Under British rule, Hong Kong prospered with foreign investments, remaining safely distanced and protected from whatever turmoil occupied the mainland time after time. Witnessing the Communist Revolution and all the disastrous events that followed, Hong Kong people increasingly felt assured by the peace and order they found in British rule; to be told that this wouldn’t last – that Hong Kong belonged to China, and that it would surely return – was devastating. It is safe to say that Hong Kong’s history of British rule has instilled in its people a deep, overwhelming sense of entitlement to democracy – universal suffrage – even as China continues in its communist ways. And it is this legacy of British rule that has compelled some Hong Kong people to take up the burdening responsibility of attempting (in the least) to protect their freedoms, perhaps in ways that even those residing in democratic states currently do not. Most notably, Hong Kong people organize on two specific dates – June 4 and July 1 – yearly in an assertion of their current freedom and a demonstration of their collective desire for real democracy.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, in 1989, a respected politician’s death spurred student-led demonstrations in Beijing and other cities; at first, demonstrators wanted reform, but later on, the protests became more radical with some hunger strikes and some demands for democracy. Wikipedia claims that 1.5 million participated in a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on May 21, 1989.
On the night of June 3, tanks were brought into Beijing and Tiananmen Square where many were demonstrating (as stated by Wikipedia as I have no recollection of the events). A South China Morning Post opinion article provides some thoughts and information on the protests.
Every year since, Hong Kong people have organized candlelight vigils on June 4 in Victoria Park in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and those who died in the massacre. Last year’s vigil saw a larger turnout: organizers estimated 180,000 in attendance; the death of political activist Li Wangyang days after additionally sparked political outcry (pictures included here).
Meanwhile, July 1 marks the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China; the British and other westerners call it the “handover,” while in Chinese I’ve only heard it been referred to as the “return.” While July 1 is a public holiday that features various festivities, celebrations, and fireworks, thousands take to the streets to voice their concerns or dissatisfaction with the government and the current state of affairs; organizers estimated that ~400,000 took to the streets in 2012. [It seems that a moderately credible place that has compiled much apparently accurate information in a relatively succinct manner about the July 1 marches is Wikipedia.]
What really spurred me to write about these mass demonstrations of Hong Kong people was learning once again about the March on Washington in 1963 for civil rights (perhaps deriving much of its fame from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s deliverance of his “I Have a Dream” speech there) and how much emphasis some Americans put on both the demonstration and the speech; I couldn’t help but find it unfair that it seems that most Americans and many of those who are ethnic Chinese regard Hong Kong as just a part of China, and do not realize how much political activism these Hong Kong people constantly undertake year after year. I in part opened this blog to ask questions like this – why does the world not pay as much attention to Hong Kong? Hong Kong, this small city boasts so many in attendance year after year: Hong Kong’s population is a little over 7 million, and yet even the conservative police estimates of the attendance of 2012’s July 1 protest – 63,000 – means that about more than 1 in 120 Hong Kong citizens protested last year. If we were to use the liberal estimate of 400,000, that would mean that more than 1 in 20 people participated. (I would assume that the actual participation in this protest is between these two figures.) Just thinking about those figures alone is honestly quite astounding. Hong Kong people are so vocal about their desire for democracy, yet it seems very few actually hear them; at times it seems as if only the Chinese government recognizes these grievances (and consequently passive-aggressively tries to assert dominance of Hong Kong and affirm that Hong Kong would die without its “help”).
I will just say that I believe I would be satisfied if the world recognized Hong Kong’s overwhelming desire for democracy, and that Hong Kong people are not satisfied with Hong Kong’s current state of affairs with “one country, two systems”; that even as “one country, two systems” is always described as granting Hong Kong people a liberal amount of autonomy and freedom, it is not enough. An increasing number of Hong Kong people – especially those called ” ’90 後” in Chinese, or the generation of those born after 1990 – are not satisfied with pseudo-democracy that in fact denies them one of the most important aspects of democracy: one person, one vote; universal suffrage to elect members to Hong Kong’s legislative body and to ultimately directly elect Hong Kong’s chief executive.
I won’t say that many Hong Kong people are trying to achieve Hong Kong’s independence through these demonstrations, but during these demonstrations, it can seem as if Hongkongers’ views are so different from those of the mainland Chinese government and that the “Hong Kong” government is so unresponsive to their grievances that ideally, Hong Kong could achieve independence and democracy. Taking reality into perspective, this is very much unfeasible since it has been years since the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984.
Of course it’s always nice that Hongkongers can even publicly remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre and continue to protest the government, but if the [mainland] government holds so much jurisdiction that the local [Hong Kong] government does not even bother responding to their needs, is Hong Kong really that much better off? “A high degree of autonomy” still is not democracy and it seems that the vagueness of such a phrase allows the mainland government to interpret it however it may wish, as long as Hong Kong has relatively more freedom and autonomy than the People’s Republic of China.
And so my internal struggle also continues – is hoping that Hong Kong will change for the better and even possibly shaping my life and future based on my desire to help Hong Kong society in some way naive? Am I too young and too small to actually spark or contribute to change in Hong Kong? And even if Hong Kong achieved true autonomy and democracy and freedom, would Hong Kong people be happy and satisfied – would their desire to participate in government so dramatically diminish (much to my disappointment) if they were to achieve it?
I feel so morally and socially compelled to help Hong Kong in some way, but I don’t know if such sentiment is just part of a fleeting phase of childish and youthful optimism on my part; but at the same time, even as I enjoy the other subjects I am considering pursuing, I do not feel I could really benefit society by pursuing careers in them. Another question I ask myself is, if I were to make an active and prolonged effort to help Hong Kong, would I find myself in a place of unemployment?