I’ve been on vacation and am returning to the real world now, and I’m sure what I’m about to write will be repetitive for some. But I can’t not write it, and I hope that you share it because tomorrow, October 1, has the potential to be a historic day for Hong Kong, good or bad.
You have probably heard about the protests going on in Hong Kong. I won’t revisit the general history or most recent events. Instead I wanted to post some important historical and contextual points that are significant to how we understand the particular conflict that’s taking place right now.
This is a long post, and far from comprehensive because I am only human and exhausted at that, but please bear with me.
WHY HONG KONG IS NOT THE SAME AS CHINA
- Hong Kong was a fishing village on a goddamn rock when it was annexed by the British in 1842. The population grew and exploded during the 20th century as a result of a number of factors, but a huge one is the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the Chinese civil war and subsequent purging, thousands fled the violence by escaping to Hong Kong — including both sets of grandparents in my family. One was a Western car dealer in Shanghai; the other was from a landowning family. FWIW, I still have some distant relatives from the latter side in China. I have no living relatives in China on my maternal grandparents’ side. Everyone was killed.
- Throughout the 20th century, Hong Kong flourished, grew, and developed a distinctive culture and economy. I’m not saying everything was rosy as an English colony. I’m saying the culture and economy are real and independent from China.
- The events of Tiananmen may seem like they were a long time ago, and have entered history as the kind of event that’s lost its shock over time. But twenty-five years is a short time for many Hong Kongers, and Tiananmen’s outcome was far from predictable at that time. Remember that Tiananmen was only eight years before the handover. Imagine watching the coverage that summer and knowing that was to be your government soon.
- All of this is to give just a bit of history as to why I and many others say: Hong Kong people do not consider themselves to be the same as mainland Chinese. When I say I’m from Hong Kong, I mean that. It is not the same.
WHO IS PROTESTING AND WHY
- During the handover, dates were set for universal suffrage. Those promises are looking pretty damn compromised in the latest announcements from Beijing. You can read more about that in literally any article on the events; I won’t dive into it here.
- The main groups of activists engaging in the protests are students, and Occupy Central. Most articles I have read from Western news sources emphasize the role of OC, and they are not insignificant. But keep in mind: the students began to boycott school in the face of those changes from Beijing. They did it because student politics is a real movement in Hong Kong. It’s their future and they know it. Their parents know that Tiananmen was powered by students. My mother, who lives in Hong Kong, says that on the first day of student protests, their parents were out on the street with water, chargers, etc, because they saw Tiananmen and understand their kids’ fears: they fear the lack of a future.
- Occupy Central is not the same as the other occupy movements we’ve seen around the world. Please do not confuse the goals of this movement with the goals of other Occupys. This is about democracy and representation. If I see any anti-capitalist leftist co-optation of the movement in Hong Kong in the Western coverage, I am going to flip my shit, and I say that as someone sympathetic to and supportive of Occupy in general. Do not get it twisted.
- The protesters have been keeping the streets clean — removing garbage and recycling; sweeping; using public toilets; etc. There is no black bloc-style activity that I’ve heard of. They have agreed to create “humanitarian corridors” to let ambulances move through because the government alleged that the protests were a safety hazard. These things are not just a cute feature of the protests. They are a manifestation of the love we have our city, and they are also strategic politicking. If you are clean, apologetic, peaceful, unarmed, and responsive, they lose some of their very tenuous foundation for saying the protests are wrong. I’m not advocating for this as the only route to change. I’m just pointing out the tactic.
THE VERY REAL THREAT OF VIOLENCE
- Tomorrow (Wednesday October 1) is National Day for China, the commemoration of the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousand, citizens are projected to protest tomorrow on a day set aside for celebrating China and the party.
- Also worth noting: loads of tourists from mainland China are coming to Hong Kong to see the fireworks and enjoy the holiday. Tourism from mainland has boomed in the past decade — only this month, they came to shop and instead saw peaceful civil disobedience.
- State violence against its citizens is not an idle threat when you are dealing with the PRC. We are talking about a serious, real threat here. Tear gas has not been deployed in Hong Kong in decades. The use of it this weekend, the dragging and arresting of teenagers, the police in riot gear, is a big, big deal. It is a shock to the system for Hong Kong people to see peaceful protestors be treated the same as the Uighur population in China, or Tibet.
