submitted by Jeremy Ha
My hometown has been in the news a lot lately, and when people ask me about it, I am sometimes at a loss for words. My home is known for its free economy and its beautiful skyline. But this year, it has transformed into a battlefield. Millions of people are on the streets while the police erect metal barricades coated with pepper spray residue. This place is also my home, Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is being torn apart. The demonstrations, originally aimed at opposing the introduction of the extradition bill, a mechanism for transfer of fugitives to Taiwan, Macau and Mainland China (excluded in the existing laws) have erupted into social unrest, violence and even death. People go on strike and skip school; they hold hands on the streets to create “human-chains;” they write posts on the famous ‘Lennon Wall’ – walls that spring up all over Hong Kong to allow citizens to express their grievances. Many volunteers, including doctors and lawyers, not only give their time but also risk their lives to offer their skills to help the protestors. The protest was born out of the fear of mainland China’s legal system. However, in recent months, it has become clear that the issues run deeper. Protesters also demand the investigation of police violence, and a general political reform on universal suffrage.
The Hongkonger identity: A unique blend of East and West
Hongkongers have a unique blend of identity: we are not British, yet we consider ourselves very different from mainland Chinese. When the British colonized Hong Kong, Hongkongers felt like we were Chinese under foreign rule. Nevertheless, after the handover, Hongkongers have realized the immense differences between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Even my grandmother talks about her mistrust towards the mainlanders, which is representative of a larger social divide that is not only present in the young protesters but goes back many generations.
Freedom of expression and human rights are highly valued in Hong Kong’s political culture and are rooted in our Basic Law. “One country, two systems” has been adopted and recognized by the United Nations, as stipulated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Hongkongers have been disappointed by recent events and many feel betrayed because the document calls for nonintervention in the affairs of the people of Hong Kong people. Hongkong’s safeguards for liberal values stem from our unique history which straddles the historical borders, if not geographic, borders of both Britain and China. However, Chinese officials have recently announced that the Declaration is ‘void.’
Being relatively autonomous under Chinese rule, many Hongkongers have long resisted being identified as Chinese. Chinese national education is not prevalent in Hong Kong and speaking Mandarin is generally frowned upon. As governmental policies encourage economic cooperation between the two regions, Hongkongers want to preserve the local identity, and many resent the perceived trend of assimilation. According to a survey by the University of Hong Kong, 53 percent of the interviewees identified as Hongkongers while 11 percent identified as Chinese. 12 percent identified as “Chinese in Hong Kong” and 23 percent identified as “Hongkongers in China.” The unique Hong Kong identity serves as a backdrop of the protests that have erupted this year. Such anger and strong emotions have, in fact, been building up for decades as the cultural chasm between Hongkongers and the mainland Chinese has been steadily growing despite the government efforts to build literal bridges between them.
Even so, the scale of protests has come as a surprise to many. Public facilities, shops, metro stations, police stations and branches of the Bank of China have been vandalized by anti-government and radicals wielding metal rods, knives, bricks and petrol bombs. In response to the protest, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, introduced the anti-masks law, an emergency regulation ordinance banning protesters from covering their faces during protests. Rather than defusing tensions, this law serves to clump together the more aggressive protesters with the peaceful majority.
Rather than defusing tensions, this law serves to clump together the more aggressive protesters with the peaceful majority.
I remember that fateful night in August when I also took part in one of the legal protests (very few of the protests are actually deemed illegal) in front of Admiralty in Hong Kong. As tensions ran high between the police and the protesters, protesters started to build barricades and fences on the streets as a defense barrier. A young girl came up to me and offered me a helmet for my head, goggles for my eyes, a face mask to protect me against the smoke and some plastic wrap for my hands. She also kindly told me, ‘it is going to be more dangerous later in the night, but we are in this together.’ This kind of empathy and care from someone I had just met has touched me deeply. Even though it was late at night, tens of thousands of people were sitting and walking on the streets. They were waiting in the hope that the government would listen to them. Cars could not go through streets and many people were waving the American and the British flags. Some people even brought tents, ready to sleep on the streets overnight. Wherever I went, I was in awe of my fellow Hongkongers’ ability to stay so focused and determined. People would sing different songs such as “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” Chants are also very unifying and rhythmic, they include “Restore Hong Kong, revolution of our times” and “There are no rioters, only a tyrannical regime.”
As I read different newspapers the following day, I saw how polarized opinions can be about just a single event. Some demonized the police; others focused on the peaceful protests and condemned Carrie Lam. some even claimed that foreign governments are funding these ‘troublemakers’. My heart sank when I saw pictures and videos online showing how some vulnerable and hopeful young people were being beaten up by the police. This city that I call home has suddenly become so unfamiliar to me. I can only share my own truth and that is what I wish to bring to my friends abroad.
This city that I call home has suddenly become so unfamiliar to me.
