In a small, dimly lit cafe tucked behind National Taiwan University buildings, my friend Emily approached a mosaic of sticky notes forming one of the many “Lennon Walls,” created internationally in support of Hong Kong, and wrote the words “Hong Konger, Be Water.” Demonstrators in Hong Kong have interpreted Bruce Lee’s famous saying as a call to persist, to adapt, and to innovate in the face of government crackdowns; it has become one of the most poignant rallying cries during this summer of political upheaval.
The Hong Kong protests began in June of this year as a targeted response to a highly controversial extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government, which critics contend would allow the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to subjugate Hong Kong residents to mainland jurisdiction. Unlike other territories in mainland China, Hong Kong has a unique status as a semi-autonomous region, its historical roots tracing back to British colonial rule. After assuming control of Hong Kong at the conclusion of the First Opium War, Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 with a critical stipulation: The city would maintain a level of autonomy for 50 years until falling under the direct rule of Beijing in 2047.
So until 2047, the legal understanding was that the relationship between Hong Kong and China would be governed by the principle known as “one country, two systems.” This policy and Hong Kong’s own constitution, called the Basic Law, has preserved Hong Kong’s independent judiciary system and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and press as well as the freedom of association, of procession and of demonstration. For these reasons, many Hong Kongers regard these civil liberties as more than mere legal privileges. They’re fundamental to their very identity as Hong Kongers.
However, since the 1997 handover, many Hong Kong residents have voiced fear and frustration over the apparent cultural erosion of the city. Over the past few decades, classrooms have witnessed a shift away from Cantonese to Mandarin and the academic implementation of new Chinese nationalist materials, many of which do not mention the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Perhaps most concerning are the CCP’s efforts to chip away at Hong Kong’s autonomy guaranteed by the Basic Law—for example, by abducting Hong Kong booksellers that sold anti-CCP literature.
Now, entering into the fifteenth week of sustained resistance, these mass protests are among the largest recorded in Hong Kong’s history.
In writing this article, I provided my contact information on a WeChat group chat of mainland Chinese students at the University, but no one who reached out to me was willing to speak against the Hong Kong protests on the record.
In an interview with The Argus, Bryan Chong ’21, an international student from Hong Kong, shared his firsthand account of engaging in the Hong Kong protests.
“It’s quite like nothing I have ever seen before,” Chong said. “Toward the end of August, I went with my mom and sister in the pouring rain to a protest where 1.7 million people showed up. That was very powerful, and I was really happy to be a part of that. I have also been to more extreme blockade protests, and there is a level of organization there that is honestly astounding. People are running supply lines for helmets, gas masks, medical supplies, food, bottled water, et cetera. Despite the lack of official leadership for the majority of these protests, these demonstrators have actually executed them in a very efficient manner. People are very fucking clever; they adapt quickly.”
While the dominant narrative represented in Hong Kong and Western media tends to portray this movement as largely a fight for civil liberties and for the future of the city, the same cannot be said about media in mainland China.
“One of the narratives surrounding the protests is that it is about Hong Kong independence, and I can tell you categorically that it is not,” Chong said. “I think that the movement does have fringe extremists that call for this, but that is not what the vast majority of protestors are arguing for at all. But the mainland government continues to propagate this narrative that all protestors are akin to terrorists aimed at dismantling the CCP in order to arouse national sentiment among its people against the protest.”
Tianxin Chen ’21, an international student from mainland China, also shared how he has observed mainland media discuss the unrest in Hong Kong and restrict challenging dissent.
“Back home, mainland media often describes Hong Kong protestors as violent rioters calling for independence who are backed by foreign powers like the United States,” said Chen. “Only authorized official media are allowed to report on Hong Kong. Other platforms tend to be censored and deleted within one day. Living in mainland, you don’t get a lot of access to sources writing about Hong Kong. There is no freedom of news or anything like that.”
Another mainland Chinese student, who requested to remain anonymous, expressed that the media is bolstering the narrative that Hong Kong protests are a threat to Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“The basic liberal consensus, which holds that democracy and freedom are values worth pursuing, is nonexistent in mainland media’s portrayal of the Hong Kong protests,” the student said. “They portray Hong Kong as a belonging of this greater Chinese identity, as a child who was once taken by a foreigner [Britain] and is not grateful for their mother’s care and continuous support [China]. They especially choose to see protestors as cynical youth who are brainwashed by Western media rather than seeing them as reasonable agents who are capable of choosing their own future.”
On Sept. 4, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill. However, as the conflict has escalated over the past three months, protesters have broadened their demands to not only include the bill’s withdrawal but also Carrie Lam’s resignation, an independent inquiry into the reports of police brutality, the release of detained protestors, and universal suffrage.
