I hesitated about writing this post because I don’t believe anyone who has not grown up/lived/paid taxes to/breathed in a place can exact judgment on a protest movement of said place. So, disclaimer: I’m a Hong Konger by DNA but was born and raised in a western democracy. I say this to put it in perspective that as a western citizen I am biased. I will try to lay out as many perspectives as I can, and then gently voice my own opinion.
But I did interview people who were born and raised in Hong Kong: namely – my parents, as this has been the topic of dinner conversation the entire week. Their opinions are pretty interesting, but again, everyone’s biased, and they haven’t lived in Hong Kong for 30 years. In fact, they immigrated to Canada because of the communist scare of the 80s.
The situation in Hong Kong is highly complex and rooted in hundreds of years of history. Since I don’t feel like divulging in a 1000-word essay on history on this here blog, I will let Hank cover that part:
(I would also like to point out that Hank is probably biased too. I think unless you’ve read the story in multiple languages from people in the pit of the action, you only know a slice of the truth).
So. What to make of the protests? Some older Hong Kongers have mixed feelings. For example, while my parents support the idea of students fighting for their principles, they bring up some key points that writers of the western media may not have realized:
1. In Hong Kong, life is relatively good; people enjoy most modern freedoms and human rights. Hong Kong society is very different from the iron grip of Communist China. In Hong Kong, you can voice your disagreement with the government, choose your religion, and access Facebook. Dumbed down, in all respects Hong Kong is a modern, fully-developed region with more economic freedom and capitalism than many western countries.
My dad even joked that Hong Kongers have more freedom of speech because in Canada you have to be politically correct. Not so much in Hong Kong 😉
Those disillusioned with the protest, mainly older folks, argue that the protest is one by privileged children with self-inflated entitlement who did not grow up in the British colonial age, when Hong Kongers had almost no freedoms at all as subjects.
In summary, older folks are saying: Save your breath. Be grateful for what you have, which is more than what we did. Life ain’t so bad, so suck it up and enjoy it.
2. Consequently, this protest isn’t like Tiannamen Square. In Tiannamen Square, people were fighting for fundamental freedoms and were outright killed as a result. So far (knock on wood), the Hong Kong protests have been relatively peaceful. Yes, people were tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, but this is far from Communist tanks rolling into the masses and chopping people down.
3. The protests are starting to put a strain on everyday life. Again, mainly a sentiment voiced by the older generation. The protests are ruining businesses, clogging up traffic, etc. Working adults just want to get on with their lives. As you probably know, Hong Kong is one of the world’s pivotal business hubs. The protests are obviously hurting the economy. This will have large-scale effects on this little city.
Student protesters argue that to make change “for the people”, one must make sacrifices “for the people.” These business owners retort by saying, “Well, we are the people, and no one asked for our consent.”
4. Many negative aspects of the protests have not been reported. For the most part, the protests in Hong Kong have been organized and peaceful. Volunteers clear garbage and recycling and spray water into the air to keep protesters cool through the long humid days. Volunteer first aiders and medical students set up tents to keep people safe.
But as with any mass movement, there are hooligans. We saw them in the Stanley Cup riots at home. We see them everywhere. As with anywhere else, the protests aren’t 100% peaceful. My grandpa, who still lives in HK, says there have been car torchings and violence that has gone unreported. I don’t know how accurate these things are or their extent, but it’s a valid point. People are arguing that the peaceful protests have been glamorized.
5. The West (read: the United States of America) is always seeking for ways to make China look bad, hence their angle that Hong Kong protesters are the “good guys.” The media is biased and has a gazillion interested parties. I think we can all agree that China has a terrible political image in today’s parlance…and perhaps this is why.
Okay, okay, okay…
…time to share what I think…and I tread carefully on embers.
I don’t really think these protests are about “democracy.” In the newspapers here we see this word buzzword “democracy” being thrown around. Of course we Canadians will support a movement for democracy! Democracy is a pillar of modern society! Hurray democracy!
Now, I’m all for democracy. Yes, Hong Kong kind of has a fake democracy, as any historical research will tell you, but…so do we. I mean, we didn’t elect Prime Minister Stephen Harper. We elected the party that elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Well, okay, Hong Kong is worse off than us. Someone (Beijing) chooses leaders for people to choose from. That’s akin to Queen Elizabeth handpicking a league of dudes with British accents who are loyal to her and we Canadians have to choose one.
But therein lies my argument. I don’t think Hong Kong is fighting for democracy, at least democracy in the way us in the West understand it…
…Hong Kong is fighting for freedom from China. It’s fighting for autonomy.
Phrase it that way and it’s a pretty different-sounding cause, right? If you’ve been keeping up with the anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong for the last few years, as my family does, you’ll realize that the protest isn’t about this one event, but an accumulation of little things Beijing has done to tell Hong Kongers (read: educational reform) that we still govern over you.
So, in a way, Hong Kong is fighting a similar battle to Quebec. Or Scotland. Or Tibet. Identity is absolutely a factor. Hong Kongers are extremely proud of their identity as Hong Kongers. Yes, both Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese are, for the most part, of the Han ethnic group, but Hong Kong’s culture is distinct. Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, which is virtually a separate language, not just a dialect. Hong Kongers are capitalists, more westernized, speak English, have better access to education, etc.
So do I support Hong Kong fighting for its freedom from China? I think I can say, at least in general…I do.
Older folks, particularly, older Chinese folks, are more concerned about stability than progress, and think of this protest business as a lot of drama for something we don’t need pressingly. There are many, possibly more pressing, issues in Hong Kong society. (For example, Hong Kong has some of the most expensive housing in the world and some of the worst income inequality, allowing for terrible living conditions for the poor). Contrary to what many think, most Chinese people living in Communist China simply want a job, a meal, and a roof. If the Communist state can provide that, they see no reason in fighting back. Subsequently, we get stability.
I don’t personally believe in “settling” for stabilization, though. I don’t believe we can build a perfect world, but I believe in building a better world, and things can always be better. I don’t believe China should be completely democratic overnight – such a drastic change will do more harm than good – but China should step towards that direction, because if you’re obsessed with stability all the time, progression will never ever happen.
The student protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for things to actually happen. They know that if they just lie low the Beijing government may never deliver the autonomy they promised. In every society, if you want change, even the smallest of change, you need radicals to spur people into action. Yes, radicals are not well-liked by the general populous, and the general populous isn’t always going to agree with the radicals. But so much of what we have now, that we take for granted, wouldn’t be ours if it weren’t for radicals. So if it takes a few car-burnings to give me, a non-white female, the ability to vote, then by all means burn those cars, baby.
No matter how loud, rude, and violent they are, radicals are essential because they actually get things done!
At the end of the day, I believe the the students have the right principle. In a way, I think they are protesting not just for Hong Kong, but on behalf of the rest of China, where people don’t get a voice. They are protesting for the other young people in China, the next generation, who cannot protest. To do this, they are pressuring the one-party state to give freedom a chance.