brothers across the Pacific. There is nothing more Patriotic than that, moving towards the green light of hope.

Today, I was unable to hold back my emotion when I watched a commemorative video of “The Hong Kong Way” protest, just as I was unable to do during those dark and sweltering summer days in America. I cried within a moment of seeing the passion, the love for one’s democracy and the desire to make it better and stronger as one people. To see all walks of life stand together for a common cause—to show how much we all care so deeply for one another—shines a light on what we are all fighting for in the first place.

Today, one year later, there have been countless arrests of protest leaders by the national government under a new national security law that went into effect on July 1, 2020, which albeit silences free speech against the government within Hong Kong’s borders and continues a requirement of the Chinese Communist Party to be in agreement of who to head the executive office of the “democratic” region. Further, their democratic elections set to take place this year have been pushed back indefinitely due to Covid-19 (sound familiar?), even though there is zero community spread taking place.

Still though, the spirit is alive, but slightly sickened, in Hong Kong. The light is dimming at a quick pace as the rest of the world stands back and does little to nothing at all. Their democracy has not yet ended, but the clear signs of its fragility and risk are there in front of them. So, they choose to keep on fighting in whatever way possible.

In Hong Kong, they too must risk themselves outside of their daily comforts for what is right.

In Hong Kong, they too know what it means to choose ‘country’ over all else.

In Hong Kong, they too choose the future of their children over their present comfort.

In Hong Kong, they reference the great democracies of the world (i.e. United States) and the great protest movements of the last century (Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, Stonewall/Pride Movement) as inspiration to keep on fighting and to keep that powerful Hong Kong spirit alive.

In Hong Kong, they wave the American flag as a symbol of the sort of democracy they want to be—independent of colonial rule. But in seeing the beauty of humanity and the way they stand together hand-in-hand, heart-to-heart, united under one cause, I wonder if maybe we should be the ones waving the Hong Kong flag. When we finally decide to be united with love against the common enemies of oppression and hate, we will survive and prosper… hand-in-hand, heart-to-heart.

In Hong Kong, amongst all the bad signs, there still remains hope.

“Shall this light be passed on forever, and never wither.” -The Hongkongers

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Hong Kong protesters wave the American Flag as a symbol of a democracy they desire and to call for US help in warding off Chinese oppression on August 23, 2019. (South China Morning Post and The New York Times)

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