Living in a Land of Protest: An Expat’s Take on the Hong Kong Protests

At 10 PM every night the shouting starts. The voices of men, women, and children mingle together in a passionate call and response. People lean from the windows of their flats or shout from where they are walking along the street. The courtyard below my apartment rings with cries that bounce from highrise to highrise and echo off the soft waves of the bay. 

For 10 minutes each night, the people of Hong Kong stop what they are doing and raise their voices together in a moving show of unity, chanting protest slogans like, “Reclaim Hong Kong: Revolution of our times!” I open my windows to hear it, and feel I am bearing witness to something intimate and holy.

This summer has been a season of upheaval for Hong Kong. In June, millions of Hong Kongers began a series of demonstrations to protest a proposed bill regarding the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China. (If you’d like more understanding of the background to this conflict, this video from Vox sums it up very clearly).

On the day of the first protest, my parents were visiting Hong Kong. We were all returning from a weekend trip to Cambodia and were not aware of the build-up to the protest. We arrived at the airport and learned that there were major traffic jams on Hong Kong Island. We took a taxi home and didn’t encounter any protest activity along the way. Later, we watched the footage online of what turned out to be a peaceful march of over a million people, including many families with children.

“Good for them,” I thought. I was inspired to see so many people joining a peaceful demonstration against what seemed to be a problematic policy. Like most Hong Kongers, I had no idea then that this was only the beginning. 

Over the last 13 weeks, protesters have continued to assemble for organized marches, rallies, and demonstrations every single weekend. Over these weeks, the situation has escalated, becoming quite violent at times as police have indiscriminately used tear gas, rubber bullets, and excessive physical force to try to control the situation. In response, protestors have grown angrier and more destructive, lighting fires and smashing windows. Many people’s faith in their government in general and in the trustworthiness of the police force specifically has been shaken. More than 1800 rounds of teargas have been deployed this summer, often in residential areas and several times (very dangerously) inside of MTR stations. 

Aside from the marches, there have been dozens of different protest activities designed to disrupt daily life in Hong Kong. Several targeted campaigns have caused disruption to the MTR and bus systems that Hong Kongers rely heavily on for transportation. Protest action at the airport successfully brought the eye of the international community to the situation in Hong Kong.  

IMG_4437

An example of a Hong Kong protest schedule

The protests are about the extradition bill, but they have also expanded into something much bigger. Ultimately they are a fight against perceived corruption in the government and the police force and against the steadily growing influence of mainland China on Hong Kong’s government, economy, and social structures. The protesters have declared their five demands:

  • The complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
  • The government to withdraw the use of the word “riot” in relation to protests
  • The unconditional release of arrested protesters and charges against them dropped
  • An independent inquiry into police behaviour
  • Implementation of genuine universal suffrage

The people are angry, and they are also determined, and they show no sign of backing down. Last weekend the police arrested several key protest leaders and denied the permit for a planned assembly. In response, thousands took to the streets all across the city in what turned out to be one of the most violent weekends so far. The city is splitting at the seams in constant conflict, not only between the protesters and the police, but between citizens who support the protesters and defend them and citizens who support Beijing and defend the police.

There are endless news stories you can read about these events and all of the various angles and opinions. I’m not a reporter and I am not equipped to talk about the political and social nuances of a government and a culture that are not my own. I can only talk about my experience. 

It’s strange, sometimes wonderfully so and sometimes frighteningly so, to be living in this city at this time in history. In some ways, these events affect my everyday life. I am alert to disturbances and spend most of my Sundays at home, not wanting to be caught in the crossfires of any conflicts between police and protesters which more and more often make their way into MTR stations and other public areas. 

There have been times when my commute to work was lengthened because the MTR service had been suspended. One morning I thought I would not make it to a doctor’s appointment because of wide-scale disruptions to the transportation system. An incredibly kind and generous couple offered me a ride even though it was out of their way. Last Saturday, my afternoon classes were cancelled and I went home early to avoid protest activity taking place near my work.

At the same time, I have not had to walk through tear gas to get home and I have not witnessed any violence. Most days I carry on with my life as normal. At 31 weeks pregnant, I am especially mindful of my safety for the sake of my little one. And yet, I am not afraid for myself. I continue to feel much safer in Hong Kong than I ever feel in the US. 

I honestly have no idea how this will resolve. Sometimes, I cannot imagine a way forward. What I know is this. I am moved, sometimes to tears by the hundreds of thousands of people who are risking their safety and their future to stand for what they believe in. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, some under rioting charges which can carry a ten year prison sentence. This is not a temper tantrum. These are people who are love their home and who love their people and are willing to risk great loss for the hope of a better future for themselves and for their children. 

I can’t help but wonder, have I ever held a belief so strongly that I would honestly risk my safety or my future to defend it? The largest march this summer had over 2 million participants. In a city of 7 million people, that is over ¼ of the population. Can you imagine of ¼ the population of the US cared deeply enough about something to take to the streets and raise their voices relentlessly until something changed?

There is so much injustice in the world, but what do I believe in passionately enough to act on and to keep acting on until something changes?

****

Just as I have finished writing this, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has announced her intention to move for the final withdrawal of the extradition bill. This still has to be voted on by the legislative council, but it is the first glimmer of any kind of concession from the government.

If social media is any indication, the response of protesters has mostly been, “Too little too late.” The streets continue to ring with the slogan, “Five demands, not one less!”

Do you hear the people sing?

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4 comments

  1. Grateful you wrote about this Lily. Zac and I heard about the airport singing while on a road trip and I was so overcome – I then needed for us to listen to the whole soundtrack, and also extrapolate about all about how poignant and beautiful and strong hearing it used now felt…incredible that you’re there.

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  2. Good to read your thoughts. I wonder how different my experience of it all would be if I heard the crowds chanting, but in reality it’s quiet in the northern territories. I felt empathy for the movement as a whole at the start but that’s gradually worn away…

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    1. I can understand that. It’s hard now that there is so much vandalism happening as well. I definitely don’t think destroying property and causing chaos is the best answer. But I am still very empathetic to the overall cause. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young person here and have so much uncertainty about what the future might look like.

      Liked by 1 person

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