Two days after attending the Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong I was in a crowd in Tiananmen Square. Though I have lived in Hong Kong now longer than anywhere else in the broadly Chinese-speaking world, my greatest affinity has been for Beijing—the first home I had in China, where the family I married into is from, and whose version of the language I speak. My experience with the two crowds, however, made me feel closer to Hong Kong, and further, despite these other ties, from Beijing.
I took my son to Tiananmen Square with my wife and parents-in-law on National Day, celebrating the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Thinking back to the much more densely packed Admiralty district from only days prior, I thought of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. In Tiananmen I stood in a crowd whose interest in celebrating something—anything—the continuation of their country, the blue skies, the military flag-lowering, the stories-tall arrangement of silk flowers—motivated a forgetting—inequality, pollution, the systematic dismantling of all but the structure of power the revolution whose victory they were celebrating had fought for, the fact that Tiananmen was both the site of the declaration of the People’s Republic of China sixty-five years ago and of the military murder of political protestors twenty-five years ago. In Occupy Central, I had stood as part of a more empowering crowd—larger and denser, colored by more black and less red—motivated by equality and respect and an inability and unwillingness to forget. The memory and motivation of the Hong Kong crowd gave a palpable discomfort in Tiananmen’s ethereal and disconnected mass.
In the lead-up to the anniversary, Xi Jinping’s government was promoting, in addition to the “Chinese Dream” rhetoric of a few years ago, twelve socialist “core values.” In fact, I value many of these principles myself, and wish they were more pervasive in China and the world: democracy, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, integrity, friendship. Other values that make the list, though, will induce much more critical thinking, even skepticism, among my socialist friends: prosperity, dedication, civility, harmony, patriotism. And yet in the Hong Kong protests, we have a civil dedication that prosperity, harmony, and even patriotism do not have to be defined from on top in Beijing, but can rather be re-defined on the streets and, potentially, in the ballot booth.
How I found the Hong Kong demonstrations is an ambiguous question with a simple answer. At its most straightforward level, finding the demonstration was not straightforward: it’s called Occupy Central because it had been, in the days of Occupy Wall St., primarily in the Central district; it’s now moved to Connaught Road, a stretch of highway linking most government and administrative buildings along the northern coast of Hong Kong island. The occupation the first day I took part stretched from roughly Statue Square to past the Academy for Performing Arts (a distance of a little over a kilometer, or three-quarters of a mile), but the first challenge was getting there: in part because so much traffic has been obstructed, and in part out of fear of traffic being obstructed, most of the bus lines had been rerouted or halted. I took a tram, terminating a good three kilometers from where I wanted to go. I saw no signs of any demonstration going on at first, but then I realized that Des Voeux Rd Central, one of the main thoroughfares of that part of Hong Kong, was all but devoid of traffic—no cars, no buses, no trucks, no taxis…
By the time I got to the primary intersection of Central (Des Voeux, Pedder, and Chater) I saw that two of the streets had been blocked off by police, though protesters were nowhere to be found. This continued as I walked past the former Legislative Council building and the HSBC headquarters, whose gates were lowered and locked—though I saw no one demonstrating yet, it was clear that the official establishment of Hong Kong, the government and the financiers, were terrified.
Minutes later I found the crowd. The night before I had seen the images of police launching teargas into crowds of demonstrators, but the tears that caught me were on seeing so many people—as thick a crowd as I’ve ever seen, as far as the eye could literally see. Mostly wearing black (in the sun, on a day that reached 34°C, or about 93°F), mostly in their twenties, and, I think I’m right about this, more young women than young men. There were a few people with megaphones making speeches, echoed by what seemed to be Zuccotti Park-style people’s microphones, and a few people with signs sponsored by official labor unions (the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions) or political parties, but mostly it was young men and women sitting in groups while others gave out free bread, bananas, water, wet towels, and cooling packs (the kind I stick on my son’s forehead when he has a fever). The atmosphere was lively, joyous, and generous.
Before moving to Hong Kong I was a member-organizer as part of a unionization drive. In that capacity, I helped organize strikes, marches, and rallies, getting people to the events and helping create an atmosphere that would encourage them to stay. The successful protests I’ve been part of in the U.S. have felt like parties: signs, strength, and songs. I’ve noticed before—such as at the vigils in Victoria Park each June 4th, commemorating the massacre of 1989—that in Hong Kong the atmosphere is much more subdued. This is obvious at an event honoring the dead; what amazed me at Occupy Central was the ability for people to stay despite the absence of any centralized attempt at mood upkeep. The joy and generosity of the atmosphere was enough on its own.
