After a 19 hour flight from Budapest to Amsterdam to Shanghai and later to Hong Kong, I yearned for nothing more than a soft mattress. And while I was priding myself for the notion of getting a cheap apartment on Airbnb in the heart of Hong Kong, I began contemplating whether I’ve made the right choice regarding my destination.
Every time I would hear about Hong Kong the message is always the same.
Violence and vandalism! Gunshots and chants resonate across the streets. Victims describe their fears: the moment they set foot on the streets, masked and upset, marching against all odds.
But there I was once again. And looking around, I could easily tell. I was in the heart of a growing rival that would question anyone: “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
But the reason for coming here goes way back.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to work and study in Shanghai. And while I became affiliated with my life there and the vivid hustle of Hong Kong upon my first visit, I wanted to uncover some answers. I wanted to have a complete story from both sides of what is happening. (Since the media is usually tells a one-sided.) It was my intention to see for myself, what the people of Hong Kong and the people of China have to say about the past few months? What are their views on the current situation?
What began in June 2019 as an opposition to an unpopular extradition bill, has since escalated into a movement against the Chinese government’s influence. At its core is a defence of Hong Kong’s distinct identity, with its comparative liberties, which many believe are under threat. And I was there to delve deeper into the topic. In order to understand both sides and find out more, I took the liberty to reach out to some of the key activists, and later of course, to get a clear glimpse of what some people I knew from China, had to say about this.
(If you are new to the Hong kong situation or the political climax, here are the details necessary to understand what is happening)
“The story revolves around the status of Hong Kong and the power China has over it. It’s a fight to preserve the people’s freedom, which has been going on for a long time.” Vox, 2019.
In the 1800s, China lost a series of wars and ended up ceding Hong Kong as a British colony. This lasted until “the handover of July the 1st 1997” when Britain gave it back to China under special agreement after 156 years of rule. Despite Hong Kong becoming part of China, it still functions as a semi-autonomous nation. Or in other words, a “One Country, Two System,” a principle enshrined in a document called the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini constitution.
Thanks to this Basic Law, unlike China’s authoritarian regime, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy, as well as the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of press and to have its own assembly.
However, according to the agreement, this system was not meant to last forever. In less than 28 years from now, in 2047 Hong Kong is expected to become part of China. And already, China has been reported to put pressure on Hong Kong’s administrative region as their next step to encroachment.
The first notorious movement, in July the 1st 2003’s, was meant to oppose the anti-subversion Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23. Fear of the loss of freedom of speech along with other freedoms, as well as a general dissatisfaction against the Hong Kong Government prompted a mass protest of hundreds of thousands of people on 1 July 2003. And from September 26th, 2014, the Umbrella Revolution took place in protest China’s influence over Hong Kong’s elections.
So how did it get to this? How did it all come down to such violent measures we witnessed? Nearly 5000 people arrested. And counting.
This entire story started out with a Murder.
In early 2018, the murder of Poon Hiu-wing by her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai in Taiwan, where the two Hong Kong residents were visiting as tourists. Only one of them returned alive. It was a month later, after Ms Poon’s father came to Taiwan to report her missing, that her body was found hidden in bushes, about 20 metres from a popular riverside trail in neighbouring New Taipei City.
The bill has since been withdrawn due to widespread protests, but Chan’s case is still in limbo.
And that is because there is no extradition law. (A formal process of one state surrendering an individual to another state for prosecution.) There is no fair trial or humane punishment for crimes committed. The Hong Kong authorities used Taiwan’s request for Chan to be extradited as a reason for proposing a controversial bill to allow such extraditions.
However this bill would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to Taiwan, as well as mainland China. Taiwan also strongly objected, accusing the Hong Kong government of using its request for Chan’s extradition as an excuse to ram through the bill.
As a result, the extradition bill triggered the first protests in April 2019. It would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances.
I was there to find some answers for myself. I wanted to know the two sides of this story. So I have taken the liberty to reach out to someone.
Fast-forward to November 2019 and I’m here for the second time in Hong Kong, witnessing the worst protests recorded since 1997. And unlike the first time of my visit in 2017 as a student, I was appalled and quite frankly… scared. The streets I once walked were littered with bricks, broken molotov cocktails, burnt objects and dismantled barricades. Masses flooding the streets in black outfits. All of them fighting the so called: Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill.
The same day around 17:30 I was out on the streets with a friend who was about to introduce me to a man who’s been an important member of an upcoming march.
A good hour of sleep was enough to get my sleep deprived senses to function. And it was time to meet the man I was supposed to “interview.” For the sake of his privacy and due to his previous actions, he will remain anonymous. (Therefore we have agreed to address him by a made up name ‘Mr Lee’.) He claimed to be one of the ‘unofficial’ organisers of an upcoming protest. I got in touch with him through a friend, who knew another friend I used to study with, while we were a know-it-all students in Shanghai.
Unlike your common interviews, with cameras, lighting, voice recorders or posh surroundings with a cup of tea, this one started out on Man Yiu Street heading to Wan Chai. We were heading towards Tamar Park, to the Legislative Council Complex. Mr Lee’s face was completely covered with a black scarf, a sunglass and a hat. His limbs had protective gear as if entering an arena to meet his ultimate fight.
