Unless you’ve been stranded on an island without WiFi or television, or hiding under a rock, you just may have heard a bit on the news about what’s been happening in my adoptive hometown of Hong Kong. OK, in fact, the updates had been pervasive across news channels. More so than I would have anticipated. Now that mass media on the topic has died down, but the protests linger on, it’s worth taking a step back and reflecting.
The idea of democracy is an oft-lauded ‘ideal’. It’s seductive, particularly to the western world. So perhaps it’s really no surprise at all that the largely student-run, pro-democracy movement in HK resonates with such a broad audience. Don’t think that point is lost on the students. Young as they are, they understand fully the power of media and have been quite successful in harnessing that power.
About 6 weeks ago, the city I once considered quite tame, unquestioning of authority, respectful of rules – began to overtly rebel. I must admit, my first impression on learning of the uprising was – well, I was surprised.
But I should not have been. Yes, the leaders of Occupy Central, and now, more the students, are fighting for democracy – and more specifically (at least ‘on paper’), the right to select their own candidates for election to the highest post of Chief Executive in 2017 (as opposed to being forced to select from a pool of candidates pre-screened and selected by the mainland). But there are other factors underpinning this movement.
Despite, or perhaps in part because of, Hong Kong’s status as a SAR (special administrative region) of China, many local Hong Kongers are principally against mainland China’s politics, beliefs, even the behaviors and ‘etiquette’ of the people of the motherland. Especially the students are increasingly aware of what they consider the infiltration of HK by mainland Chinese.
It would be hard to ignore this phenomenon, even as a relative bystander or mildly observant tourist. For example, go to one of HK’s numerous luxury malls, and you may see someone (most likely a mainlander) literally carrying a shoebox of cold hard cash into Louis Vuitton – prepared to offload tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. But those who have been in HK longer, and of course, the real locals, have more personal and deeper reasons they are wary of the mainland’s growing presence in HK. Students in particular may be peering into the future and increasingly seeing their place in HK slipping away to mainland Chinese. The rapidly growing upper crust of the mainland is quite literally buying up HK – not just luxury goods, but also much of its real estate. Importantly, they are also playing a much larger role in the HK job market.
These apparently fearless students are likely fearful for their own future. And acting now to try to protect it.
The protest movement doesn’t have one absolutely clear leader (even more impressive that it’s succeeded in achieving such traction), but relative long-time activist, Joshua Wong, and Federation of Students secretary-general Alex Chow, are seen as key champions. Notably after last week’s initial, predictably stagnant talks of the ‘T-shirts’ (students) vs. the ‘suits’ (current government representatives, namely current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s second-in-command – Chief Secretary, Carrie Lam), a few other students (Lester Shum, Yvonne Leung, Nathan Law, and Eason Chung) have also seemingly achieved rock-star activist status.
And make no mistake, these students are largely seen by supporters as rock stars – as evidenced by their reception at the main Admiralty protest zone near HK’s government headquarters, immediately following those now-infamous talks. Describing what I observed last Tuesday evening as a standing ovation would be a gross understatement. These students were received as celebrities, celebrated for their bravery and outspoken defense of HK.
Having been away from HK since the inception of the protests, I was eager to witness the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ first-hand. While wandering amidst its supporters – I must admit, it was challenging not to get caught up in it all. The energy of this movement is beyond palpable, it has a robust heartbeat. And despite its label as a student movement, it actually crosses generations – at least to some extent.
As you have seen and read, it is highly organized. The movement has a well-equipped A/V team to supports its rallies and press efforts, essentially outdoor ‘offices’ complete with desks, lamps, and computers – and of course, most significantly, thousands of supporters, prepared to wait out long hours, days, nights, weeks – to try to secure what they seek.
Outdoors stores must be enjoying the surge of retail activity – supplying those rows and rows of tents that have now become almost as emblematic of this movement as its umbrellas (the original ‘guards’ against the elements – rain, sun, and of course, the tear gas and pepper spray that police released in weeks past). And as you have likely also heard, protesters are largely, to the surprise of many around the world, quite orderly – they pick up their trash, even recycle. One must admit, it is pretty impressive.
