My heart tightens when I think of Hong Kong. The place where my only baby was born, the enchanting land where we were embraced and emboldened by its people to call it our home for many years. I have yet to meet a nation of people who’re so humble, hardworking and harmonious. Truly.
Open up any newspaper around the world today though, watch any news bulletin and you’ll read, see and hear of the violence and anger that has gripped the financial hub of 7.5 million for the past few months; you’ll hear of an economy plunging, a tourist haven in jeopardy and you’ll likely feel the fear, fear of the unknown.
So, as I watch on with the rest of the world holding our breath, waiting for what comes next, after eleven consecutive weekends of protests that have involved many hundreds of thousands of people desperate to be heard, I can’t help but wonder where this will end.
You see, I also know China, the real China. A city in the very heart of the mainland whose people also took us into their fold welcoming us with open arms, begging us to stay when we had to call it a day after 2.5 years.
Sure, the constitution that surrounds and imbues China is poles apart from Hong Kong, but its people, essentially carry the same hallmarks of decency and kindness. This I know.
But, despite the resonating, well-meaning civility that comes from both sides, there is clearly a great divide. After all that’s what started this whole mess isn’t it?
And now it seems the divide is spreading like wildfire amongst Hong Kong’s own people. Pro-Government versus anti-government, police versus the protesters, generations against each other, everyone’s cage is rattled.
“I feel ashamed of our Chief Executive who ignores the voices of the Hong Kong people — Carrie Lam is the one who has put the police force right upfront to fight against the citizens of Hong Kong while she hides behind them. She has turned us into enemies whilst we are all from the same root. Shame on her!” One impassioned local tells me.
Another is preparing to leave his home of Hong Kong after 50 long years. A former member of the police force and then ICAC, he’s furious and deeply saddened about what’s happened to the city’s police.
Either way, the passion from most locals is evident and only continues to grow stronger with each new day.
Mona Wong calls herself a proud Hong Kong citizen and has participated in the peaceful rallies. She says, while she doesn’t agree with any form of violence or abusive behaviour from the protestors or police officers, she can feel the protestor’s pain.
“After weeks and weeks of peaceful protests our government hasn’t listened to our noise or demands, using excessive force to stop the protestors,” she says.
In a move perhaps not seen before anywhere else in the world, there is no protest leader, and actions are decided on the spot. It seems the protestors have borrowed a strategy from a Bruce Lee movie, known as Be Water, My Friend.
Instead of staging massive sit ins, they move in unexpected waves, rolling from one spot to another, a “formless” protest in Lee’s words – to sustain their momentum and secure the continued goodwill of the public.
But that hasn’t always panned out so well. The city’s international airport was in lockdown after anger spilled over and anti government protestors and police clashed, forcing hundreds of flights to be delayed or cancelled.
Vivian* born and bred in Hong Kong says, “I one hundred per cent support the protesters. But when they act wrong, we will remind them. Like blocking people to get on a flight, that’s why the youngsters sent an apology letter yesterday.”
“We make a mistake, we own, it we learn from it, we improve from it. We are very proud of this generation.” She says.
And they did. A full-page apology for the airport fiasco was issued.
Many in Hong Kong have taken to wearing black every day to show their support for the protestors and essentially show which side they’re on.
But it seems not everyone is prepared to follow suit.
“My aunts and uncles are afraid of us in our black shirts, they think we are the ones to stir things up.” Vivian says. Another tells me, she’s witnessed many family fights erupt because of the protests. “It’s breaking families apart.”
Some even say they’ve heard students are being paid to take things a step further. HK$500 per brick/per window broken – many reportedly doing it for petty cash.
And for some, despite supporting the initial cause, their sympathy is fast running out.
Businessman and long time resident of Hong Kong, Chris* believes, few have a realistic view of the outcome.
“Most of those who are supporting the protesters don’t know China well and are of a younger population who’re hoping to send Hong Kong back to a time that never was. They are also millennials who know nothing of the lives of their parents or their work ethics which built the foundation of Hong Kong.
It was never open or democratic – under the British they complained of the British and proclaimed they were Chinese. And now? They had everything going for them as a key open and free city in an emerging China with the best legal system in Asia and they are squandering it all. They will never accept they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction and will always blame China for that.”
While most expats in Hong Kong (and there are over 300,000) support the general ideals, saying they have no plans to leave at the moment, many are expressing concern with each week that passes. ‘The protesters whilst trying to be creative and fluid, will start to test the patience of otherwise sympathetic citizens,’ one expat says.
But they freely admit, the Hong Kong government appears to be tone deaf when it comes to listening to the people, reeling out generic responses. ‘They do not seem to want (or are allowed) to listen.’
