THE REVOLUTION OF OUR TIME
In the midst of its fight for autonomy, how has protest shaped Hongkongers’ collective identity?
When I was little, my grandmother would teach me old Chinese idioms on afternoons that my dad had to lecture. We’d sit side by side in my airy, wood-paneled apartment — the blue of Hong Kong’s Tolo Harbour flickering on one side and an explosion of greenery on the other. While I must have learnt hundreds, carefully copying out her elegant calligraphy with my childish scrawl, one phrase in particular has always stood out in my head: 獨木不成林. A single tree does not make a forest. Change cannot come with your efforts alone; it relies on the rallying of a community, of countless voices uniting as one.
Today, I am on a college campus far from the one I grew up on and even farther from those serene afternoons. As I write these words, the austere white-tile buildings of my childhood home, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, become a frontline of the city’s fight for democracy — cast to be forever haunted by a shadow of terror. On Nov. 12, riot police brought violence to the campus, and a group of 20-somethings stood valiantly in the line of fire. A new #CUHKMassacre thread emerged on Twitter, filled with videos of thick clouds billowing above the campus mountains, the screams of my peers, and the image of my childhood memory engulfed in flames.
Hana Meihan Davis
After CUHK choked on tear gas and rubber bullets, so did the nearby Polytechnic University. A Washington Post feature described the 10-day bloodshed as “The aftermath of an apocalypse … a Hong Kong campus under siege.” The article was accompanied by a series of images depicting the horror unfolding within the barricaded college walls. The University of Hong Kong became a fortress, protected day and night by its valiant student defenders. Across the city, secondary school students boycotted their classes, shedding their crisp, white uniforms in favour of gas masks and black shirts.
“Young Hong Kongers are fighting to defend the democratic freedoms that were guaranteed on paper by Beijing for fifty years from 1997,” explains Financial Times correspondent Benjamin Bland in his book Generation HK. Hongkongers are asking for the realization of the constitutional rights promised when the Basic Law constitution came into effect nearly 23 years ago.
When the Sino-British Joint Declaration was drafted in 1984, it bore the guarantee that Hong Kong and China would be governed under a “one country, two systems” principle until 2047. Like me, those on the frontlines of Hong Kong’s revolution are part of what Bland labeled “Generation HK.” On that future date, my peers and I will be in our 40s or 50s — a lifetime ahead of us still. As the children raised to adulthood in the Special Administrative Region (SAR), we are the people with the most to lose if promises aren’t kept.
But my relationship to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has always been inherently different to those around me. Like many of my city’s most fearless defenders, I was born on the cusp of a British Hong Kong, seven months after the territory’s handover from the U.K. to mainland China. Because of the political activism of my parents and their friends, I jokingly tell people I was raised on the streets. It was the opening of my Yale application essay, and it continues to be a statement that defines my life: Family dinners were planned around political rallies, weekly dim sum was where ideas became policy, pro-democracy demonstrations punctuate my childhood memories.
Still, nothing could’ve prepared me for what took over last summer: On June 9, 1 million people marched through Hong Kong’s streets, protesting the proposition of an extradition bill which laid the groundwork for the transfer of fugitives across the border to mainland China. A week later, 1 million doubled to 2. Since then, I have asked myself every day: What changed?
As the so-called “summer of discontent” nears its yearlong mark and media attention turns to the pandemic sweeping the world, those whose eyes and ears remain glued have turned their focus to the question of what lies at the heart of the movement. “Hong Kong’s Protests Have Cemented Its Identity” was the title of an Atlantic piece from August. “Hong Kong stares into the abyss amid growing violence: A generation shapes its identity on the anvil of Xi Jinping’s intolerance” was printed in The Economist in November. The extradition bill and the government’s harsh response to its initially peaceful protesters unearthed a question far more fundamental than any policy: It called into question what it means to be from Hong Kong — the very sense of being that galvanized a city of nearly 8 million.
On August 23, two and a half months into the protests, Hongkongers young and old formed a 30-mile human chain across the city — one that culminated in a glow of flashlights at the summit of the symbolic Lion Rock Mountain. Together, Hong Kong’s defenders made a forest: coming together to prevent a future that came 28 years too soon.
Once named “Victoria” in the image of her conquering monarch, Hong Kong was born from the 19th-century power struggle between China and the Western powers. When the Qing dynasty lost the first Opium War in 1842, the imperial court was forced to sign Hong Kong Island away to the British Empire. Kowloon and the New Territories were later leased to the U.K. under similar pressure, completing the Hong Kong we recognise today.
