Following yesterday’s forum on the Hong Kong protests, Marco Law writes a compelling personal piece about his identity and demands.
Source: Fung Kin Fan
When filling in immigration forms, I always had some hesitations when asked for my nationality. My passport, and all other Hong Kong passports, have “Chinese” imprinted on it by default. So Chinese is the official answer. Yet when people ask me where I’m from, I always say “Hong Kong”. There is no doubt that I am technically a Chinese citizen, but I simply do not feel like I am of the same nation as my fellow Chinese compatriots from the mainland. It’s complicated. We say we are from Hong Kong instead of China, but we also refer to ourselves as Chinese instead of Hong Kongese, or whatever the word should be. Hong Kong is not the same as mainland China, but most of us also do not consider independence from China to be a justified cause. So what is Hong Kong, and how should we categorize the people in it?
These questions on the identity of Hong Kong weren’t important for the majority of our past history. Since our establishment as a British colony, Hong Kong was just a place where people come to pursue a better life. Western colonists came for economic profit, whilst Chinese migrants came in various waves simply to seek a better life from a chaotic mainland, with their identity still firmly Chinese. The millions who lived in Hong Kong identified themselves with the nation they were from, not the territory they are living in. Then we were handed back to China without any consultation of the Hong Kong people, purely as part of a deal between London and Beijing, bypassing the biggest stakeholder in it all. The deprivation of self-determination didn’t matter, the Chinese promises of “one country, two systems” looked good enough to continue our economic prosperity, and those who didn’t believe emigrated. Until quite recently we were happy to witness the rise of China, cheering for Chinese achievements in space, in sports and in infrastructure.
These affectionate sentiments to China turned to anger and resentment by the time of these Anti-Extradition Law protests. The original trigger of the protests was the mistrust on the mainland judicial system, which was known to be corrupt, and has been openly declared as a system which prioritized the interests of the communist party. The bill to allow extradition to the mainland hit the most common and profound fear of the people of Hong Kong – that Hong Kong would be integrated socially to the mainland. There is little dispute that we prefer the rule of law, protection of fundamental rights and freedoms which still somewhat exist in Hong Kong, to the communist authoritarian regime reigning over the mainland. A new common value of the people of Hong Kong has thus been born, to defend the territory against further ‘mainlandization’. The Chinese identity is no longer fully applicable, because a core part of the Hong Kong identity is being different to mainland China. We are not the same as the Chinese, because we will not succumb to an authoritarian regime. Some people, therefore, have begun referring to the people of Hong Kong as “Hong Kongers”, to liberate us from the tag of “Chinese”, recognizing our uniqueness. Our allegiance no longer lies with any overarching sovereign, but purely to the good of the territory. I am a Hong Konger, and we are fighting for the future of our beloved home.
The Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests started out as protests against a very specific political issue, being the bill that gave the movement its name. It has since clearly grown into a general protest against the political status quo of Hong Kong, which translates to a desperate struggle to retain our rule of law and autonomy from China. Yes, social and economic problems exist in Hong Kong, but they were never the cause nor the aim of the movement. Since the early days of the movement, there has always been only the five demands (and not one less) that are the common goals of the movement. For those of you not familiar, they are: 1) Compete withdrawal of the extradition bill, which has been the only one promised by the government for now; 2) Form an independent inquiry commission with legal powers to investigate police brutality; 3) Retract the characterisation of the 12th June protests as ‘riots’; 4) Release and grant amnesty to protesters arrested during the movement; 5) Immediately implement real universal suffrage for both the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections.
Whilst the government tries to blame the protests on other factors, such as frustration by the youth on housing prices and foreign interference, I am certain that none of the protesters took to the streets driven by anything else than the five demands. No matter how the government spins it, or tries to have ‘dialogue’ with Hong Kongers, there is only one way to calm the protesters, which is to concede on all five demands. For the casual bystander, this may seem too much of an ask. “Politics is about compromise”; “why demand universal suffrage when you know well that Beijing will not approve?”; “the extradition bill has been withdrawn, don’t be too greedy”. What these people don’t understand, is that the five demands are in essence the bare minimum that Hong Kongers can ask for to safeguard the future of our city. How can we compromise if we cannot make our police forces accountable for their illegal acts? How can we believe autonomy of the city can be guaranteed if Beijing can still pick and choose whichever candidates it likes? Anything less than the five demands will mean that the movement has failed and we have failed to protect Hong Kong in the way we would like it to be. Yes, this sounds like a tough ask, but what the political reality is does not equate to what the reality should be. Just because Beijing won’t allow free elections, does not mean we should not fight for it. There are values that Hong Kongers will defend regardless of the political reality, in this case being our freedom, rule of law and democracy. We may fail, but the result of the movement does not make these claims any less legitimate.
