临表涕零，不知所言 – 诸葛亮《出师表》
(Blinded by my tears, I know not what I write) – Zhuge Liang
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, but left the city 8 years ago to study abroad, returning every year to see my parents who are both from Mainland China. Growing up, tension between HK and the Mainland was a frequent and unwelcome guest at the dinner table. While I spent my formative years in HK, I have only been able to look on from afar for many of its formative moments, such as the Umbrella movement in 2014 or the protests in 2016. Today, I am a graduate student in political science in the US. When the anti-government protests began a year ago, I felt like I had to write something, but have struggled to do so. Distance from what we study is a privilege many do not have – something I have felt acutely over the past few months.
At the time of writing, China’s National People’s Congress just passed a national security law that will almost certainly erode political and civil liberties in the city. The policy implications of these developments have been covered extensively elsewhere, so I will only give an overview as background. Instead, I hope to articulate my sense of loss.
While the international community has widely condemned the move, policy responses are unlikely to substantially reverse or temper Beijing’s decision. While the US revoked HK’s special status, the Trump administration has yet to introduce any concrete response beyond halting high-tech exports and visa restrictions. The ‘nuclear option’ of blocking HK’s access to the US dollar is improbable, due to the large and unpredictable second-order effects such a move could inflict on an already fragile international financial system. A more cynical perspective might even presume that Beijing already priced in these sanctions when it decided to pass the law.
The UK has also been vocal in its opposition to the national security law. It announced a scheme that would allow around three million HK-ers who are eligible for the BNO – a ‘light’ form of the British passport that does not carry citizenship rights with it – to embark on a path to British citizenship. However, this measure – even in its most generous form – provides a ‘way out’ for HK-ers; it does not exert pressure on the HK government. Moreover, at least 34% of arrestees were born after the handover in 1997, and were therefore never eligible for a BNO.
As such, Beijing’s move seems to be a fait accompli. The foreign business community in HK will likely fall in line, following the likes of HSBC and Standard Chartered. While they will probably remain concerned with the national security law, they will not oppose it publicly. In an AmCham (American Chamber of Commerce) survey, over 80% of respondents expressed concern over the law, but when asked about concrete plans in response to the law, around 74% selected “wait and see.”
If things unfold as outlined above – political repression and a muted international response – HK might still continue on autopilot. The Economist described this as a “base-case” scenario, whereby HK remains the top choice for firms doing business with China. As the Chinese economy continues to grow, and more Chinese companies raise capital in HK, the situation would “be tolerable for HK” even if non-China-related businesses moved elsewhere. The international community will continue to perform the familiar dance of outrage against rights violations, but there won’t be significant consequences for the HK government. While some may consider this ‘tolerable’, I want to express why it is so agonizing to watch – from afar – as my home gets dragged into limbo.
At the outset, I struggled to articulate what it is that HKers are losing. Sure, the rule of law and our civil liberties are important, and the political and economic future of the city seems bleak – all that has been covered extensively by the press. And yet, I still feel like these reports cheapen what’s really at stake. At the core of my sense of loss is the realization that we are losing even the space to be naïve. It is the weight of an immutable outcome that precludes any possibility of an imagined future.
At the core of my sense of loss is the realization that we are losing even the space to be naïve. It is the weight of an immutable outcome that precludes any possibility of an imagined future.
One of the most memorable moments for me over the year-long protests happened in August 2019. Protestors put on a ‘laser show’ in response to the police arresting a student union organizer for purchasing ten laser pointers. It soon turned into a dance party, with people dancing unmasked (this was when protestors were wearing masks for privacy and not health reasons). At one point, people were singing the theme song to Digimon, a popular anime show. The police did not clear out the protests. It was a precious moment of innocence amidst a suffocating timeline that left little space for optimism. The song resonated because it talked of growing stronger in the face of adversity and loyalty to one’s companions: 坚决相信为战友我定必胜利 (Believe that I will win for my comrades) / 遇怪魔我即刻变大个 (When I meet devils / I grow stronger).