The demonstration is further fuelled by the alleged misconduct by the Hong Kong Police Force against protesters. Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia Director of Amnesty International, has pointed out Hong Kong police’s heavy-handed crowd control response and their abuses against protesters. However, while the majority of protesters have been peaceful, there has been violence which appears to be escalating the excessive use of force by the police. In September, more than 1,300 people have been arrested in the context of mass protests. In the Yuen Long attack in July, a mob of over 100 armed men dressed in white indiscriminately attacked civilians on the streets and in the Yuen Long MTR station. Despite over 24,000 reports made to the emergency hotline, the police’s delayed arrival allowed the mob to leave the station without being arrested. Many accused the police of failing to protect citizens from being attacked, some even claimed that the police colluded with the mobs. As demonstrations turned into clashes between protesters and the police, government officials and supporters praised the police as defenders of law and order. That week, my parents would tell me to not go out at night and not to wear black as they feared that I might be beaten up. It seems like it is not safe to walk on the streets anymore because no one can be trusted.
A man being detained at the police station in the New Territories in August said, “I felt my legs hit with something really hard. Then one [police officer] flipped me over and put his knees on my chest. I felt the pain in my bones and couldn’t breathe. I tried to shout but I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t talk.”
Protesters aim to defend Hong Kong against what they perceive as unwarranted and premature integration with Mainland China’s authoritarian method of social control. Peaceful means are not seen to be sufficient anymore and the general perception is that the government has failed the people of Hong Kong. In August this year, Carrie Lam’s rating has fell to 24.6%. The rating is the lowest of any Chief Executive since 1997 handover. To redress injustice, Hongkongers feel strongly the need to stand up against the regime and take control of their own destiny.
The police are now rejecting protests application even from groups with a track record of organizing peaceful protests. Human Rights Watch recently said that people are left with the choice of either staying home and keeping their opinions to themselves, or attending an unauthorized protest and risking police violence, arrest, and imprisonment. Rather than protecting public safety, the police’s intention seems to be to dissuade people from publicly expressing their views. Nevertheless, without the government being responsive to popular opinion, it seems like protesting is the only method to express opinions. When peaceful protests are being denied, channels of expressing dissident views are gradually shutting down.
International community is not silent on the issue. On Oct. 15, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act supporting the protesters in Hong Kong. The Act aims to defend civil rights in the autonomous city. Nonetheless, for a lot of multinational businesses, China remains one of their largest consumer markets. Supporting such a movement in Hong Kong and democracy means going against the Chinese government and the might of Chinese capital and the 1.3 billion Chinese consumers. Cathay Pacific, BNP Paribas and other big companies have had to apologize to the Chinese government for speaking up against China to support the protests or democratic values. After a tweet by Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV stopped airing NBA games.
American animated sitcom South Park producers also issued a sarcastic apology to China saying, “We welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all… Long live the Great Communist Party of China!” Consequently, South Park has now been entirely banned in China. China’s burgeoning economic engagement internationally poses a lot of value conflicts: namely, its state-led economic model and stance on issues such as human rights and democracy. China is increasingly unafraid to use its status as a largest consumer market as a tool of international censorship and propagation of its abuse. The uphill battle for Hongkongers is more difficult as China alienates any potential international supporters.
Can the people of Hong Kong finally decide their own future?
Territorial integrity and all people’s right to self-determination remain fundamental principles of international law enshrined in the United Nations Charter. These two principles come into conflict, however, when a minority group seeks to achieve self- determination by seceding from an existing state. As more and more Hongkongers feel trapped and oppressed by an unaccountable government, many want to contest the status quo and determine their own political status. Can the international community expand its definition of self-determination for the people of Hong Kong? Can the Communist Party of China let the people of Hong Kong decide our own destiny?
These questions have always been apparent in the “one country two systems” framework ever since its inception. However, 2019 has showed us that millions of Hongkongers believe that the time left to answer these questions is running out. The demonstration reveals deep-seated issues in the society, such as human rights and freedom, anti-China sentiment, high housing prices and social inequality. Many believe that the Communist Party of China would never grant genuine suffrage to Hong Kong and this is our last chance to fight for self-determination. Many believe-that this is our last chance to fight for self-determination. People stop their work, and burn down the streets and some would even end their lives. It is clear that these questions need to be answered immediately.
I remember standing on the bridge in front of the government buildings and looking down at the chaotic streets, the fire barricades, the big posters reading “Liberate Hong Kong.” As the blue and red police sirens flashed against the silver skyscrapers, I wondered about the future of my hometown, which had a long reputation of being liberal and peaceful. I do not know what the answer is, but this could be our last chance to fight for what we want. And that’s why we call it the revolution of our time.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Jeremy Ha has previously lived in France and Scandinavia. He is an avid traveller and has travelled to more than 50 countries. Jeremy has worked for both the private and the public sector and is currently a master student at Sciences Po Paris’ School of Management and Innovation.