You may also criticize protesters for overusing violence, for wrongly beating people up , and ask both sides to “calm down”. I do not blame you for thinking this way, as many of you may have done the same in the case of the gilets jaunes. Yet this misses that fact that Hong Kongers are left with no choice. We tried peaceful protests. We only held peaceful marches for the first 17 years after the handover. We chose the peaceful method of occupying roads during the Umbrella Movement. We started this very movement with two big peaceful rallies of 1.03 million and 2 million people out of a population of 7 million. Nothing changed. In fact, we witnessed the gradual decrease in autonomy despite constant public resentment against it. Responding to the 1.03 million who demanded the extradition withdrawn, our Chief Executive purely responded “we will continue the second reading of the bill on Wednesday”. “You taught us peaceful marches don’t work”, is what the protesters sadly pointed out. You can blame the gilets jaunes for destroying public property, because they could’ve simply voted against Macron to get rid of him (yes, it’s a long time away, and it’s not so straightforward, but still it’s absolutely possible). For us Hong Kongers who have had enough of Carrie Lam, there is no way we can take her down. The only thing that decides whether she gets to keep the job is Beijing’s blessing. So, when peaceful marches and public outcries are neglected, what other methods are there to make the government listen than to escalate the violence? Yes, not every act of the protesters have been fully morally acceptable, to which I ask for your understanding. If you are simply looking to condemn violence of any kind, I recommend that you look first to the police and pro-government gangsters, whose violence was directly aimed at physically hurting protesters. Whilst thousands of protesters have already been arrested, not one police officer has been made accountable for their brutality, and the pro-government gangsters have been subject to clearly disproportionate degrees of tolerance from the prosecution. The protesters are violent, but it is a false equivocation to say they are just as violent as the other side. You cannot also expect perfect morality and EQ from a bunch of protesters suffering from fatigue, injustice and immense anger on a daily basis. These people understand very well the possible consequences of imprisonment or even death when they stand on the streets, and know this is not child’s play, yet they are willing to sacrifice for the belief that their actions are necessary to save our city. Regardless of what the protesters do, I will still treat them as fellow protesters of the same cause. Regardless what violence occurs, the movement and its aims remain as legitimate as ever.
As the movement faces unprecedented suppression from the government, I have also oddly gained my hope in the future of the city. This is the best of times, this is the worst of times. Our government and police force is turning the city into a police state like never before, but Hong Kongers are also united in both our cause and identity like never before. The movement has done wonders to consolidate our identity as uniquely a Hong Konger, and has given us a common history and value. When listening to “Glory to Hong Kong”, the anthem of the protest, I finally understood what it was like for athletes to stand on their sport’s greatest stage, and burst into tears when hearing their national anthem, a song that is part of their identity and pride. This connection never happened between the Chinese “March of the Volunteers” and I. That was more like a formality. Yet “Glory to Hong Kong” inscribed the very beliefs than define me as a person. “Freedom and liberty belong to this land, may glory be to Hong Kong”. Some may argue this carries a pro-independence sentiment, to which I do not disagree, but would claim that Hong Kong’s independence as a sovereign state is unlikely and not an aim of the movement. What this signifies instead is the spiritual formation of Hong Kongers into a nation, with a fundamentally different identity than the Chinese. The nation of Hong Kong will neither be defined by race or territory, but will solely root from the aspirations of freedom and democracy, for our beloved city to prosper. Even if all else fails, the movement would still have contributed to the process of nation-building in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers, for the first time in history, attempt to break free from our classification as “Chinese” or “British colonial subjects”.
Living in a state that prides itself with freedom and liberty in its blood, I urge you all to remember that whilst we are currently enjoying the fruits of a free and democratic society, this is not a given in all parts of the world. The people of Hong Kong are fighting to defend the little autonomy we have from the biggest authoritarian regime of our era, and the least you can do is to empathize the cause.
This article does not necessarily represent the views of the editors or Sciences Po.