They may be only seven million, a small dot on the globe, but what is happening right now in Hong Kong might have deeper implications than you think.
When I was a child, Hong Kong was the deep green hills outside my bedroom window, the ferry my family took every Sunday across the harbor, the sounds of my grandparents and relatives playing mahjong every weekend. In 1995, we moved back to the United States because it was two years before the 1997 Handover, and my father and mother did not want to take any chances. They remembered history, and they did not want their children to be caught in it.
So it is that almost twenty years later, I am glued to the screen: Hundreds of thousands of students, many secondary-school-aged, marching, singing, holding seminars, blocking roads (but allowing ambulances through), withstanding tear gas, withstanding fear, sleeping in the streets, cleaning up trash, organizing first aid stations, collecting supplies, encouraging peace and calm and civil disobedience, for over 100 hours, all to voice a heartfelt desire for true democracy, instead of a fraud election where candidates are vetted by Beijing. I am reading these words, watching these images, and because I grew up in a household where History was a ghost that haunted, I know that the boundaries of the issue are not just universal suffrage; underlying it is something even deeper.
Hongkongers are proud of their heritage, including the parts of it they share with China, but having witnessed history, having seen promises betrayed and rights eroded, they know that if they do nothing, the Chinese government will only tread larger.
My entire life I wondered why a group as massive as one billion could not stand up, except in scattered solitary numbers, to the Beijing government, why after decades of suffering and violence at the hand of the government, nobody could mobilize a successful movement. My parents told me: this is what a crushed spirit looks like, this is what deep-rooted fear, internalized in the body, does: it ignores larger shadows, it looks out for itself. And if you ignore the shadow long enough, it becomes a way of life.
If Hongkongers succeed in attaining universal suffrage, they will be the only Chinese city with this democratic right. If they succeed in protecting the freedoms so vital to their hearts and minds, they will be the only Chinese city to do so. And if this spirit of freedom seeps into the consciousness of the Mainland Chinese despite the government’s rigid control of information—a demanding hypothetical, but if it does—then maybe, just maybe, the people of China will finally find the strength to sound a voice of their own.
I want to hear what this voice sounds like. I want my parents to hear what this voice sounds like. What would the world look like if these voices existed, loud and clear and strong?
If you care about the restrictions of freedom in China, if you care about its shameless record of human rights violations, if you care about the withholding of information, the broadcasting of misinformation, the imprisonment of dissidents, including those now who have been spreading news of the movement, if you care about one billion human lives, a fifth of the world population, then you should care about what is happening in Hong Kong.
Last night my father called me on the phone, and when I told him I wanted to be on a plane, he said, I am glad you are not there. He said, These students are naive; the government will do what it wants. It was the same sadness with which a professor in Hong Kong wrote to her students: As I watched you tremble with the rightness of your words, with the fury of the wronged—when you shouted that you would make the Chinese state come to its knees—something clutched my heart with fear…
These are students who know about Tiananmen, who hold a candlelight vigil every year on June 4, and so they also know what their future holds if history repeats itself: not just the possibility of extreme violence but the oppressive restrictions that a dishonest authoritarian government is unafraid to hold over them. These students are able to look outward at the world around them, to look back at history, and say for themselves that the oppression outweighs the threat of violence. This awareness is itself a sign of Hong Kong’s freer past, and if these rare freedoms they have as Chinese people, so precarious now, if these freedoms are in the end stamped out, then we in America have just been complicit in the obliteration of maybe the greatest hope, however small, the world had in advancing human rights in the giant that is China.
Feature photo, first photo courtesy of Henry Leung.
Second photo courtesy of Jessica Lian.