That crowd, including everyone from teenagers to the middle-aged, finding joy in the equivalent of a Pokémon theme song – while under the threat of police intervention – embodies the elementary optimism that is a glimpse into HK’s soul, and what we stand to lose. We may have already lost it. As the situation has deteriorated, the slogans and demands have turned fatalistic. Now, we hear about 攬炒 (laam chau – if we burn, you burn with us). This is not a strategy, but a visceral reaction to an outcome that one has little agency to change. It’s partly fueled by frustration at the apathy of parts of the elite. One of the poignant slogans nowadays is 宁为玉碎 不为瓦全 (Rather be shattered jade than whole tiles). While dissent will persist under repression – unions are organizing strikes at the time of this writing – it may be more about making a stand rather than building any viable political program.
Another element I’ve struggled to process is survivor’s guilt – and the associated internal conflict over my criticism of the protest movement. Certain segments of the movement have aligned with the Trump administration, attracted by its anti-China rhetoric. Relatedly, the protests have also exacerbated anti-Mainland xenophobia in HK, with one high-profile case involving physical violence.
While I stand by these criticisms, I am also cognizant of the privilege underlying my views. Sure, I am a HK citizen and do not hold a foreign passport – unlike a lot of wealthier individuals. However, as a graduate student at a US university, I am not getting tear-gassed in the street. Nor do I face retaliation at work for my political views. As friends from home often remind me, I have a plausible “exit strategy,” and therefore less skin in the game. There’s an unkind term in Cantonese for people like me: 左膠 (leftard/ champagne socialist).
The protest movement’s resentment against criticism that it considers to be from the ivory tower is emblematic of the shrinking ground for left voices such as Lausan and others. The Taiwanese author Lung Ying-tai writes: 有一只乌鸦，为了混进雪白的鸽群，将自己的羽毛涂白。但白里透黑，被鸽子赶了出去；回到鸦巢，因为黑里透白，又被乌鸦驱逐 (The crow paints itself white in order to fit in with the pigeons. Because of its black feathers under the white paint, the pigeons banished it; back in its nest, because of the white paint on its black feathers, the crows banished it.) This is not to garner sympathy, but to illustrate the shrinking space for certain voices.
Finally, I feel helpless. Faced with the question of “what’s next?,” all I can offer is pained silence. As a student of politics, I feel like I should be able to say something useful. But none of my conclusions are of much consolation. Protest and civil conflict is not ‘my field,’ but recently I’ve done what many academics do when faced with an unfamiliar topic – I’ve read literature reviews. No doubt many dissertations will be written on these protests. What are the chances of resolution? (Not great.) What are the effects of repression? (It depends.) Will it mobilize more people, or discourage dissent? What determines the onset and intensity of repression? Reading through these articles, the sanitized discourse seems incongruent – almost offensive – to the turmoil at home.
HK’s in-betweenness has always been its greatest blessing and curse – as a space for China and the world to interface, it is also uniquely vulnerable to tensions between the two. I don’t have many ideas about how we move forward from here. In 《药》 (Medicine), the Chinese writer Lu Xun writes about the tragedy of misunderstanding a revolutionary’s sacrifice – instead of being inspired by his execution, people sought out steamed buns soaked in his blood, believing it had healing powers. I’m not sure how the analogy works, but I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately. What should we learn from what we have lost? An identity that will persist in HK and its diaspora? Will that in itself become a “threat to national security”?
All my recent thoughts have been refracted through the prism of HK’s fraught relationship with the Mainland. While on a run, a few lines from the Canto-pop song 《富士山下》(Under Mt. Fuji) stuck with me. As someone who still, stubbornly and naïvely, harbors hope for both places, these lines which I’ve sung at karaoke countless times seemed especially poignant:
(We only have two hands, you can’t possess everything by hugging it. You have to learn how to lose something before you can have it.)
Raymond Wang is a PhD student at MIT, studying IR and international political economy. He can be found at @soraywang.