Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Standing up for, if not in, Hong Kong

The world's eyes are on Hong Kong this week, including mine.

I wish it weren't my eyes though. I wish it were my feet. I wish my feet were just two of these feet:

I'm not a tremendously political person. Like anyone else, I have beliefs, and I do feel strongly about them. But I generally don't engage people in political conversation, and anyone who reads this blog knows I don't really use it to espouse my views. For the past decade of my life at least, my focus is more on the micro side than the macro side of humanity, and how one person can make his or her life better. I'm generally more interested in analyzing decisions and improving the self than I am in politics. I have a somewhat Talebian approach to the news. I've never marched in a protest or demonstration.

But Hong Kong is special. Not just to me, but to the world. For about as far back as I can remember, Hong Kong has topped the major worldwide economic freedom indices. Despite being nominally controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, it has been a haven for investment, growth, and free markets. It is not perfect on the social liberties axis (e.g. harsh drug laws, no gay marriage), but it has enjoyed reasonably free press and is one of the best "live and let live" societies out there.

It is orderly. Tremendously so. There is virtually no violent crime. Taxes are low, but infrastructure and public services are generally excellent. It's not a libertarian paradise or anything, but it's about as close as we have here on this planet.

Both sets of my grandparents lived through the poverty and bloodshed of Mao's Cultural Revolution and had their assets seized by the state. In the 1970s, they found a way to send my parents to Hong Kong, still under British rule at that time, in hopes of a better future for them. (My paternal grandfather would eventually raft and swim from mainland China across a dangerous channel to freedom in Hong Kong, and would later become a Canadian citizen.)

My parents were in turn fearful of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, and came to Canada. And so I was born and raised in Vancouver. But after the handover, it seemed that China was going to respect the laws of the land in China. Why mess with a good thing, after all? And so, my parents started to spend more time in Hong Kong. They encouraged me to get HK residency, which I did. It seemed like all that panic about Communist China gobbling up Hong Kong was for nothing. But fast forward to today and it seems we are on a critical threshold for the future of the freest city-state of the modern world.

Although I have always been in favour of an autonomous Hong Kong, I always felt ambivalent about the "Occupy Central" movement, as in my mind I associated it with Occupy Wall Street. But this is clearly different. What's amazing about the current events in Hong Kong right now is that seemingly the whole city is rallying in support. These are no longer just "student protests". The completely unprovoked pepper-spraying of peaceful students (and this old man below) has led to a tipping point where businessmen, professionals, and conservative elderly have joined with students and labour in a unified cause.

In typical Hong Kong fashion, the protests have been peaceful and orderly. Aside from one bizarre incident where a car randomly plowed through the crowd, there has been almost no incidence of property damage or violence. The intent is not to destroy or damage or cause anyone economic hardship, and this has led to the pervasive surge of support currently being felt throughout Hong Kong.

Another unique aspect of this protest is that it is ethnic Chinese people protesting against China. Historically, protests over self-determination have usually involved an ethnic minority controlled by the perceived aggression or oppression of a distant government representing an ethnic majority. But the vast majority of those protesting in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese ("Han people", as they would be called on the mainland. But they realize that Hong Kong is special, and that it is different, and that it is worth fighting for. They know that their brethren on the mainland do not have access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Wikipedia, and that they can be jailed indefinitely for opposing the views of the state.

And so you have a movement is not divided along ethnic or socioeconomic lines. The two sides are simple: there is the side that believes that Hong Kong should be able to freely elect its leadership, and the side that believes Beijing should be able to install a puppet leader.

What scares me here is that even with right on their side, Hong Kong could easily fall without support from the international community. Foreign governments have not exactly demonstrated great backbone when it comes to standing up to the bullies in Beijing. As Tom Grundy of the "Hong Wrong" blog pointed out, Britain even made it a point to officially turn its back on Hong Kong, despite former Prime Minister John Major's 1996 promise that "Hong Kong will never have to walk alone".

And so I am fearful for the future of this great city. For so many years it has stood as a beacon of freedom and a shining pearl in the shadow of the world's largest dictatorship. I fear that it will be swallowed up, despite the brave people putting boots on the ground and umbrellas in the air in Central, Admiralty, Mong Kok and the rest of the city. As I said, I've never been a marching sign-carrier, but I've never wanted so badly to be part of something.

I actually feel significant guilt that I am not there. I'm not being asked to pick up a gun and shoot someone, or take a bullet myself. The only thing that is being asked of me or anyone else who has an interest in the future of the great city is to put two feet on the ground.

Soon. Very soon.


1 comment:

  1. I'm interested about what happens next. Will the protesters manage to actually change policy?

    In the short term, I think the answer is a pretty clear no. China can't back down without losing face, and the central government is not going to be willing to look like it lost to a bunch of rabble in a square. In fact, I predict they will escalate in some manner, perhaps with a crackdown, perhaps something more subtle.

    In the medium term, I could see China quietly relaxing its grip a little. I can definitely see it being less willing to take further steps to control HK, for fear of agitating the protesters and making headlines across the globe. So even if this rally doesn't succeed, it may deter China for a while.

    Or not. How much difference did Occupy Wall Street make? Large and loud protests, and as far as I can tell, none of the goals of the organization were accomplished. The powers were too entrenched, and the protests to amorphous, for anything to happen.

    On the other hand, there was an effect in Oakland -- a change in leadership, and exposure of police brutality that led to a department reorg and policy changes. Is HK more like Oakland, susceptible to local pressure, or is it more like Wall Street, far from the influence of the masses?