It’s not easy to always have a clear picture, partly because information is distorted by those who own it, partly because misapprehensions are made by those who don’t live it. So as best as I understand it, this is what’s been happening. In 1997 Hong Kong was returned to China after 150 years of British rule with the promise that in 2017, it would be able to democratically elect a leader, a function of the “one country, two systems” principle that acknowledges Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous state that, unlike Beijing, is not communist. But as of this year and breaking its promise, China decided that a committee from Beijing was still necessary to appoint its leader (presumably to carryout the interests of the mainland). This violation of basic recognition and political trust rippled through the region as people united in their outrage and took to the streets. Their position stands that Hong Kong citizens deserve the right to a democratic election and society—a right to which they were promised. Instead, they’ve been faced with mounting force tactfully used to villainize and silence the movement. On our fourth day in Hong Kong, we met two 20 year old students walking in Admiralty, a zone of peaceful protesting bustling with door to door single occupancy tents decorating a major highway. They were passing out yellow ribbons for individuals to wear in solidarity with the movement. A few minutes later and our interest piqued, they were wide-eyed spewing their passions and frustrations about the government conspired police perpetrations against the protestors, urging us to stay away from more dangerous areas of protest where the police employ third party triade members to ambush peaceful protesters, often times with harassment and violence. They explained that the peaceful movement was being falsely demonized for refusing reconciliation efforts when in fact it was government representatives that had purposefully missed scheduled negotiations. They confided their concerns for the future—the growing class divide, the increasing unaffordability, and the fissuring culture of Hong Kong. They lamented on the immigration policy that has allowed a fast growing population of mainland immigrants to overwhelm the Hong Kong population, resulting in fewer jobs for Hong kong citizens and exorbitant housing prices. The students worry about their present lives, their future selves, and how they’ll get a job and place to live after college. They seek to be heard, considered, and validated as a member of their own community, condemning the abuse of power and failure of mainland China to recognize Hong Kong’s right to democracy and autonomy.
A few days earlier in Beijing, my brother and I met for the first time, and my mom for her third, an old friend of my grandmother’s. Uncle Feng Cheng was wistful and stoic, as evidenced from his entirely unexpected yet poignant Christmas letter that we received last Christmas to our Michigan address after decades of lost contact. Dressed each day in tan khaki slacks, a navy wind breaker, and Nike tennis shoes that predate the ’90s, he recounted stories of his impoverished youth, his love of Jane Austen books, and harangued somewhat sarcastically and somewhat seriously about the power and inevitability of cats to mystically possess their owners. We spent an evening in his home, which is sparse but well adorned– turn a corner and you’ll find a collection of classical music records even though there is nothing with which to play them because he has given both of his record players away to friends. The small details, and the big ones—his overt and unfaltering generosity, his openness and warmth, his calm and collectedness reveal a whole, contemplative and earnest person. In the following days in Beijing and then on our travels back to Hong Kong, we shared brief but resonant discussions of his views about the protests (of which he was not in support but neither vocally opposed). He recounted fleeing with his father to Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of China at a time when there were only roughly a million people living in Hong Kong. Desolate, removed, and extremely poor, they lived on the beach in a small hut. From an early age he began to memorize lines of English literature on his way to and from school, eventually memorizing whole books at a time. Finally at 16, he left for the states to attend Harvard, and came back two years later to Hong Kong where he’s lived and worked at Hong Kong University ever since. He reflects on this with a certain air of melancholy, emphasizing that he grew up in very dire circumstances but insisting that hard work, above everything else, created opportunity for him. It’s with this conviction that he believes that everyone deserves an opportunity, and, defined by his experience, believes that mainland China is in a very good position to provide everyone with that chance. To him, he sees the economic boom and prosper of his country, a country that not long ago was vastly poor and rural—the empowerment of his people and reform that has transformed living standards, social rights, infrastructure, education, and global involvement & prominence. He believes in the strength of China, in its values and politics that have given rise to a rebirth of a faltering country. He believes in its future for him, for Mainland, and for Hong Kong. His experience is as genuine as the students’ handing out ribbons of solidarity in Admiralty, both equally as valid and supported by experience and passion.
I personally don’t know enough of the history or current political climate to make a claim as to who’s more “right” or “wrong,” but see the purpose in at least trying to understand the emotional and intellectual reasons that affect both sides of this or any conflict, because undoubtedly if you don’t no progress will ever be made.