“The unprecedented escalation of police brutality and police complicity in organized triad attacks on protesters were the catalysts for the major change in the movement’s aims and means,” Joy Ming King ’20, a student from Hong Kong, wrote in an email to The Argus. “A recent unofficial poll found that of the five major demands, the one deemed most important by protesters is the demand to investigate abuses of power by the police. Similarly, escalation in protest tactics have been a direct response to police brutality and abuse of power. These tactics generally have the goal of self-defense or ‘increasing the regime’s costs of governance.’”
During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, Hong Kong’s previous pro-democracy movement, images of Hong Kong police using tear gas and engaging in physical altercations with protestors were shocking to Hong Kongers. But now, the police’s use of tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, and even sexual assault have become commonplace tactics in combatting daily protests.
“There was a very real chance that me and other Wesleyan Hong Kong students just simply would not have been able to make it back to school, as we easily could have been arrested or endured serious personal injury,” said Chong. “I want to address the point often raised that violence is evident on both sides. I don’t think that these people contend with the reality that on one side it is an institution in which public trust is invested in the police and government in a system of liberal democracy. This system only works when we the people give them that power. When these institutions abuse that power, they should be doubly punished and held accountable.”
As the future of this movement remains uncertain, demonstrators can only focus on each protest, each successful act of resistance, each setback. Yet, returning to the University, students have expressed that this feeling of uncertainty, despondency, and the inability to contribute to the movement is overwhelming and jarring.
“What I think about the most in regards to the protest, as someone who is so far away from it, is my friends who are there and on the front lines, which is the most worrying thing, because they are the most likely to be arrested, beaten, sexually assaulted,” said Chong. “Beyond telling them don’t be stupid and to be careful, there is not much I can personally do to prevent anything from happening to them. It is something that is difficult for me to process and carry with day to day.”
For many students abroad, the risks associated with taking a public stand still exist, and an act as small as an Instagram story post can have serious consequences for individuals’ physical safety.
“At a liberal arts college like this, the student population, especially the Chinese student population, is very small and everyone knows each other,” said an anonymous student. “You either don’t want to be hated by others who have a more pro-Beijing view and will see you as an alien or you don’t want them to tell on you. If those people get mad at you, they can very well report you to the online cyber police. For people like me who have liberal thought or for moderates, they tend to keep it away because there is a real danger of life there. It is not just about your life but about the security of family still in mainland China. If you are being wanted by government, you can stay here and apply for political asylum, but your family is still back home.”
Many Chinese students sympathetic to the cause of Hong Kong protesters expressed concern that they would face severe backlash from their mainland peers at the University, and that their opinions would be reported to the CCP. During one of my interviews with an anonymous source, I was asked to take special care to close the windows and blinds in a private classroom. Conducting additional interviews in uncrowded academic building and campus locations out of earshot, students expressed similar concerns.
“At the very least, I try to avoid talking about these issues publicly because I know I will still have to go back to the mainland where my opinion is definitely not the popular opinion and can get people into serious trouble,” said another anonymous mainland student.
While seeking a deeper understanding of how this climate has been unfolding at the University, I was reminded by students that considering the environment of mainland China is crucial.
“The most formative years of your ideological development seem to be before you come to college,” the anonymous student said. “Political ideology is very much a social construct, depending on your environment, education, and social groups. Those who are not used to having their voices heard in China and being exposed to liberal thoughts, it is understandable. They are not bad people, they might just be innocent and naïve. Many of my Chinese peers come from the very top class in China. Being of rich family means that you are a beneficiary of this regime rule. Why bother going against them?”
The student expanded on this point soon after.
“Some of [the mainlanders] would like to have their voice heard, but there is always a paradox here,” they said. “They have never been used to expressing their concerns and having their voice heard. They like to feel that they are the silent majority and that Western media and journalists are just evil, biased and want to disseminate propaganda.”
Currently, both Twitter and Facebook have come out and published public statements saying they have banned several accounts with CCP affiliations that are purposefully trying to propagate misinformation. Chen shared how he has observed media attempting to shape the grand narrative of Hong Kong protests in mainland China.
“I really don’t blame a lot of people who are pro-Beijing, because they were educated and brought up under that context, but also for many mainland students I know here at Wesleyan, I do feel that they have the privilege to access different sources about Hong Kong but they turn a blind eye or choose to not care about these issues,” Chen said. “I really don’t agree with my fellow students when they reject these sources as telling lies. These students never reflect on the reality that our own media could also be fabricated or constructed around propaganda.”