On July 1, 1997, after a decade of discussions and a century and a half of colonial rule, Hong Kong was “handed back” to China. This was not something Hongkongers demanded, especially as China’s opening revealed the government’s egregious abuse of human rights. Still, while some Hongkongers emigrated, fearful of what might come, many viewed the change as perhaps hopeful: For a “trial period” of 50 years, liberal values were to flourish under the rule of law. That was the promise, the “unshakeable destiny,” as former governor Chris Patten said in his farewell address: “Hong Kong people were to rule Hong Kong.”
Maybe, just maybe, the SAR’s influence would work to democratize China too.
When I ask my mother about the 1997 handover, she tells me about the rain. It wasn’t the soft, hesitant drizzle of winter, but the torrential downpour of a midsummer storm. The clouds vehemently opened up, thunder conquering the island’s ancient mountains. The BBC reported that the sky was crying for Hong Kong. Chinese media said that rain had come to wash away the memories of British rule.
My parents, pregnant with me, spent that evening at a counterdemonstration outside the old colonial legislature, where expelled democratic council members had gathered to protest. When they clicked CNN on back home, “China” had been added to the end of Hong Kong’s name.
A journalist once wrote that only in the five-second vacuum after the British flag was lowered and before the Chinese one was raised did he feel the true existence of Hong Kong. While I was not yet born, I cannot help but believe that he was right: Those five seconds were all the sovereignty we’ve ever known.
And if this is true, if Hong Kong is and has always been lost anyway, then our only option is to give this moment of protest everything we’ve got.
That is the promise emerging from Hong Kong’s tear-gassed streets, where young people are threatened with a 10-year “rioting” sentence for practising their constitutional right to protest.
Railway stations are color-coded back home, each district fashioned in its own unique hue. Light blue were the walls of the Chinese University of Hong Kong stop, at the campus I grew up calling my own. Green was where I spent my Saturdays, nestled in a painting studio high in Hong Kong’s crowded skyline. Red was where we lived after moving when I was 12, where I’d hang out with my friends after school, and where I cried upon hearing of my acceptance to Yale.
Growing up, I loved to get lost in Hong Kong. I’d pick one corner of the city, and just keep walking, learning the rainbow tapestry that wove my city together. There was never any fear of danger, only a desire to forever imprint the streets of my home to memory.
But on August 11, the red of Taikoo Shing brought tears to my eyes once more as videos of riot police hurling protesters down the escalators flooded the internet. Red punctuated the commotion: the boiling of my rage, the smearing of blood on metal, and the crayon-coloured tiles that backdropped it all.
Hana Meihan Davis
Hong Kong is used to the turbulence of typhoons, roiling the city all summer long, but what overtook the city was a tempest unlike anything before. As police violence and government intolerance escalated, it gradually became apparent that the city I know so well was being blown away like rain clouds after a storm. Peeking through the early June clouds down onto the mountains of Hong Kong as I flew to an internship in the U.S., I did not know that I was seeing the city that raised me for the last time. And when I turned my phone off airplane mode nearly 24 hours later, the 1 million people taking to Hong Kong’s streets forever changed the trajectory of our narrative.
By the end of October, nine suicides were linked to the protests, one woman was blinded by a point-blank shot to her eye, a man was set aflame after arguing with protesters, and countless stories of bloodshed, police brutality, rape and death had contaminated our hearts and minds.
On Nov. 11, a protester was shot in the stomach immediately outside of Shau Kei Wan’s MTR station and adjacent to one of my favourite nighttime food markets, a street corner I frequented on tired Friday nights as a teenager.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, Hong Kong’s district council elections made history: Just under 3 million people voted, a 71.2 percent turnout that gave pro-democracy supporters 17 out of the 18 districts. Hong Kong’s district councillors have little power in politics, but the elections, seen as a trial of support for both Hong Kong’s protesters and government, showed the public’s overwhelming favor. No tear gas was fired that day.
On Nov. 27, the United States passed the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” a promise to evaluate the condition of freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong each year. Among other things, the bill will allow the U.S. to suspend Hong Kong’s special trading status and sanction those responsible if “one country, two systems” fails to protect the SAR’s autonomy. In angry retaliation, Beijing says it will sanction U.S.-based non-government organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the National Endowment for Democracy.
On Dec. 15, after the successful elections brought a momentary lull to the violence, Hong Kong’s police once again cracked down on the black-clad protesters who had taken their message to the city’s shopping malls. Once again, videos of officers shoving youngsters to the floor, their faces bloodied and their cries muffled, flooded my social media.
