-Guest Post by Valerie Cooper-
I moved to Hong Kong a little over a month ago to do my PhD. As I’m a newbie still trying to figure out where Hong Kong ends and mainland China begins – if such a divide exists. These protests have provided a very sudden and very surprising perspective on the Special Administrative Region that would probably not be seen otherwise.
The student boycott of classes started two weeks after I arrived, in protest to the Beijing government’s recent decision to handpick candidates for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. That first week, I went to the Central region on Hong Kong Island to find a few hundred students in white shirts lounging under umbrellas, listening to speeches from student leaders and painting signs. That was Tuesday.
Then the Occupy Central movement joined the students. I woke up the following Monday to reports that riot police and tear gas had been used against protesters during the night. By that evening, the number of protesters had multiplied drastically in response, spilling from the central government and financial areas on Hong Kong Island and into my neighbourhood in Mong Kok.
Then came the first moment of realization that I was no longer in the West. At these protests, there are people sitting in groups. There are people giving speeches through megaphones. There are chants and cheers, and boos when they bring out giant images of the current Chief Executive with vampire fangs.
But there are also people staffing numerous supply and first-aid stations, as well as wandering through the crowds offering free goodies to protesters. Not just water bottles, but bananas, cookies, face masks, cold towels, ponchos, umbrellas (as much for the rain and sun as in the event of tear gas). There are people holding the ladders (who brought ladders?) in place to help protesters over the road barricades. There are people walking around spritzing protesters with water to keep them cool. There are people in charge of trash and recycling duty. There are people painting signs, umbrellas and banners, which just as often apologize for the inconvenience caused as make a political statement. On at least one occasion, there was a student string quartet wooing the masses with songs from Les Miserables. They seem determined to not only make the protests as comfortable as possible for those attending, but also to ensure that the government can find no fault for how the protests are being conducted.
And then there are more people. More than I’ve ever seen in one place in my lifetime. Standing on a bridge over the protests near Admiralty station, there are people in the black shirts with yellow ribbons adopted by the movement sitting, standing, moving for as far as you can see in both directions, such that you wouldn’t even know there were roads and overpasses underneath their feet. An overwhelming number of people there just to take a stand and, above all, do so peacefully.
I never imagined that being packed in a tiny area with thousands of others could be such a pleasant and well-organized experience. Music festivals could take notes from these guys.
Also unlike my perception of many protests, the protesters back one very clear, simple goal: to be able to elect their next leader. And many of the people involved genuinely believe their actions will result in just that.
“We want to be like Taiwan!” one man tells me, referring to the other Chinese-claimed Special Administrative Region that now elects its own leaders (to which I involuntary think, You can do better than that…). When I ask an older woman if she thinks the protests will succeed, a strange and slightly terrifying smile crosses her face before she says quietly, “We will have a democracy if we fight for it!”
Initially, as a recently-arrived foreigner, I opted to take the ideal journalist’s approach: observer, researcher, questioner, doubter, reporter. Yet these protesters’ peaceful approach and their seemingly simple desire to exercise what I consider to be such a basic human right had me donning the black shirt and yellow ribbon adopted the next time I went out.
Which leads me to the second moment of realization that I’m not in the West: the opposition. For more than a century, Hong Kong was under British rule. During this time, citizens also had no right to choose their leader (they were handed ‘governors’ that were unflinchingly white, old, British men). Yet to my outsider’s perspective, it seems that the mentality of the Hong Kongese – those born and raised in Hong Kong – towards government veered drastically off the course of their neighbors to the north.
To many of the people from mainland China that I’ve spoken with, the idea of wanting to elect leaders seems absolutely baffling.
One afternoon, casually making what I assumed to be small talk about the progress of the protests, a friend surprised me by shrugging his shoulders and expressing his annoyance at the economic problems all those pesky protesters were causing. To which I responded, Wait, what?
But he’s not unique. It’s as though the opposition views the protesters as unruly children throwing a temper tantrum against the benevolent state that has already granted them so many freedoms – after all, they already have a free press and can even criticize the government without fear of retribution. In fact, this is what happens when you give people too much freedom – they just want more.
Social media responses to news of the protest paint a similar picture.
“First you want to elect your own leaders – what’s next?!” one commenter writes.
“…these student punks have so got used to firing orders and demands these days, they have thought they are the bosses of HK already,” writes another.
Still others accuse the students of being puppets to Western powers who want to see China crumble. There’s even the suggestion that the police are being too kind, and the protesters deserve their forceful intervention, whatever that may be.
With my American upbringing, which heralds democracy and the right to elect leaders (however convoluted the Electoral College process may be) as a sort of unquestionable, untouchable law of the universe, this perspective is unfathomable. The government, we’re taught, is granted its power from the people, power that must be taken away if it is ever mishandled.
But at least for some in mainland China, the government is viewed – almost revered – as a benevolent God that provides for the people and that shouldn’t be angered. So of course these ungrateful protesters should get what’s coming to them.
The clash in Hong Kong seems to be a reflection of this larger clash in mentality, with Hong Kong citizens wanting their long-overdue say in government actions, while mainland China citizens think the Beijing government has already given them too much power.
And I, fresh off the boat and eager to see the good news of democracy spread among the students, suddenly feel like I should probably just stay away.
There are people here whom I respect and some I consider friends that have a mentality about the situation that I simply can’t understand. While I personally still condemn Beijing’s attempt to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy and its citizens’ right to take charge of the city’s future, I’m an outsider – perhaps even perceived as one of those crazy westerners trying to impose my will on the people of Hong Kong. Right now I’m content to hope for a safe yet productive result of the Umbrella Revolution.
-Guest Post by Valerie Cooper-