Surrounded by thousands of other protestors, masked, wearing black shirts I felt unprepared for what they were about to face. The crowds began to trickle down the streets, assemble and march out to what seemed like a zigzag between the narrow streets of Hong Kong. Soon, it all felt like I was trying to give an interview in the midst of a Slipknot concert, moments before a pogo.
Still exhausted from lack of sufficient sleep and because Mr Lee’s lack of time to spare, we shook hands after being introduced by my friend and got down to business. Without hesitation, I just bursted out the first question on my mind.
“Could you explain to us what is about to happen?”
“We want to send out a message. This is our Hong Kong, we have every right to fight for it! These protests are part of a larger fight than just opposing a bill. We will make a peaceful march.”
“Are you not afraid of what might happen to you?”
“I am nervous, yes. But I’m more worried about what would happen to us in the future.”
“What would you do if the police were to interfere and say… take action to disperse you or the crowd?”
“This is a peaceful protest. If the police would take violent action, we will not disperse but stand our grun or retreat and come back another day… and another day. We have to push back on the mainland government and stand up for what we believe.”
“Even if it leads to danger, at the expense of lives?”
“We are protesting for our demands to be met. To keep the rights we already have. Wouldn’t you do the same?”
“How long have you been protesting?”
“I think, since June. It was my first participation. But in the beginning I was not able to participate in every protest,.”
“Could you share with me, why so many people have brought umbrellas?”
“Protecting our identities. There are cameras everywhere. Many of the protestors use lasers and sprays to block the cameras. The police have many ways to identify us.”
“Do you think you will be tracked down if someone were to see you leading a protest?”
“Of course! We are being watched all the time. Thousands of people have been arrested. Maybe next week or next month someone will discover that you were a protestor and they will knock on your door. The police will find you if you don’t cover your face.”
“According to The Economist, by 2019, almost no Hong Kong youth under 30, identified themselves as Chinese. So now comes my question. If China will takeover Hong Kong in 2047, what do you think, how will you and your generation deal with the rule of the Chinese Communist Party?”
“Fewer and fewer youth in Hong Kong identify themselves as Chinese. Many China sympathisers view this as one of the greatest threats. The rise of localism and pro-independence. I don’t know what will happen after 2047. But I do know that it should not happen now! And I will try to do everything to keep things the way they are.”
“There have been reports that some protestors are dangerous. They have damaged public and private properties and even harmed civilians. What is your reaction to this?”
“I think it is horrible. We try to make the demonstrations peaceful. But… there are some people (I will not name anyone) who do this to draw attention. They think that only if they burn or harm someone, they will get the media’s attention to prove their point. They are radical… they want to draw attention. Also, people get into fights very easily these days.”
“Based on what you’ve experienced, what is the demographic of these protestors?”
“Mostly young people. Young adults or teenagers.”
“If you could send out a message to the West or let’s say other democratic countries, what would you share with them?”
“Oh… there are many things on my mind. But… I would want them to know why we are here and what we are standing for.”
We talked for a little bit longer. There was so much more be asked. But time was running out. And as the first line of protestors were met by the police, I felt the urge to leave.
Interestingly, I would never be able to identify Mr Lee face-to-face. He seemed like a really down to earth guy. If I had to guess, he was probably a few years younger than me, probably in his early-20’s. Nevertheless, he implored me not to share any information about him. He was afraid, it might lead to him. So I kept it that way.
We talked for about another 5 minutes, before saying goodbye. I wish him well.
There were several other protestors I had the chance to talk to. But they all shard similar ideas, similar sentiments. This is their home. And they want to keep it the way it is.
Two days later, back in Shanghai.
The purpose of my stay was a simple Tedx Talk I was invited to in the New York University of Shanghai. But after that was over, I wanted to take a moment contemplate on all the things I witnessed. There was a question on my mind. A question I couldn’t leave without discussing. What do the Chinese scholars think and have to say about the situation in Hong Kong?
The answers were somewhat surprising.
“It’s not all that bad. At least not as bad as the Western media claims!”
While in my old university of Jiao Tong, I had the chance to meet some of my old classmates who were now all delving deep into the world of business and politics. I informed them that despite, our casual get together I wanted to see their views. How the events in Hong Kong had affected their connections and business.
“People need to understand our side of the story.”
“Hong Kong is China’s gateway to the rest of the world. I have business partners there. If we were to chase away our Western investors, China would feel a negative impact spiral down on its economy too.”
“All parties know that imposing China’s political system would create panic and economic mayhem. And nobody wants that. So the protestors should think a bit about their actions.”
“I think these protests are tearing the people apart. In the news, we see those who are Chinese and living in Hong Kong are being victimised. I think this is unfair.”
“Many people in the West think that China wants to put Hong Kong on its knees. Yes, we are very different. But we want Hong Kong to prosper. If Hong Kong’s economy suffers, so will our economy.”
I made no reaction to these responses. Whatever opinions they had, I respected and noted on my laptop. Agree or disagree with them, they showed concern for the future of Hong Kong. Perhaps this matter can be resolved. Perhaps not.
Hopefully a compromise will settle the differences between the two sides. We can only hope for the best.
One final question remains: “What do you think?”