Another longtime expat, Aaron* says, “The police and Carrie Lam have shown themselves to hold the people of Hong Kong with contempt. I’m guessing she isn’t able to do anything without approval from Beijing and they won’t acquiese to the demands of the people. Imagine the implications of that!”
With emotions running high, no matter which side of the fence you sit on, for most people living in Hong Kong it’s simple – let us keep our freedom, let us be.
For the protestors and those supporting them, they want their five demands met — until then, the fight to be heard continues.
Those five demands are:
- A full withdrawal of a proposed bill that would allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to mainland China.
- A retraction of any characterization of the movement as a “riot.”
- A retraction of charges against anti-extradition protesters.
- An independent committee to investigate the Hong Kong police’s use of force.
- Universal suffrage in elections for the city’s chief executive officer and legislature by 2020.
What about China though, is Beijing about to lose patience? With military troops stationed just over the border, there are grave fears, they’re just waiting for their cue to roll in.
The Economist says, it’s unlikely. China’s understanding of its own power and influence has changed since, for example, the crackdown on Tiananmen Square 30 years ago. It is more powerful, more confident and has an understanding of the role that prosperity plays in its stability….and of the role that Hong Kong plays in its prosperity.
Still, China views all protests and pro-democracy political voices as potential challenges to its one-party rule. It perceives Hong Kong’s calls for democracy as particularly threatening because of the city’s international prominence and it sets a dangerous precedent that any compromise on political reform could flow on to China’s other regions, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Macau, and Taiwan.
What about average citizens on the ground in China, what do they think about the protests, that have now largely become a case of Hong Kong versus China, and have fast gained world-wide attention?
For them it’s generally a lot simpler, many to this day, because of the way China’s history is recorded, are still very much unaware of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
They support the police because in their eyes, ‘In Mainland China, the police stand for stability and peace.’
I messaged a few people to gage their opinions; many didn’t want to speak about it on We Chat, the What’s App/Facebook equivalent, fearful of being watched, and none wanted their names mentioned. Several of my emails simply didn’t make it.
One that did was to local Chinese hotel manager in Sanya, Mr Ma. ‘Hong Kong is a rich brother we lost to Britain for many years, the students do not understand the real situation – they are Chinese, any other country does not sincerely care about Hong Kong people,’ he said.
In what could be labelled a case of irony, there is a definite sense that Hong Kong protestors are being manipulated. ‘Young students are being used by powerful people who hate China,’ Mr Ma says.
Weibo, the Twitter equivalent, is in overdrive with comments reporting users are sad for Hong Kong and the continuing protests must have had support from hostile forces to disturb the Chinese and Hong Kong economy.
Mr Ma agrees though, that they should maintain the ‘One country, two systems,’ approach, and in a line borrowed from another old Hollywood movie, he quotes, ‘Hong Kongers need to understand the difference between citizens and being civic-minded – Someone who has a sense of responsibility towards the community as a whole.’
And in testament to his views, (among many) this video by British scholar Martin Jacques appears to be circulating amongst the masses in China.
Professor Jacques says, “There is a view that Hong Kong did well before 1997, it was smart, clever, and free, because it was tied to Britain. This is a serious misinterpretation of history, he says. Hong Kong did well in the late 70’s and the handover, because it got lucky. China in 1978 started to open up, step by step, not fully until after the World Trade Organisation agreement in 2001; So while it was opening up in a piecemeal fashion, Hong Kong could take on some of the functions China would’ve done, as a front office, and it was the beneficiary.”
Many Chinese nationals are of the belief, Hong Kongers look down on them. ‘If I go to Hong Kong, I don’t dare to speak Chinese to them, just English,’ a friend tells me. For more on the China-Hong Kong relationship, this is an earlier post I wrote.
Other Chinese citizens who simply fight to exist in the still largely poverty-stricken population of 1.4 billion, believe Hong Kong is part of China and that’s that!
Despite the majority having never been to Hong Kong, they believe the two sides are firmly entrenched together. ‘We are one, we are always together!’
While the snippets of news generally show Hong Kong in peril, in reality, away from any protests, many are keen to make it known, its mostly business as usual and there is genuine hope the city’s long held reputation for peace and prosperity will not be tarnished in the long term.
To all of you, I say, ‘Jia You’ or ‘Add Oil’ – the Hong Kong/English expression to offer encouragement and support – a ‘hang in there’ if you like, during this turbulent time of unbridled uncertainty and fear.
*Some names have been changed.
*For a rundown on what’s happened in Hong Kong, thus far, watch this video made by Hong Kongers.
And for more on the background story between China and Hong Kong here’s a good piece from the Council on Foreign Relations.