(opinions) hong kong

HONG KONG, CHINA -- SUNDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2019: Anti-government demonstrators try to contain tear gas canisters launched by the police as more than a hundred thousand people took to the streets to protest a mask ban aimed at quashing violence during four months of pro-democracy gatherings in Hong Kong, on Oct. 6, 2019. 

Hardly a week has gone by where the protests in Hong Kong haven’t been one of the prevailing news stories for major outlets. The story is consistently making headlines and stands out to me, especially during a period where I feel there is a major discontent with today’s political and social climate. Video clips of protesters extinguishing cans of tear gas in a group effort linger in one’s mind and capture the imagination; the images fan the embers of a burning desire deep within many of us for radical change and revolution.

From another angle, the same havoc and uprising that can appear as a symbol of liberation is paralyzing. On Aug. 12, Hong Kong International Airport grounded all departing flights after protesters flooded the airport. Protests turned violent the following day with an ensuing haze of paranoia over undercover police officers. Protesters said the police were engaging in tactics where officers dressed up as protesters in an effort to make arrests.

The cloud of chaos and fear that descended upon the airport lingered for a while, resulting in unprecedented closures of the airport two days in a row. Thousands of flights were delayed or canceled, passengers were barred from their terminals and as the events were underway onlookers were unsure when the madness would dissipate. As the protest was happening, in Blacksburg, Chinese students awaited updates on the status of the airport and the fate of their fellow students flying back for the new school year.

Jianuo Huang, a senior mechanical engineering major, is the president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars. Part of Huang’s role as president includes welcoming Chinese freshmen who are coming to the U.S. for their first time and helping them integrate within the community. 

The disarray created by protesters in Hong Kong airport left a lot of the travelers’ plans up in the air while they were still stuck on the ground. Back here in our small town in Virginia, Huang ensured those students could at least rely on a way to get back to the university once they did arrive by arranging transportation.

The background of the protests

The demonstrations in Hong Kong began earlier this year in March but really crescendoed into the mass movement we see in the news today back in June. The initial demonstrations were in response to the “Fugitive Offenders Ordinance” amendment bill put on the ballot by Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong; a bill proposed to grant authorities the ability to extradite criminals to Taiwan, Macau and most importantly, mainland China.

The catalyst that led to the proposal of this new extradition bill in Hong Kong was the case of Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong resident accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend while in Taiwan. As the current law stands, Hong Kong does not have extradition agreements with Taiwan or mainland China; for this reason, Tong-kai cannot currently be tried in Taiwan and is still in Hong Kong.

An hour into my conversation with Huang, he reflected on the conundrum the current law poses. 

“The reality is, in the past when criminals fled to Hong Kong, they were basically free; so in this sense, Hong Kong is basically a haven for criminals,” Huang said. 

For this reason, Huang doesn’t feel the same opposition to the now removed bill that Hong Kong natives did. For many natives, though, the case of Tong-kai was the “Trojan Horse” for an increasingly authoritarian regime in China to further consolidate its power over Hong Kong by imposing laws in the mainland on the densely populated city-state. This imposition of mainland law on Hong Kong would violate the current “One country, two systems” distinctions that Hong Kong currently enjoys.

A history of distrust

The current protests that are shaking the city of Hong Kong aren’t the only ones that have made international headlines in recent history. Just over five years ago, over 100,000 people took to the streets for the “Umbrella Revolution.” Much like the protests going on today, protestors engaged in a campaign of civil disobedience in response to perceived encroachments on the city’s democratic process by Beijing, China’s legislative city and capital.

Hong Kong’s chief executives were usually determined by a “nominating committee” in Beijing, but after China regained control over the former British colony, Hong Kong, back in 1997, they ensured the region that by the 2017 Chief Executive election their citizens would be free to elect their leader in a democratic process. The electoral reform of 2014 seemed to many to be Beijing’s attempt to go back on their word and create their own conditions for the election of a leader of Hong Kong. The reform was the catalyst for that mass protest which, in many ways, mirrored the ones going on today.

A polarizing issue

So attractive is the strife of the protesters in their battle for democracy that we may have unknowingly picked sides in a very polarizing dispute between the people of Hong Kong and mainland China. This polarizing effect has been captured in recent news scandals involving entities such as the NBA and video game company Blizzard.

The Houston Rockets faced controversy last week when their general manager tweeted a photo that conveyed support for the protests happening in Hong Kong, according to an article from Aljazeera. Specifically, the picture in question had the caption "Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong."

In another controversial case involving Blizzard, a professional player of one of its digital card games, Hearthstone, was suspended for a year by the company. As Vox reports, the consequence came in response to an interview where “Chung said ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time’ — a protest slogan in the city — while wearing goggles and a face mask, items commonly donned by protestors to conceal their identity.” The hammer didn’t just come down on Chung; both commentators who conducted the interview with Chung were fired as well.

