My parents live on the 31st floor of a high rise. Even from up there, you are not immune from the stench of tear gas. The mall I walked through every day when I was in kindergarten became the center of bloodshed during the second month of protests. A stand-off between police and protesters took place right in front of the primary and secondary school I spent 12 years at; tear gas was involved, yet again. The university where my dad works as a professor — a place that acted as one of the last safe spaces for students in Hong Kong — was barricaded by students and surrounded by the police. My sister, who is a lawyer, has become privy to much of the ensuing madness while working on many arrestees’ cases pro bono. Her boss was attacked (presumably by pro-Beijing members) as he was leaving a subway station.
It has hit, quite literally, close to home. A bit too close.
The protests, now in their sixth month, are in a very narrow sense about the extradition bill that would allow for the transfer of fugitives from Hong Kong to multiple countries, including the Mainland. This bill has since been withdrawn, but the protests still rage on. For many, this defiance is not only a struggle to tame a government’s unquenchable thirst for power and control over everything it lays its eyes upon, but a battle to defend and maintain our identities and rights as Hong Kongers.
I used to believe that identity was simply a matter of semantics — who cares if it’s “Hong Kong, China,” “Hong Kong SAR,” or “Chinese Taipei,” “Republic of China,” or simply “Taiwan?” I rolled my eyes when I came across the competing edits on how Taiwan was defined on Wikipedia — it felt like being in a group project, trying to collaborate on Google Docs, while team members were passive-aggressively changing each other’s inputs, and others changing it back. Gross. I cringed when Versace came under fire for suggesting that Hong Kong and Macau were independent countries on their t-shirts. China is a big ass country; Hong Kong is half a dot on the map. Someone has too much time on their hands to be worked up about the accuracy of one t-shirt.
As much as I’ve told myself to “focus on the big picture” and “not be bogged down by details and semantics,” I’ve often found myself doing the opposite — correcting those who confuse Hong Kong as just another Chinese city (or even Japanese — God help those people) and sometimes, without solicitation, listing off the many ways that Hong Kong is different from the rest of China.
During my first year of college, a classmate asked me if I was “going home to China” for the summer. An innocent question, yet it stopped me in my tracks. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, but I am not a Chinese national. I need a visa to even enter the Mainland, which — having made a whopping total of two trips there — has never been a problem.
The rest of the country is just an hour north across the border, but to me, it has always been another world entirely. China is the name of a country, yet it also carries a deep symbolism and baggage of communism, oppression, and blind loyalty to party. Unfortunately, I have to dig pretty deep before I come across pandas and qipaos and nice calligraphy when I think of China. It wasn’t until the moment that someone imposed (albeit without maliciousness) that word on me that I realized the gravitas of how one defines their identity.
We have seen changes in Hong Kong that indicate the central government’s tightening grip upon and undermining of our independence, freedom, education, media, laws, and even the way we speak and communicate with one another. In secondary school, they started using Mandarin as a medium of instruction for Chinese classes (my Chinese grades were terrible so I was kept in the Cantonese classes. How unfortunate). In 2012, the government proposed a “moral and national education” curriculum, the materials of which were highly biased towards the Chinese government. In 2015, members of a company that publishes politically sensitive books disappeared and were widely believed to be abducted by mainland authorities. In 2016, local news stations started airing their newscasts in Mandarin, with simplified Chinese subtitles. In 2018, the Hong Kong-based vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club was denied a working visa by the government as retribution for a hosting a talk that touched on the issue of independence for the city. This year, the ban on wearing face masks was reinstated after the High Court found the ban unconstitutional and in violation of the Basic Law.
What a shame that a country this massive, with history so rich and resources so vast, could be so afraid of its people, that it resorts to suppression to cradle the insecurity of an entire nation’s worth. On July 1st this year, the day that marks Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule 22 years ago, the usual celebratory events of flag-raising and school choir performances were scaled back, roads to the convention center where the ceremony was to take place were blocked, security presence was impossible to ignore, and government officials avoided protesters by arriving discreetly by boat to the venue instead of by car. What irony — that the very people that make this city, are blocked from being a part of a celebration in honor of it.
