Over the summer holidays, I visited my older brother in Beijing. I had a great time and enjoyed eating different food, visiting formerly forbidden places and even feeling grateful for Hong Kong’s relatively-good-but-still-horrible air quality. I decided, though, that I would never want to live there because of the constant feeling the Big Brother is watching.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about my big brother. He minds his own business. I’m talking about… you know what I’m talking about.
My wife and I forgot to “check in” to my brother’s apartment when we arrived and asked about it the next day. The concierge looked at us like we had said, “We just took a dump in your hat. Two dumps, actually. And a wee.” Everyone started moving quickly and the concierge explained that as it had been more than 24 hours, we had broken the law and they could get in big trouble. They would be put on a black list, they said, and we were given all sorts of complicated paperwork to fill out. Problem solved, but it was a bit disconcerting.
Every train station I visited had an x-ray, which people are forced to put their bags through when entering. At tourist sites such as Tiananmen Square, Chinese citizens dutifully line up and wait for their ID cards to be scanned and there are barricades everywhere with people constantly being herded in this or that direction by unsmiling guards. It’s a bit over the top. I mean, what could possibly go wrong and Tiananmen Square?
I do enjoy visiting China and the people I have met are lovely, but the state control – of the internet, of freedom of speech, of freedom of thought – would make it hard for me to live there. I’m glad Hong Kong is so different.
For those unfamiliar with the difference between Hong Kong and China, I’ll give you a shallow and overgeneralised breakdown here:
- Britain snatched Hong Kong from China in the 1800s after the opium wars. The drug-pushing Brits were a bit dodgy here.
- Honkers was ruled by Britain until 1997 when it was handed back to China under ‘One Country, Two Systems’, whereby Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own Basic Law and currency. Although it is a part of China, it might as well be a different country. This agreement is supposed to last 50 years, when Hong Kong properly goes home to Mother China.
- Part of the handover included a stipulation that Hong Kong moves towards universal suffrage and the first fully democratic elections were slated to take place in 2017.
- China said, “Sweet, dudes. You can go ahead and have universal suffrage. One small thing, though: you can only vote for people we approve. Have fun, suckers” or words to that effect.
I didn’t pay much attention to this at the time and didn’t think that Hongkongers would kick up much of a fuss. After all, they have never had true democracy here and things have chugged along pretty well. Also, over the years, some Chinese people have expressed the opinion to me that China needs a “good emperor”, not democracy.
However, six years after the nationalistic fervour of the Beijing olympics and we are in a different situation. Now we have a deeply unpopular Chief Executive Officer (CY Leung) and growing animosity toward a government that is seen by many as disregarding the needs of Hong Kong people in favour of chasing the Mainland dollar. People are angry about a range of issues and feel powerless to do anything about it, so when Beijing announced that they would need to approve all candidates in Hong Kong elections on August 31 this year, it was a trigger for something to happen. And happen, it has.
It started with a student march. Police used tear gas and pepper spray. Bad move. Hongkongers were disgusted and thousands more took to the streets to peacefully protest and demand the resignation of CY Leung and true universal suffrage. For a slightly more insightful commentary, I recommend watching this Vice News piece.
Or you could have a listen to Russell Brand’s take on things.
I am not here to give a proper history of what is happening or even to suggest a way forward. I am just concerned for the place that I have called home for most of the last nine years. I love this place and would hate to see it lose what makes it special. This isn’t just about democracy, but freedom as well. Freedom to protest, freedom of the press, even “freedom to use Facebook” as one protester put it. If China is allowed to implement any policy it wishes, it won’t be long before we see government stepping in to shut down websites, silence dissenting voices and introduce brainwashing into education (as they already tried to do in 2012).
Mainly I try to put myself in the students’ shoes. If you were 18 years old and this was your only home, wouldn’t you stand up for your future? Wouldn’t you make your voice heard? Wouldn’t you say no?
Many people say that they admire the protesters but that they have zero chance of making a difference. Zero chance. If people are already thinking this way, then the battle for Hong Kong to remain at least semi-independent is already lost. I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t see much chance of Beijing doing any backflips (literally or metaphorically), but you never know. Many significant historical events are utterly unimaginable until they happen, and as long as people are willing to stand up and say no, there is still hope.