The term “Hongkonger” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014. It is defined as “a native or inhabitant of Hong Kong.”
For decades, Hong Kong has been gripped by an unshakable sense of displacement: an untethering symptomatic of migration, but one without the physical movement this implies. A legacy of colonialism, of accepting a mass exodus of refugees fleeing Maoist destruction in China, of being a pawn in a tug of war between external powers, has condemned the city and its people to this feeling. Hong Kong has fumbled blindly in this confusion because her people are again and again asked to pick a discrete identity: Chinese or British, local or foreign.
These are binaries, however, that Hongkongers do not, and cannot, fall within.
In the 36 years since the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, the SAR has seen a series of peaks and troughs in mass political mobilisation, with people using the streets as their stage for protest. While not all of these protests have been victories, they have been integral to the crystallization of the Hongkonger identity. Shaped by events, sharpened by the passions of resistance, and formed when the fundamentals of our identity are threatened, it is the sense that being from Hong Kong is different to the ethnic Chineseness it implies.
According to Edward Said’s Orientalism, the dichotomy of East and West cannot coexist because they will always be the foil to one another. They are not mutually exclusive, because they construct one another. Hong Kong has long stood at this crossroads between “Western neoliberal globalism and China’s statist authoritarian capitalism,” according to Wilfred Chan in a Dissent Magazine article. But, he argues, despite the international attention on the SAR, Hong Kong is stranded between these disparate hegemonies. “For today’s Hong Kongers, there are no obvious escape routes, no postcolonial models of self-determination, that would set the city free from the grip of Chinese state power,” writes Chan. The undying love Hongkongers express for their home stands in contrast to the narrative pro-Beijing officials try to spin about them: that these “rioters,” brainwashed by the West, are bent on tearing down Hong Kong. To the SAR’s supporters in democracies abroad, Hong Kong is a symbol of the global fight against Chinese authoritarianism.
“Being Hong Konger and being Chinese, long complementary, suddenly came to feel exclusive,” wrote New York Times journalist Max Fischer. A poll by the University of Hong Kong in June found that 75 percent of Hong Kong’s 18- to 29-year-olds identified as “Hongkonger” (not “Chinese,” “Chinese in Hong Kong,” or “Hong Konger in China”). Triggered by this year’s loss of freedoms — assembly, thought, movement, expression, safety — it was the highest proportion since identity tracking began in 1997. 52.9 percent of all respondents agreed, an increase from 35.9 percent at the time of the handover. But “Hong Kong’s identity isn’t just based on the rejection of Chinese identity, but on a collective sense of resilience and autonomy and saying no to oppression,” activist Johnson Yeung told The Atlantic. As the values that make Hong Kong distinct from China came under threat, being from Hong Kong came to stand in opposition to being from the mainland. Local scholar Brian C.H. Fong labeled this strengthening identity as the emergence of “one country, two nationalisms” — a reference to the “one country, two systems” guiding principle for rule in the SAR.
And so, in the Hong Kong of 2019, we saw, for the first time, a total revolution: a city digging its heels in, its people raging vehemently against the erosion of freedom and democracy, values that separate Hong Kong from China. The city “[reassembled] an identity out of the refractions and discontinuities” of the present moment, as Said writes in Reflections on Exile. And
the more the government fumbles, the more Beijing tries to shape Hong Kong after its vision, the more this place will rally to author the future.
Hana Meihan Davis
With this assertion of identity, young Hongkongers proved willing to give everything up. According to The Guardian, as of December 5th, 40 percent of the 5,980 arrested protesters were students. Among them, 939 were under the age of 18, with the youngest just 11 years old. In an interview for the same article, Hong Kong Education University sociology professor Stephen Chiu addressed the high-cost actions of the city’s youth, many of whom carry written wills when they go out to protest. As social stability continues to break down along with attacks on the Hongkonger identity, an impassioned resistance has replaced the sense of futility. “It’s a war situation,” said Chiu. “They are willing to die for their homeland. There are many examples in history. Whether you agree or not, there is a higher call and the protesters have a set of values some feel [is] worth dying for.”
The extradition bill was therefore a uniting force. While the Five Demands of the protesters very clearly delineate the immediate aims of the revolution, this fight is now propelled by the sense that the essence of Hong Kong’s existence is being forcibly ripped away. Hongkongers are trying to save their unique status in the world. We are afraid of Hong Kong being subsumed into mainland China, of it one day becoming indistinguishable from the cities across the border.
