& grappling with my complex relationship with the motherland
By Emma Miao
An elderly man faces a line of uniformed, masked, and shield-carrying police officers. He holds his walking stick over his head. “Where is your conscience?” he demands of the officers, some of whom reach for their guns in their holsters. “Where is your humanity?”
His name is Uncle Wong. As part of the community organization Protect the Children, he stands between the police and protesters, shielding the tens of thousands of school-aged children participating in the demonstrations. He is one of the two million that took to the streets in 2019 to protest China’s increasingly authoritarian grasp on Hong Kong, which includes the deterioration of the integrity of Basic Law (a mini constitution that protects civil institutions which expires in 2047), the election of Carrie Lam, and, notably, the proposal of the extradition bill in February 2019.
I watched Uncle Wong tell his story at the VIFF Center in Downtown over the weekend in the documentary The Revolution of Our Times—a Hongkonger-made, grassroots film that documents the courage, sacrifice, and brutality of the HK protests in 2019. I was shocked, appalled, and horrified—not just because of the violence captured by the independent reporters and filmmakers featured in the documentary, but also at my relative ignorance of this issue. The following days, I grappled with my discomfort and frustration between my empathy and my extended family’s loyalty to the CCP’s economic policy.
A Brief History of Hong Kong
First, a little context. Since the Treaty of Nanjing in 1841, Hong Kong existed as a Crown colony of the Commonwealth. Under British rule, Hong Kong enjoyed economic success, political freedoms, and civil institutions — all of which allowed it to flourish as a global financial hub and trade center.
Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese government in July 1997 under “one country, two systems,” as per the Sino-British Joint Declaration. At the handover, the Basic Law was ratified—a mini-constitution and national law that “safeguards the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and also protects the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents.” The basic law guarantees civil service, free press, independent courts, open internet, among other freedoms, and expires in 2047. Upon taking office in 2013, however, Chinese president Xi Jinping and the CCP have taken steps to weaken the Basic Law, tightening his grip and political influence over the ostensibly autonomous Hong Kong.
Though ratified in 1997, Basic Law has not been fully implemented, one particularly problematic clause being the transfer of universal suffrage. Hong Kong has a unicameral legislature (“LegCo”) with executive decisions made by the Chief Executive. Only 0.03% of Hong Kong’s registered voters are able to cast a ballot for Chief Executive, with the election committee comprised mostly of elites loyal to Beijing. Carrie Lam’s victory in 2017 despite being an unpopular candidate among Hongkongers reflected China’s increasing control over Hong Kong’s political, legislative, and civil autonomy.
Because the Basic Law protects civil disobedience insofar as authorities cannot silence protests outright, Xi Jinping enacted other strategies to weaken HK civil institutions, one of which is the 2019 Extradition Bill. This would allow suspected criminals from Hong Kong to be extradited to countries without an treaty with HK—including mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau. Critics worried that the law would target reporters, journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and social workers and subject them arbitrary detention, torture, and unfair trial under China’s judicial system. One such subject was Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong bookseller, who said he was abducted, detained and charged with “operating a bookstore illegally” in China in 2015 for selling books critical of Chinese leaders.
Watching the Documentary
As the lights dimmed, we peered at an overhead shot of Hong Kong streets filled to the brim with protesters donning black attire. Voices of about 10 prominent activists—many masked and pseudonymed—narrated the next two hours as high school and college-aged students explained their fear of not having a democratic future, their need to deceive their parents and risk their lives to fight for it.
They talked of the dissent philosophy “Be water,” the idea of being fluid and agile enough to “slip” through the police and regroup elsewhere; they described using radio and mobile apps to coordinate relief efforts. The process resembled a guerilla war—with an immense, overwhelmingly unconquerable enemy. And some enemy it was. I was truly astonished at the sheer amount and severity of the police brutality. Police assailed the elderly; they fired upon innocent civilians with live bullets. A reporter, Gweneth Ho, was recording live when she was beaten by a gang of white-shirted men in the train station (whom, it is suspected, colluded with police). The police turned a blind eye.
The protesters and police came to a head at Polytechnic University. What started off as a roadblock scaffolded by protesters quickly turned into a violent altercation in which the police barricaded the activists within the University. Plowing their trucks into the campus, they relentlessly shot rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas infused with blue chemicals at the protesters, who fought back by throwing molotov cocktails and bricks. Students and protesters alike were trapped inside the university—they could not escape without being arrested, doused in tear gas, or physically getting beaten by the police. The footage showed people making a mad dash into the tear gas, trying to escape, and collapsing on the ground. I saw the desperation that sent individuals crawling through cockroach-infested sewers, some the width of their shoulders, because a map showed a tiny chance of a way out.
One scene struck me profoundly. A student medic is seen at the gates to the subway station with a sign that reads “It is a war crime to block medical services from helping during conflict under Medical Neutrality.” The student just wants to help. Down below, the camera shows civilians and protesters relentlessly shot with tear gas canisters and iron rods. Facing the pleading medic, the guards at the station remain reactionless, emotionless.
“Everyone is nobody. Nobody is everyone.” is the motto of this anonymous movement. Sacrifice, courage, and selflessness emanated from each voice, each clenched fist. One boy, my age, said at the end of the documentary, “I don’t view protesting as a sacrifice. I’m fighting for my future.”
As someone whose parents are still connected with the mainland and benefit from China’s economic growth as small business owners, I’m still excavating my relative ignorance surrounding the situation in Hong Kong. It feels to me like China is sawing off its own foot, one painful stroke after another. Speaking with my grandmother, who, ever loyal, watches newscasts from the Communist Party every morning, I’m reminded of my grandma’s perspective on Hong Kong—a rebel faction of China whose citizens pose a threat to the Party and the state. I wonder about the intimacy of China’s economic future and its political one, and whether they are inextricably intertwined.
Hong Kong is currently under lockdown due to COVID-19 (which certainly hasn’t helped with regards to the human rights abuses). Recently, China announced that “only patriots” will be allowed to run for the Legislative Council and hold positions of political power. This drastically lowers the proportion of lawmakers who can be directly voted in by the people from 50% to 22%—yet another infringement on the Basic Law. It’s a dire situation, and I can only imagine how it feels to be in Hong Kong right now, struggling to weigh a generational, ancestral home against a restrictive, suffocative government.
Each passing day marks another encroachment of the CCP into the politics and ethos of Hong Kong. As I write this review, sitting in a Seattle airport, I’m reminded of Eric Yip’s poem “Fricatives,” which won the 2021 UK National Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in the poetry world. Fricatives is a poignant, subtle, circular work about colonization, submission, trauma, and identity (Yip is a UK citizen originally from Hong Kong). One of the lines stuck with me: “You must learn to submit / before you can learn.” Yip reconstructs the twisted logic of the colonial perspective, one which Hong Kong is historically intimate with, but the line holds a double, hopeful, meaning. Hong Kong people will not submit—they are fighting, guns blazing, to unlearn. This unlearning is a collective project. We must all partake in it. We all have hidden biases and blind spots. Let us dig deep within ourselves, excavate the opinions and dualities that we hold, and all question our relationships with the familiar.
You can watch Revolution of Our Times in theatres today.