Hong Kong’s protests are about more than democracy

June 13, 2019

Hana Meihan Davis is a Post Opinions intern from Hong Kong.


A sea of dark hair and yellow umbrellas. Plumes of tear gas enveloping the crowds. Policemen armed with rubber bullets and batons. Makeshift barriers of bamboo and brick.


The images emerging from Hong Kong over the past week recall the Umbrella Movement of 2014, but are even more striking. The demonstrations are about more than a controversial extradition bill, more than the threat to Hong Kong's rule of law, and more even than the fight for human rights. Hong Kong is rallying for its identity.


For months now, Hongkongers have been pushing against the proposed extradition bill, which would allow any person on Hong Kong soil - resident or visitor - to be taken into mainland China. On Sunday, more than 1 million people marched in the biggest mass demonstration since the 1997 handover. On Wednesday, tens of thousands occupied the roads around Hong Kong's government headquarters, blocking access to the Legislative Council and postponing the extradition debate until further notice. The demonstration took a violent turn as clashes arose, leading to dozens of injuries and arrests. For the first time, riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets inside the Legislative Council building.


In 2012, local poet Dung Kai-cheung wrote, "Hong Kong has been a work of fiction from its very beginning." Every place is shaped by politics, but in Hong Kong, this is arguably truer than anywhere else. Hong Kong came about by accident and has a stubborn and wholly distinct identity.


In a city where so much is still named after Queen Victoria, Hong Kong was a pawn in the 19th-century struggle between China and the conquering powers of the West. Its people embody all the harmonious contradictions that have made Hong Kong what it is: a place that forged its own path in the shadows of colonial history and China's imperial ambitions.


"Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong: that is the promise and that is the unshakable destiny," said Chris Patten, the final governor of the former colony, in his farewell address 22 years ago. But as the past few days have shown, the politics that birthed Hong Kong are now failing it. As these promises prove hollow, what Hongkongers are fighting to protect is the elements of their identity that are unique: a "Chinglishness" shaped by history, a pride that speaks to a certain lack of fear and a sense that being a Hongkonger unifies beyond all else.


"This is Hong Kong, where I was born, and this is my city. All of us here are protecting our home," said a 24-year-old protester to The Post. In protesting China's tyranny, Hong Kong's people are authoring their story. They see a history of deep intolerance toward cultural difference and a long-standing suspicion of foreign ideals, and fear that Hong Kong, like other regions, could become homogenized.


While all walks of life are involved in the protests, those most deeply invested are students. These are the twenty-somethings whom Financial Times correspondent Ben Bland labeled "Generation HK" in his book of the same title: the citizens with no memories of a British Hong Kong and no attachment to mainland China, born in the confused threshold around the time of the handover. It is this generation, the people who will be in their 50s when Hong Kong loses its status as a Special Administrative Region, that have the most to lose.


But, from Hong Kong's most recent protest, a rallying cry has emerged. It is a unified shout to safeguard Hong Kong's unique identity and position in the modern world, to not let forces beyond its borders shape its destiny anymore. As the noose tightens around Hong Kong, what is at stake is more than anything politics can define. The people are fighting to preserve the essence of what it means to be a "Hongkonger."


The pro-democracy movement has seen crests and troughs over the past three decades, but the more Beijing oversteps its boundaries, the more it molds a Hong Kong identity separate from the Chinese one it hopes to spread. In April, a college student wrote an essay in her school paper titled, "I am from Hong Kong, not China." While the backlash that her piece received was widespread, so too was the evidence that she was, and is, not alone in this sentiment.


In her elegy "Dear Hong Kong," Xu Xi writes: "Once upon a time in Hong Kong, 'national' meant 'foreign with Chinese characteristics'. Today, we are Chinese with foreign characteristics." Ultimately, this means that Hong Kong will not be boxed in by mainland China. As the protests this week and the ongoing fight for human rights have proved, this "Hong Kongness" is a fiery identity that will not be silenced without noise.

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© 2018 by Citizen Power Initiatives for China.

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