This year I renounced my Singaporean nationality for a Hong Kong passport – despite my dad strongly advising me against it. “The city is going down the drain,” he says. “Best get out while you can.” It made me think back to what I had read in a New York Times interview with Anson Chan earlier this year: “We have to think about people here who have no alternatives. They are not rich like some people in Hong Kong who, if things go wrong, can just up and go elsewhere. For many people they don’t have this choice.”
I am not however, by any means, what you would call a politically active teenager. I have always been apprehensive of joining protests; I never felt like I understood the full picture enough to be declaring my support for one side of a debate, and more so I was worried that I would inadvertently become a political tool, an unsuspecting player in a grand scheme unbeknownst to me.
I was a regular at the Tiananmen Incident Candlelight Vigils on June 4th though, and this year, for the first time, I took to the streets to participate in the annual July 1st protests, angered over the release of the white paper by Beijing this June: the government’s response towards the civil referendum and the plans to build new towns in Northeast New Territories. What it was that drove me to go I couldn’t say exactly, but I knew that now was the time to fight; and in twenty or so years when One Country Two Systems erodes to bits eventually becomes nonexistent, I would want to say that I had tried to go out there and made myself heard at a time when all hope was not lost.
When I left Hong Kong on 27th August, rumours were flying that Occupy Central would commence anytime soon. The movement is to be an act of civil disobedience that aimed to pressure the central government into granting the people of Hong Kong ‘genuine’ democracy for the 2017 ‘Chief Executive Elections’. Even though universal suffrage was explicitly promised to us in Article 45 of the ‘Basic Law;’ without civil nomination the election would mean very little since the only candidates we could choose from would be pro-establishment politicians from a pre-approved list by the CPC. I eyed the movement with interest, slightly amused that the man who initiated it was Professor Benny Tai, whom I had for constitutional law back in Year Two at HKU.
It had begun innocently enough. In early September, my best friend told me over Skype that there would be class boycotts soon, in response to the discontent over the NPCSC’s decision that was announced on 31st August. The decision reaffirmed the method of ‘one person one vote’ for the elections but ruled out the possibility of civil nomination advocated by Occupy Central and other pan-democrats, such that it was likely that any candidate who did not ‘love the country and love Hong Kong’ will effectively be screened out.
My first reaction had been to laugh at the idea of a boycott (“But you guys already skip classes all the time!”) For a brief moment I pictured skiving school-kids running around a carnival-like setting in excitement, patting themselves on the back for being part of a ‘great cause’ they only half-understand. But as the date – September 22nd – drew closer, I gradually gathered that the boycotts were in fact a very serious and organized affair. Lectures are to be given by prominent professors and political figures at the site of the protests in support of the movement, and many university lecturers and tutors have expressly granted permission for the students to attend the boycotts. Other teens in Hong Kong are not as politically dormant as I; the boycotts were organized by Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the former of which is headed by Joshua Wong, who is a mere 17 years old.
Then, the protests took a turn, with the students storming the Civic Square, which was sealed off to the public earlier this year. Later, more and more flocked onto the streets in support of the students, and on the 27th September, Benny Tai announced the commencement of Occupy Central. The city had earlier on been divided over their views on the movement, questioning its aims and effectiveness, but with thousands of teenagers on the frontline, the lines of demarcation between the groups disappeared and everyone headed out to Central, Admiralty and eventually even Causeway Bay and Mongkok to support the next generation.
On a Sunday, I spent the day cooped up in my room, watching the events unfold on my computer screen. The sense of helplessness was unbearable; that was the night the police started employing tear gas, and as proud as I was of my friends for being out there, I wanted more than anything to tell them to run home to avoid being hurt. Even though I was thousands of miles away, all of my social media apps were flooded with updates, and even though I was grateful that I didn’t have to be cut off at an important time like this, the little bits and pieces of information, the authenticity of which I cannot confirm, scared me (especially one of a picture of PLA tanks rolling into the city, which later proved to be a fake). Other friends on exchange elsewhere in Europe frantically tried to reach their friends, families, and boyfriends – we huddled together on Whatsapp praying for their safety. The rally then morphed into the “Umbrella Revolution” – the symbol had arisen out of the use of umbrellas as shields against the pepper spray and tear gas.
I am immensely sorry to be missing what I feel like is a historical moment in Hong Kong. Never have I witnessed such a strong display of solidarity in the city, and it has also brought out the best of Hong Kong people. No property was wrecked, no shops broken into, as was the case in riots elsewhere in the world; instead, volunteers recycled and put up signs apologising for the inconvenience caused. A page is set up by the HKU Journalism students to verify the vast amount of information released on social media so as to prevent the spread of false rumors. Messages ranging from advice on how to treat tear gas irritation to calls for non-violence continue to circulate on Facebook and Whatsapp. The law faculty at my home university announced that in support of the boycotts, all lectures would be recorded so as to allow students to access them afterwards. An elderly man dragged bags of homemade chicken wings onto the streets to give out to the protestors, whilst one protester was seen offering a policeman shelter with their umbrella as the rain poured.
The attention the movement has received from all over the world is overwhelming. The White House has responded to our petition to prevent this from turning into another Tiananmen Incident, saying they support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people gathering in all of the major universities and cities across the globe. Even here in Glasgow there was a rally at the University Library, where volunteers gave out flyers and yellow ribbons to educate the student population on what was truly going on.
Maybe we’re all just reckless rebels; uninformed revolutionaries who are simply caught up in the moment and have no idea what we’re really talking about. Maybe even if we get the civil nomination we want we’ll still end up electing someone stupid. Maybe the stock market will plummet and people will panic and it’ll be the end of all this. But none of this matters, because regardless of what the movement may or may not achieve, we stood united; we fought.
[Karen Cheung – @karenklcheung]