Keith Richburg, a journalist and professor at the University of Hong Kong tells Al Jazeera that China has isolated itself so totally that “any criticism of China becomes a criticism of the Chinese people and the Chinese culture”. China’s deep nationalism is simultaneously the result of and propagator of toxic censorship. Any criticism of Chinese policy becomes an attack on everything Chinese; to some, not speaking fluent Mandarin is an active rejection of Chinese culture and identity.
Whilst celebrating my 22nd birthday, a Chinese hibachi chef rudely accused me of “not really being Chinese” because I was from Hong Kong and spoke Cantonese (okay Chinese hibachi guy — like you’re one to preach on cultural authenticity). If you were to ask my friends, they would probably testify that I slunk back into my chair, laughed it off, and apologized for not being Chinese enough. In my mind, however, I told him that he was being an ass and that I was actually trilingual. In hindsight, it was wise of me not to cross a guy with major knife skills and control over the preparation of my food. Shame.
The 2014 Umbrella movement and ongoing protests show that the tighter the grip, the more fiercely we defend our identity as Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers and hold on to what little we have. On June 16th this year, I was heartened to see 2 million people flood the streets to protest the extradition bill. That’s nearly 30% of our population. For comparison, the 2017 Women’s March drew 200,000 protesters into Washington DC and an estimated 7 million worldwide. Last month, 70% of eligible voters turned out to vote in the local district elections (60% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 US Presidential Election), thrusting pro-democracy candidates into more than 80% of the 452 seats in contention. No, Hong Kong does not have a “silent majority,” as many pro-Beijing parties have asserted. Leslie Knope, the epitome of a government employee, best summarizes our passion for our city, “These people are members of a community that care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.”
We do care, and we care loudly. We care loudly because it is our legal right to do so, and we care to see these rights and freedoms stay intact. I find it both surprising and disappointing when pastors condemn church members for participating in peaceful, legal protests. It disturbs me to see Catholic and Christian government officials bow to the central government, using their faith as justification for their passivity. Do they not realize that this is not only a disagreement over a proposed bill, but an ongoing struggle against a regime that thrives on atheism, bulldozes churches, and locks people away for expressing their faith in their own homes?
As Christians, we proudly claim to care for the world the way Christ did: we stand up for the sick, the poor, the widow, and the fatherless. We volunteer at food banks, serve in the “inner city” to reach the needy, and wrap gifts for children across the world during the holidays. Why do we find it so easy to spread the love of Christ through such tangible means, yet spreading His equally valuable love for justice, opposition to oppressive governments, and desire for people to worship freely so controversial?
I believe in a God that cares for those that speak out against injustice in this world, only to face persecution from the powers that be. He cares for them just as much as he cares for the sick, the poor, the widow, and the fatherless, and I believe he wants us to care equally for them as well.
Politics and protests are worldly things. These matters will lose their value, and life will go on. There is a lot of hate and suffering, much of which has been self-inflicted. It is our privilege as Christians to know that none of us have the final say — not the Chinese government, nor the protesters, nor the Church, nor Trump. But we can’t live with the sole aim of sitting around, waiting for the day we go to heaven. That’s a pointless life. While we’re here, why not stand up for something that is right and just? Why not speak for those whose voices have been silenced, and against those that think that their pride, security, and desire for power is a legitimate cause for trampling over others?
Though she was entirely unfit to be president, Selina Meyer from Veep did get one thing right: “Politics is about people.” At least it should be. Power-thirsty, party-first politicians who don’t see it that way may have thrown this notion out the window long ago, but if we simply “hate politics” and say nothing of it, we continue to surrender power to those that abuse the system. The more we stay away from it, the more it stews in its corruption. We engage in and care about politics to keep our leaders accountable and ensure that it is used for its purpose — to serve the people.
I wrote this without any particular purpose in mind — I don’t necessarily see this as a call to jump into politics, or as part of a lofty goal to “reclaim my Chinese identity,” or an effort to argue that China is more than just a communist government. But I have been listening to Well Done by The Afters, and I hope that when we all leave this world and all its brokenness behind, we can proudly say that we have done well.