Chen also noted that many students have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that allows them to access various social media platforms restricted by China’s censorship security apparatus. However, Chen observed that many of these individuals will use this access to write posts with content like “Shame on Hong Kong.” In an email I received from an unnamed sender, a student expressed a similar frustration.
“I am ashamed to see how Chinese netizens fanatically embrace nationalism and defame Hong Kong pro-democracy activists as ‘separatists’ or ‘young losers,’” the email read. “I am anguished to find out how peaceful demonstrators are assaulted by the police with tear gas and rubber bullets. I am also sorry to witness the growing disorder and violence in deeply divided Hong Kong society.”
Beyond the political division back in Hong Kong, many mainland students have shared with me their sadness and frustration about the growing divisions they have noticed at the University between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, as well as within their own communities of mainlanders at Wesleyan. The current polarization on campus raises a critical question about the difference between making a collective claim against a government versus making a claim on the people living under that regime.
“I am very much feeling that mainland Chinese people are left out of the intended audience of these protestors,” the anonymous student said in an interview. “Personally, I never feel that I am being addressed because it might be based off the assumption that all mainlanders are pro-Beijing and don’t have a rationale or liberal thinking…. Just because we are not speaking out does not mean we don’t support you. I wish that people would be more conscious of the situation we are in: there is still the safety concern of speaking out. They should know how hard it is for us, we are so divided, even between us there are so many fights.”
In the email received by The Argus, an anonymous student voiced a similar sentiment.
“As a student from mainland China, the thing that concerns me the most is the growing disconnect between mainland China and Hong Kong,” the email read. “Growing up in a southern Cantonese-speaking city that is close to Hong Kong, I am even more desperate to learn how people on the two sides of the Shenzhen River begin to antagonize and denigrate each other. Although I know the virtual firewall built by the government is difficult to tackle down, I sincerely dream of more people from both sides disintegrating the walls they built in their minds and opening more conversations to clarify misunderstandings and find common ground.”
While the future remains uncertain, students have voiced that they know Hong Kong has been shifted fundamentally.
“Hong Kong will never be the same after this movement,” said King. “This is the largest, most significant popular uprising in Hong Kong’s history. Already, new forms of political consciousness have emerged in response to the shocking novelty of the situation, characterized by unprecedented terror, hatred and solidarity. The trauma endured by everyone throughout the past three months will make itself felt for decades.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 17, the College of East Asian Studies and the Center for the Study of Public Life will be holding a panel of faculty and students in an effort to engage with the University community and move beyond mainstream narratives to take a more critical look at the nuances and complexities of the situation unfolding.
Yihan Lin ’21 reiterated the critical importance of understanding Hong Kong’s complicated history in order to understand the colonial implications behind the current discussions taking a critical and thoughtful look at the situation.
“Many of the democratic movements discussed in this U.S.-European public space seems to just be empty ideological debate around the central concept that the West can define what democracy is without knowing the history of the region,” Lin said. “When I ask people at Wesleyan if they know why Hong Kong and Taiwan have this sort of separation from China, they don’t know. What I think is problematic is that so many people who talk about these issues only talk about it in terms of democracy and tyrannical China, but it is not as simple as that and people don’t even know the history.”
Fearing that potential conflict at the panel could perpetuate the already fraught climate, some mainland students have voiced an increased desire to attend and show their support and willingness to listen to the experiences of Hong Kong students.
“I am going because there are many people who are very emotional and extreme about these issues and I don’t want my voice being represented by those people,” Lin said. “I don’t want them to be the face of mainland international students.”
As student panelists will be sharing stories of their engagements with the protests, many students voiced that they see the panel as a unique opportunity to learn more from first-hand accounts.
“I want to know their personal experiences and how that felt to engage in high-profile political dissent,” the anonymous student said. “What I sincerely hope will not happen is disruption and harassment because there has been a lot, particularly in Canada and Australia. So I hope I won’t see that happen at Wesleyan.”
Chong, also a panelist on Tuesday, expressed a desire to engage with other students and take a deeper look at the questions raised by the movement.
“There are a lot of things that deserve academic and intellectual exploration in this movement,” Chong said. “For a society that is this economically and politically developed, you don’t see this kind of breakdown in law and order this often—it’s worth looking at as a unique phenomenon. Obviously, we have taken a stance on this issue, and we will stand by that stance, but we are not here to ask the rest of the Wesleyan community to stand behind us without intellectual interrogation, without critical examination and thoughtful reflection about not only what this means for the Hong Kong people but for the rest of the liberal democracy in the world.”
Serena Chow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.