Walking up to the protest, I saw a woman selling water bottles at $7 hkd each (a little under $1 usd); there seemed to be enough water being distributed for free at the demonstration, but I had expected price-gouging. The closest thing to negativity I saw at all was when I was part of a crowd pushing west on Gloucester Rd. toward Wan Chai to expand the area of occupation: where Gloucester met the off-ramp from Arsenal, some police vehicles led a few other cars past what I took to be their own blockade uphill; as the police drove past the demonstration, protesters booed at the cop cars (one police vehicle even found itself obstructed by particularly zealous occupiers). I do not believe the protesters would have had so much antipathy toward the police if it hadn’t been for the tear gas the night before.
I ran into two people I knew there, one former colleague of mine and another current student in the class I’m teaching this semester. Before the student strike, she had said she hadn’t made up her mind whether to boycott her classes the following week; a week later, she did in fact attend class; the day after the tear gas, though, she was on the street—I take it that the police escalation the previous night contributed to her will, and she fortified her resolve, just as I imagine the resolve of many other demonstrators to have been fortified, as well.
One thing she said to me, though, I almost wish she hadn’t: “Stay safe.” It’s something I’d heard or read—and continue to hear and read—from any number of friends in Hong Kong and around the world, and of course it’s generally good practice as well as something of a filler when you don’t know what else to say. It’s also a reminder that we’re dealing with a police force that has used brutality already, and that behind that police force is a national government that has called the military and their loaded and aimed weapons onto peaceful demonstrators in the not-too-distant past. And yet. “Stay safe” verges on blaming the victim: it puts the responsibility on us as politically active individuals acting collectively in solidarity to temper our demands and actions so that they don’t provoke violent retaliation. Is this right? It’s the job of the police and the state that employs them to keep us safe, and when they fail at their job, we need to stop their vehicles and halt the economy that offers them legitimacy. And when that happens, well, I’ve rarely felt safer than I did that day, walking as part of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
Though there has since been more violence committed against the protestors by police and their hired or at any rate supported finks (I’ve often heard them referred to as thugs, but the first Thugs were highway robbers in British India suppressed by their colonial masters; fink comes off the first syllable of Pinkerton, the strikebreaking private police force in nineteenth-century U.S.), love and peace have still defined the attitudes, outlook, and actions of the protesters. Anyone not wearing riot gear can come and go freely. Compare this with Tiananmen Square on National Day: the white fence that has stood since the early nineties has been replaced with a golden one, allowing one entrance, with metal detectors, through which all visitors must pass. Anti-terrorism and defense against political demonstration have merged to regulate entry into what was built to be a people’s place. In Hong Kong’s Occupy zones, to stay safe is to acknowledge the threat that the police constitute, not what they can protect you from.
In the week I was in Beijing, mainland media went from ignoring or blatantly lying about Hong Kong’s Occupy protests—such as captioning demonstrators as preparing for National Day celebrations to express their support for the central government’s white paper on “One Country, Two Systems”—to acknowledging that protests were taking place but spinning them as at once perilous and peripheral. The protests, according to the media, are luan 亂, a word often translated as “chaotic,” but which, ideologically, has also meant “uprising” since before the middle ages. So much for core socialist values such as democracy, equality, and civility—or solidarity.
Indeed, we cannot assume that most educated people in the mainland will support the goals of the Hong Kong protesters. Mainland media frames their demands as the spoiled whines of the ignorantly fortunate, nostalgic for being colonized by the British and spiteful of their own nationality. Certainly some people do harbor such beliefs, such animosity (the Union Jack became fashionable in clothing design after the protests against National Education a couple years ago, and I remember seeing a teenager at a rally wearing a t-shirt that read, in bold capitals, “england”; was this his only black t-shirt?), but in fact, the main motivator for political change is the economic insupportability: the Gini coefficient for Hong Kong shows it to be one of the least equal and equitable societies in the world. Chief Executive C. Y. Leung seems to understand this—if understand is the word for it—when he argues against democracy because it would increase social services for the working poor.