These days, everything in Hong Kong is political; everything has the potential to deepen the city’s already staggering ideological divide.
For six months, Hongkongers called for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down from office, accusing her of leading a puppet government controlled by the leaders of China. Now, the novel COVID-19 outbreak has added an unforeseen twist to the protests, fueling panic and aggravating frustration at the government. In Lam’s initially lax response to the viral outbreak and in her reluctance to close the border with mainland China, she has once again proven her incompetence in the minds of many. Again and again, Lam has been proven to act not in the public interest, but in the interest of Beijing. With the scars of the SARS outbreak in 2003 still fresh in the minds of many, the city’s recent escalation to a public health crisis renders this all the more unforgiving.
According to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, Lam’s satisfaction ratings are at a record low, as distrust festers over the city’s leadership and China’s iron fist. But with anti-government sentiment soaring, what happened to the protesters that flooded Hong Kong’s streets on a daily basis only a few months ago?
They’re still there. As local democracy activist Joshua Wong posted on Instagram on March 11, “Please don’t give up on us.” In early February, over 7,000 healthcare workers — 10 percent of all medical professionals in Hong Kong — participated in a weeklong strike to demand the closure of borders. This tactic was reminiscent of the 2019 protests, organized by a union born months ago amid the heat of the movement.
And so, Hong Kong’s political turmoil rages on, but a fear of infection spreading in large-scale demonstrations has caused public dissent to take on a new face: Protests are smaller, more targeted, and rely on strikes or flare-ups.
Unsurprisingly, the government relies on mass arrest as a way of silencing unrest. As The Washington Post published in March, “of the more than 7,300 people arrested since June, one-tenth were detained this year, despite the smaller scale and frequency of protests. Among them are student journalists, civil rights observers, elected officials and medics.” And still, Hong Kong’s most fearless defenders show no signs of backing down.
On March 31, amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, masked crowds gathered at Prince Edward railway station to commemorate the seven-month anniversary of a violent crackdown in which Hong Kong’s police officers assaulted and pepper-sprayed passengers on the train and platform. Today’s Hongkongers lay wreaths of flowers before the station, solemnly protesting the brutality that left many bleeding and unconscious. In response, police officers applied new social distancing rules to shut down and arrest protesters who gathered in groups larger than four –– the government limit for public gatherings. Several protesters were held to the ground, according to the South China Morning Post.
There is hope on the streets that discontent will continue to simmer, and that the containment of the pandemic will coincide with a renewal of energy on the streets. But beyond that, as much as the protests have relied on physical space in the past, there is hope that the movement is too ingrained into the psyche of Hongkongers local and abroad to be limited by restrictions on public space. As I write this, a movement dubbed “We the Hongkongers” is sweeping across the U.S. The 300,000-plus Hongkongers residing in this country, myself included, are taking to the 2020 United States census: recording our race as “Other Asian: Hongkonger,” and not Chinese.
So now, as I scroll through social media half a world away from home, my thumbs linger on the images of riot police and gas masks that continue to proliferate. We’ve been saying for months now that this season of discontent is Hong Kong’s last stand, that this is the all-or-nothing moment that will define the future of my home. Is this still true? As government incompetence, police violence, and the coronavirus seem to reign, I find solace in the fact that no amount of arrests and no global pandemic can erase what a politicized generation of Hongkongers learned in 2019. Nothing can wipe away our memories of last season.
The sense of nationalism and unity that 2019 solidified will not be so easily forgotten.
Hana Meihan Davis
Under a yellow spotlight on stage in early November, a pianist began to play a tune I immediately recognized. I had been playing it on repeat for weeks, listening to its melody in the times I felt most hopeless about home. Denise Ho, a prominent Hong Kong performer-activist, stepped forward and began to sing. “何以這土地淚再流, 何以令眾人亦憤恨…”
Theater chairs around me clamored as everyone rose to their feet, the man to my left put a hand across his chest, and hundreds of voices rang out, singing “Glory to Hong Kong” — the anthem written on the street that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy fighters have adopted as theirs. Behind me, a sea of flashlights danced to the rhythm of the lyrics. My throat tightened, and tears slowly spilled over the lashes of my eyes.
In the dark of that New York City theater, 8,000 miles from home, I felt something I had never felt before: a sense of connection to a room full of strangers. The song had done that for us. This was our song. And standing there together, united by lyrics and a passion for Hong Kong, we managed to make a forest.