These are serious responses to what one might deem innocuous comments, but what I did not realize before speaking with Huang was that those remarks may be hitting upon an already touchy subject for Chinese citizens. There is and has been for some years a movement existing within the region called the Hong Kong independence movement. It’s made rumblings within the region since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, but it has not been a movement that has been very popular among members of the mainland and one that lacks familiarity among most Americans.

Dissecting these comments related to both cases with Huang, he spoke on the impressions made by many Chinese people and why those statements may have been inflammatory. 

“What we think is, they’re trying to support the protester who is doing damage to the society, which is unforgivable,” Huang said.

He cites the widespread vandalism on the street and the destructive acts within the Hong Kong airport and subway station, which caused both transportation hubs to shut down at one point or another throughout the protests. 

“It’s also tightlyrelated to Hong Kong’s independence,” Huang said. 

Huang said Western audiences might perceive the phrase “Free Hong Kong” as just a means of conveying support for the protesters, but the Chinese perceive it as support for the annexation of Hong Kong from China.

This issue of annexation of Hong Kong is one that conflicts with the desires of most Chinese people, according to Huang. He compares it to a situation where New York was considering declaring its independence from the United States and foreign actors were actively supporting its secession.

Then again, context is everything. Many in Hong Kong still do believe, and have for years, that Beijing has been trying to encroach upon and undermine their system of government for one that is more favorable to the People’s Republic of China. It has only been 22 years since China regained control of Hong Kong, while it was under British colonial control for 178 years. It could be that the two regions have grown apart during their separation; one valuing a more open, multicultural and democratic society, with the other leaning more toward an authoritarian system of governing.

The question of Western influence

All things considered, there is something nefarious about Western countries taking the side of and possibly influencing the protesters, which is much to China’s dismay. With China being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, threatening to dethrone the United States in many aspects, the protests in Hong Kong may be used as a tool against an economic rival.

As The New York Times recently reported, near the beginning of August, President Trump had a passive stance on the events transpiring in Hong Kong, only to shift into a more concerned stance later in the month when he related it to a trade deal being hashed out between the two governments. 

“I think it would be very hard to deal if they do violence,” President Trump said. “I mean, if it’s another Tiananmen Square, it’s — I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there’s violence.” 

In this way, it seems to me that President Trump is using the recent events as a leveraging point for the U.S. to gain a better deal in the trade negotiations. As discussed before, the issue of the protests is a very touchy one; an issue Chinese President Xi Jinping has implicated that he does not want to budge on.

Earlier that month, the foreign ministry spokeswoman in China, Hua Chunying, made claims that the United States was undermining China’s national unity by not speaking out against protesters in Hong Kong. 

Chunying also said back in July that the Hong Kong Protests were created by the U.S. in response to comments by the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo where he hoped the Chinese would do the right thing. 

“He might think that violent activities in Hong Kong are reasonable because after all, this is the creation of the U.S.,” Chunying said. 

Huang cited Chinese media that furthered the narrative of clear U.S. influence on the Hong Kong protests. One example he pointed to was the focus on one of the protest leaders, Joshua Wong, meeting with American politicians. Huang was unsure about the validity or relevance of these claims so he did not want to comment.

This fact of two diverging media narratives has implications for the discussion of these issues back at Tech. It might be a very polarizing discussion, considering there is a population of students that follow the news cycle as presented here in the U.S. and another population that follows the news back in China. Two of the world’s most powerful nations, who are also economic rivals, seem to be playing hot potato with each other in terms of placing blame on  who is actually responsible for the events currently transpiring in the semi-autonomous region. This is bound to cause confusion for patriots and countrymen who pledge allegiance to their homelands and are willing to shape their understanding of these events around what they are told by their governments and media organizations. 

“Is the American government telling the truth? We trust them. Is the Chinese government telling the truth? I trust them. It’s based on trust,” Huang said.

An end in sight?

As I am writing this piece, Wednesday, Oct. 23, Hong Kong’s legislature has officially withdrawn the extradition bill which sparked the protests back in March. But does that mean the protests are soon to be over? It doesn’t seem like it.

Since the initial demand of the protesters, four more demands have been posed, leading protesters to adopt the slogan “Five demands, not one less.” Those additional demands include an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality, amnesty for the arrested protesters, the right for citizens of Hong Kong to elect their own political leaders and an edict against labeling the protests as “riots.” This might be a tall order as Chinese politicians such as Chunying have stood strong on their classification of the protests as riots.

The events in Hong Kong aren’t as cut and dry as you may have previously been told they are. There are warring narratives in relation to these events that are related to a broader struggle between two global superpowers' quarrel for economic and diplomatic favor. Before you think you’ve made up your mind on the issue, maybe talk to a Chinese student about his or her perspective and experience and learn more about the history of Hong Kong and Chinese culture. I don’t believe the truth is ever black or white, but closer to a shade of grey