A record two million people took to Hong Kong’s streets on Sunday to protest Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s controversial extradition bill.
The bill, which has now been suspended, would see criminal suspects extradited from Hong Kong to Mainland China to face trial under a Communist legal system.
While it’s now been put on hold and Carrie Lam has ‘sincerely apologised for her handling of the situation’ it took one in three Hong Kong residents to come out in protest, to make themselves heard.
Despite facing tear gas, rubber bullets and batons, Hong Kong people stood shoulder to shoulder, determined to fight for what they believe is their freedom.
Still, despite this mass show of people power which garnered global attention, having lived in both Hong Kong and Mainland China, I can almost guarantee, Mainland Chinese residents barely even batted an eyelid over it.
And if they did hear or see anything about the mammoth upset, there’s no doubt it would’ve been through a tinted media lens.
It was September 2014, when I’d just moved from the financial hub of Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million, to Xi’an, a second-tier city in Mainland China, with a population approaching nine million. But despite similar population numbers, ultimately that’s where the similarities ended.
The renowned ‘Umbrella Revolution’ or Hong Kong democracy protests had erupted after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (NPCSC) prescribed selective pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. In other words, Hong Kong’s new leader would be chosen by a pro Beijing committee, something most Hong Kongers vehemently opposed.
Strict censorship rules in Mainland China meant little was broadcast on the nation’s media about the mass protests, but living in a western-brand hotel meant, unlike the rest of the country, we had access to western channels, the likes of CNN and BBC. Naturally these media conglomerates were televising news of the protests, like they have this past week, globally.
Yet, the second the symbolic yellow umbrellas flashed up on our TV screen in Xi’an (they were used by protestors shielding themselves against pepper spray), our screen cut to black.
At the time, I just assumed it was a power cut. We’d already had a few of those. But it wasn’t, everything else was lit up like a Christmas tree and as soon as the story was over, our television cut back to the regular news being beamed out across the world (and China).
The next day, I read a copy of the local newspaper printed in English, which whilst it briefly mentioned the protests, it was in a very different light to the rest of the world. Headlines like ‘Protesters Endanger Hong Kong’s Safety’ and “Yellow Umbrella Movement Not in the People’s Interest” were par for the course.
In keeping with tradition, this week the Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency reported the extradition bill was supported by Hong Kong’s “mainstream public opinions.” And on Chinese social media, censors have apparently been working around the clock to delete images of the protests.
Having lived in Hong Kong for four years I knew there was division between the ‘City that Never Sleeps’ and the 1.4 billion Mainlanders — I learned early on never to call a Hong Kong person ‘Chinese’.
To many Hong Kongers, Mainland Chinese are seen as ‘unsophisticated, brash, rude and pushy’ – but on the flip-side Mainlanders, see Hong Kong people as snobby and disrespectful to the Motherland.
It took living in the middle of China though to see both sides and that the differences extend far beyond name-calling or the language spoken. (In Hong Kong, the predominant language is Cantonese, while in most of Mainland China, it’s mandarin.)
I quickly learned that the differences went far deeper than the state of healthcare, hygiene or history, than the real estate, education, food, and even the culture in each place. And by no means was either side to blame for these two places being like chalk and cheese.
Unlike the Mainland, after 156 years under British rule, Hong Kong has become a careful blend of the East and West. It was handed back to China in 1997, but under the firm promise it would remain One Country, Two Systems. Legally part of China, but a SAR, Special Administrative Region with its own autonomy, economy, rule of law and independent judiciary.
Still despite the Motherland taking Hong Kong under her wing, the relationship over the past 22 years has been frosty, with little chance of thawing as Hong Kong residents grapple with the idea of a future under the Motherland’s umbrella.
Mainland Chinese have continued to come under fire for everything from coming into the city’s hospitals to have their babies, putting a heavier burden on the city’s medical system, to stockpiling milk powder for their babies after the 2008 melamine scandal.
And more recently, lawyers in Hong Kong have claimed fair trials and due process across the soft border are questionable, with people accused of crimes they allegedly didn’t commit. In 2014, several Hong Kong booksellers critical of China also infamously disappeared, inexplicably reappearing in custody across the border.
Still, wealthy Mainlanders have been a lifeline for Hong Kong’s economy, regularly crossing the border to shop up a storm, even though they still need a special visa to fly directly into the city.
But, surprisingly most Chinese locals I spoke with over the two and a half years we lived in Xi’an had never been to Hong Kong and knew very little about the city.
Most had no idea of Hong Kong’s hostilities or why, because, to them, like the city of Hong Kong, democracy is also an enigma.
Having lived and befriended both sides of the battle, I can tell you, it’s like pitting men from Mars against women from Venus. (We all know how that goes, right?) 😉
Currently Hong Kong is scheduled to officially revert to total mainland Chinese control in 2047.
As the Motherland continues to try and reconnect with her child, hopefully she can remember, the best thing we can often do for our children is to allow them to do things for themselves.