The inequality of Hong Kong was no question designed by English imperialism: the city was founded on the principles of free trade that both started and ended the Opium Wars (we don’t want you selling drugs on our territory, the Qing said; free trade, said the British crown, bringing gunboats to support such “freedom”), and it continues to be defined by policies that convenience capital at the expense of either employees or consumers (despite the rampant consumerism) and define propriety according to whoever holds property. Labor unions are legal, but without laws requiring employers to recognize them, contracts are rare (and today, the largest labor association, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, is run as a finger off the hand of the central government’s arm). Sidewalks are narrow, benches are few; taxes are low and rent is high. A residential building near where I live features five steps to its lobby: good luck if you are in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller. That such a system became prosperous at all is because of government support—contrary to its own logic—for the laissez-faire as a strategic Cold War investment against the People’s Republic’s planned economy. Now that the PRC practices not anti-imperialism (though it’s kept the rhetoric) but patriarchal capitalism, it’s happy not only to continue but increase these practices. Jiang Zemin enshrined these changes with his “Three Represents,” by which the Communist Party represents the interests of capital, but the political similarities begin earlier: “One Country, Two Systems,” proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the eighties, is the simple and enduring logic of colonialism.
I’ve come across two main arguments in China against democracy: with the economy as good as it is, one says, wouldn’t democracy threaten growth? With the economy as bad as it is, the other says, who has time for luxuries like democracy when they’re struggling to put food on their tables? (This must be, a friend of mine quipped, why China has created so many super-rich and so many super-poor, and so few in between). China must have learned these arguments from Hong Kong—it has learned so much else. While many Hong Kongers rally around the cry of not letting Hong Kong become just another Chinese city, the fact is that since the nineties Chinese cities have become, in fundamental ways, more like Hong Kong than the other way around (it started with the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, which then became a model for Shanghai, which has now become a model for Beijing, modeling for the rest of the country). True universal suffrage—not only one person one vote, but the citizenry’s ability to nominate its electorate—would recalibrate this inequality as well, offering a bit of whatever spirit of Hong Kong its residents can latch onto beneath the consumerism, commercialism, and corporatism. This is what Hong Kongers call their own “core values,” and what has mainland authorities scared is that such values put into practice could, over time, spread their example into the rest of China.
The question of how local and national define themselves upon words like “Hong Kong,” and the power invested in such lexical debates, makes the protests here unexpectedly relevant to my line of work. Though many of my students have been boycotting classes on campus, if they pay the right kind of attention, they can pick up on some of the lessons I would have led them to anyway. I teach translation, often focusing on the ins and outs of the inter-lingual feedback loop that occurs when global events put languages and cultures in contact. The appellation “Umbrella Revolution,” coined presumably in English in response to now famous images of protesters protecting themselves from tear gas, has as equivalent a handful of different expressions: in standard Chinese (Mandarin) it would be 雨傘革命, but of a number of options in Cantonese it has most often been rendered as 遮打革命; this is both because “umbrella” is not generally called 雨傘 in Cantonese but rather 遮, but also because the Chinese name for one of the streets that has been occupied, Chater Road, is 遮打 (the Cantonese avoidance of the word 傘 in “umbrella,” because it is a homonym for 散, “disperse,” is also worth noting, since it’s not money, here, but the demonstrators that should not scatter). The term anchors itself on deeper and deeper levels of localization. But this then recycles itself into English. Local poets I know have tried to popularize, instead, Umbrella Uprising, because it is a more accurate representation of the protests—there is no attempt at a revolutionary overthrow of a state here—and because of the assonance of the phrase. The inter-lingual feedback loop I lecture on could be experienced equally dans la rue.
The feedback feeds on. One of the more important upcoming events in my field is an international conference in Egypt called “The Only Thing Worth Globalising is Dissent.” I think of this when I think of Hong Kong protestors facing the cops here and saying, like they do in Ferguson, MO, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Are the protests here in Hong Kong another example of the globalization of counter-globalization, tied in to the contemporary movements for equality from around the world (Occupy Wall St., the recent Quebec student strikes, Tahrir Square in Cairo…), or are they continuations of Chinese historical precedents (Tiananmen Square in 1989, the New Culture movement of 1919…)? How we answer this says something about how we construct lines from multidirectional points. The demonstrators, too, are finding their own answers and drawing and writing their own lines.
Other lines relevant here are picket lines, battle lines, and border lines, and whatever lines have been crossed by the police brutality, the finks’ fists, the government’s cancellation of scheduled talks, its stonewalling during the talks that eventually took place. Such violence, outrageous yet not surprising, has only grown the lines of the protestors, has only grown their support in the court of public opinion. This does not mean necessarily that we will win and the PRC will agree to have not only universal suffrage in Hong Kong but a nomination process in which it isn’t tipping the scales, but it does mean that I can envision such an outcome. Against that, a movement such as this one, defined by youth, by love and peace, by aspiration and inspiration, will always find a way to win.
Lucas Klein, Hong Kong