But let’s return to the fundamental platform of the protest movement. Government leader Lam chided the students during the recent talks for being more ‘idealistic’ than ‘pragmatic’. Of course, she was loudly ‘booed’ by protest supporters for such words. It’s tempting to want to vilify this sentiment. But is there possibly any truth to what she says?
Democracy might be a worthy ideal on paper, but we have certainly observed several examples of failed attempts to establish democracy in the past decade, and there are arguably ‘democratic’ societies that are messy at best. As an American who has directly enjoyed the benefits of democracy, sure – I support the idea of it, I appreciate its upside. As a very simple example – while I’ve had to delay posting this because I simply haven’t had access to my own blog while traveling on business in Beijing, I have become sensitized to even the impact of censorship as a denied freedom. But democracy does not always succeed. The reality is, democracy isn’t necessarily the best system for all countries. Would it be the best system for Hong Kong? To be honest, I can’t say for sure.
Another reality? Hong Kong is after all part of China. ‘One country, 2 systems (sort of)’. Mainland will not relinquish much of their stronghold on the region for various reasons, not least of which is the signal such a compromise would send to other restless parts of China. It is unrealistic to expect that the mainland will make any decisions for HK that will jeopardize the mainland’s control over the region.
And how much support do the protesters honestly have? If you ask a broader cross-section of HK’s population what they think, many are actually not avid supporters, especially now that the protests have dragged on for weeks – despite the masses at the protest zones showcased in the media. There is a level of respect for the movement’s intent and to some extent, the tenacity of its proponents. But many folks – whether taxi drivers or businessmen and women – are also tiring of the toll on the city. Many see no productive end without compromise – or even potentially violence. More are admitting that they see the protesters’ requests as naive. Hong Kong has never enjoyed such freedoms, even under British rule. Some argue that China’s dominance has actually done HK some good. And many actually sympathize with the local police, who despite their tabloid-friendly challenges with ‘inopportune’ decisions to release tear gas and a notorious beating of an unarmed protester – have arguably exhibited quite remarkable restraint throughout weeks of exhaustingly amplified working hours.
As a relatively recently relocated expat, I am obviously still an outsider looking in. I can’t pretend to know or understand all of the nuances of what is feeding (and what could stifle) this uprising nor assert what would be best for HK. Clearly, there are no easy answers. And no one really knows exactly how this standoff will end.
To be frank, the mainland could crush this on a moment’s notice. I don’t think they will, at least not in any overtly oppressive way – Hong Kong is a significant success story overall for China, and the world is watching closely. But realistically, the protesters will not be granted what they want – at least not the current iteration of their expressed demands. The idea of expulsion of CY Leung from his position has been floating in the ether (himself a beneficiary of the current system, he certainly has not helped his case by making inflammatory comments about the danger of democracy leading to the ‘poor’ dominating politics). But the mainland would likely just appoint someone else to the position – and the protesters know this all too well. Special follow-up ‘reports’ were proposed by the government during the recent talks, but we all know they won’t change anything substantively. Neither side shows any sign of surrendering.
But both sides refusing to back down significantly will obviously just perpetuate the standoff – which at best, will keep the city at its partially halted state. At worst, the situation could escalate to greater violence – particularly in the less stable protest zone in Mong Kok, where violence has already manifested and where there has also been a growing presence of the ‘triads’ (organized crime groups) who are generally against the protest movement.
There is no doubt we are in the midst of a fascinating period in Hong Kong, which will leave an indelible mark on its future history. Everyone hopes for a peaceful resolution – but for better or worse, this means the protesters will have to come to terms with significant compromises. No matter where you stand on the issues, though – you have to give the protesters some credit for their hutzpah (or cojones, or whatever term you prefer). They are certainly sending a strong message to the mainland that they will not simply roll over and play dead. Only time will tell the real impact on the people of this fair city.