- There are a few things that continue to restrain Beijing from bringing down the hammer. The incredible damage it would do to international finance is one thing. Media attention is another. Note that foreign media outlets covering China have been based out of Hong Kong for decades, due to restrictions from Beijing. The PRC knows better than most how bad they will look if they crack down violently. Tiananmen was a PR catastrophe for the government, and back then the 24 hour cable news cycle was still being born.
Hong Kong is 12 hours ahead of EST. I feel hopeless, thrilled, scared; I feel that we are facing something totally unprecedented. I know that the people who are out on the street know what the possibilities are. I am heartburstingly proud.
Do not look away.
i once saw a scientist
and she was speaking generally
about science things
(being a scientist and knowing science things
and, speaking generally
i am not a science
and while i respect them,
i do not have much interest
or science things.
so i went to switch the channel
at the precise moment that the presenter sitting beside the scientist asked:
in your opinion,
is the most ASTOUNDING fact
about the universe
and this stopped me.
because it is not often that television presenters ask such interesting questions,
and the scientist was pursing her lips in a thoughtful way that made me think
i wanted to her her answer
to the interesting question.
after a pause,
she did not look directly at the
but directly at the presenter.
did you know,
that there are atoms in your body.
the presenter laughed.
what else would my body be made of?
said the scientist,
and i did not need to look at the television screen to know
she was smiling.
do you know where those atoms came from?
said the presenter.
and he did not say anything else.
i snickered from my place in the armchair
and the scientist smiled again.
the most ASTOUNDING fact that i have ever known,
is not a fact, specifically,
but the story of every atom on this planet.
the ones that make up the grass and the sea and the sand and the forests and the human
these atoms came
the presenter sat forward and so did i.
continued the scientist,
and, in their later years,
it pains me a little to say it, but a star’s death
is far more dramatic than a human’s.
is it? asked the presenter.
the scientist was looking at him still,
and i felt strongly as though i was listening in on a very private
it is, the scientist nodded. the stars
i am referring to,
collapsed and exploded a very long time ago, and scattered their enriched guts across
the entire universe.
here, she paused, and her words caught in my mind in a way that made me wonder
if she was a scientist
or a poet.
their guts, she said whilst sipping from a glass of water, were splayed across every
of time and space.
these guts were made of the
of life and existence.
carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and hydrogen and all the
rest of it.
all in the bellies of these stars that flung themselves across the universe in protest when it was their time to die.
and then? asked the presenter.
the scientist’s lips quirked upwards. and then, she said.
it all became parts of gas clouds.
ones that condense and collapse and will form our next solar systems -
billions of stars with billions of planets to orbit them.
and these planets have the ingredients of life sewed into the very fabric
of their own lives.
so, she said, smile still playing on her lips -
where do your atoms come from?
from those gas clouds, said the presenter.
no, said the scientist.
from those stars.
every atom, every molecule, every inhale and exhale and beat of your heart, is traceable
to the crucibles that cooked life itself.
and you are sitting here and so am i and so are your viewers at home,
and we’re all in the universe, aren’t we?
yes, said the presenter.
but i’ll tell you what’s even better, the scientist smiled wider.
the universe is in us. your atoms and my atoms and your camera men’s atoms came from those stars. you’re connected and relevant without even having to try. you are made of stardust and the fabric of the universe.
that is the most ASTOUNDING fact
i can tell you.
the presenter smiled and the scientist smiled wider and i smiled too,
and later i switched the channel to something less scientific
and wondered if i should feel small,
tiny and insignificant in relation to the stars that collapsed and exploded and
threw themselves everywhere.
and that is how my mother found me,
sitting on the sofa.
and she asked me what was
and i said,
nothing. i’m just a lot smaller than stars are.
my mother is very literal woman. as such, her natural response was:
of course you’re not. don’t you see how small stars are?
that’s only from a distance,
maybe you’re looking at yourself from a distance too, she said.
and she left the room and it is years later now, but i still
think about the scientist and what she said
and my mother and what she said
and i still see the presenter on television.
and i still think that the stars are very big
but now i think,
they are in me.
so i am big too.