By The Global Diplomat Writer
It’s August 12. Our plane is due to leave for Hong Kong at nine. It’s eight-thirty now, still early, but the passengers are restless. My mom refreshes the Air Canada website every couple of seconds to check if our flight would be suddenly cancelled. Several people have gathered near the gate, watching a livestream of the Hong Kong protests and whispering in anxious, rapid-fire Cantonese. As for me, I’m half-asleep—that is, until my phone buzzes in my pocket.
hey emma, u need to cancel ur flight
The text is my childhood friend and a resident of Hong Kong. She’s always been prone to overreaction, so I don’t think much of her warning. I would only be in Hong Kong for two weeks. I’d fly in, visit some family, renew some identification documents, and fly right back out. No big deal.
Dw dude! I’ll be fine
Just as I press “send”, the PA crackles to life. Our flight will be delayed until ten.
seriously!! hk is messed up rn, might turn into tiananmen square 2. not safe!!!
Bella is referring to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, an incident in which a series of student-led, pro-democracy demonstrations was abruptly quashed when the Chinese military stormed the Square armed with tanks and assault rifles, killing hundreds of thousands of protestors.
In Hong Kong, this incident is no doubt a looming threat at the back of everyone’s minds. Indeed, up to two million protestors have taken to the streets of Hong Kong this summer, surpassing the Tiananmen Square protests in size and scale. It’s no coincidence that Chinese troops and tanks have been relocated to Shenzhen, a city just across the border from Hong Kong.
Not that Hong Kong didn’t have enough violence within its borders. It’s August 13 now, and as I make my way towards the airport exit, protestors line the walkways, handing out flyers urging me to turn back. Some were holding drawings of a woman, her right eye bloody beneath a bandage—a volunteer medic blinded by police violence, I would learn. Others simply held up signs that screamed, in bold letters, “Hong Kong is not safe!”
Thanks, guys, but I’m already here. So what now?
Up until this point, social media has been my only window to the movement, and like most Asian-Americans with ties to Hong Kong, I was for the cause from the very beginning—a peaceful protest against a proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed mainland China to detain Hong Kong citizens arbitrarily, particularly those who advocate for human rights or voice dissent against the Chinese government.
The bill also threatened to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. Though the special administrative region currently operates under a “one country, two systems” arrangement, maintaining its “previous capitalist system and life-styles” and forbidding China to impose its government on the region, the Chinese government has gradually exerted more control over the region over the years. The extradition bill was simply the last straw.
The initial protests proved semi-successful; the extradition bill was suspended indefinitely. But while some believe the bill to be as good as withdrawn, most protestors are certain that this was nothing more than a delay tactic on the part of the government, and so the protests haven’t stopped since then.
But they have changed. With resentment between police and protestors boiling to a head, violence has become more extreme on both sides, and in many cases, what began as peaceful protests have escalated into anything but that. In one notable incident during the airport protests, a mainland Chinese reporter mistaken for an undercover cop was zip-tied to a luggage trolley and assaulted by protestors. Just as the blinded medic became a symbol for the protestors, this reporter has been dubbed a hero by the Chinese media.
The protestors’ demands have also become broader. In addition to the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, they now call for the retraction of the word “riot” to classify the protests, the release of all arrested demonstrators, a serious independent inquiry into the actions of the Hong Kong police, and—this is where it gets messy—universal suffrage, or the opportunity to hold legitimate, democratic elections.
Supporters appear to be split on this point. Some want democracy within the “one country, two systems” arrangement. Some want total independence from China, as suggested by the slogan “Free Hong Kong!” found plastered around the city. Others still are asking the UK, the region’s formal colonizer, to intervene.
Many of the citizens I’ve spoken with don’t have a definitive stance for or against the movement. My friend Bella supports the objective of the protests, but not their disruptive, sometimes violent tactics. My sister, a vehement centrist (whatever that means), worries about the economy, as Hong Kong’s status as an attractive financial capital might be harmed by the region’s rising call for independence. My older relatives aren’t convinced that the movement will have much of an impact at all. “It’s just for young people with nothing to do,” my aunt says. The other adults in the room nod as they lapse into a chorus of disapproving aiya’s.
It’s true that the movement’s participants are mainly in their late teens and twenties, but there’s a reason for that. In 2047, “one country, two systems” will expire, and Hong Kong will become just another city under the Chinese government’s control. For these young people, that year isn’t as distant as it once appeared.
But even they are on the fence. The movement has no leader, and as a result, it lacks a clear direction. A movement without a clear direction is a difficult one to stand behind. By my fifth day in Hong Kong, I’m not sure which side to take either.
But on August 18, a rally changes my mind.
The day before, while taking the subway, I was airdropped a digital flyer containing the date, time, and location of the demonstration by an anonymous organizer. Such flyers were spread across the city with the intention of reaching those not actively involved in the movement, and soon, 1.7 million people have assembled in Victoria Park under the pouring rain. Some are dressed in black, the colour associated with the movement, while others have come straight from school or work in uniform or business attire. The rain comes down in sheets, and the roof of umbrellas above their heads does little to shield against it, but it does not deter the children, seniors, and families that have gathered.
The protest is completely peaceful. There are no tear gas canisters, no fights between protestors and police. A cheer breaks out when a man announces that the subway station nearby has been closed because too many people are flooding in, trying to join the rally.
The future of the movement, so closely intertwined with the future of Hong Kong, is uncertain. Some suspect it will fizzle out once school starts in late August, while others fear military intervention.
But at that rally, I saw a community, standing in solidarity for a shared cause—a cause for which they are determined to fight, until 2047 and beyond.