Long before smartphones and fake news, when I was a small boy in Texas, I remember lying on the floor in front of the television set watching news reports in June 1989 discussing China’s Tiananmen uprising and Jeff Widener’s photograph dubbed “Tank Man.”
What bravery and courage, I had innocently thought, for a lone man carrying two shopping bags to stand boldly and defiantly in front of a row of army tanks. The Individual against the Communist State. The Alamo. Rarely do we as humans get a chance to witness the “One” against the “Many,” what only now as an educated adult I can describe as the “Self-Ego” versus the “Collective-Ego.”
Here is a good place to note and define, as I mean it here in this article, the “Self-Ego” and the “Collective-Ego.” The Self-Ego strives to put the One, the Individual, above the Many, the Nation. In cultures where the Self-Ego dominates, an individual has far greater autonomy and more freedoms concerning acceptable behavior (i.e., the right to own guns and the freedom to relocate as one pleases).
The Collective-Ego, however, strives to put the Many, the Nation, above the One, the Individual. In cultures where the Collective-Ego dominates, an individual has far fewer personal freedoms (i.e., firearms are outlawed and strict controls are placed on relocations) and anyone who challenges the system and goes against the cultural norm will be sacrificed. This is done to preserve the order and harmony of the collective group (one might detect the Collective-Ego even in cases of “extreme peer pressure,” like those in the Twitter-verse).
The Self-Ego cares about the sanctity of individual rights and principles, whereas the Collective-Ego cares for the sanctity of ideologies and the collective order. There’s a reason why Captain America is far more iconic and memorable than Captain China.
As fate would have it, I arrived in Hong Kong for the first time in June 2014, and days later, on June 4, I heard Jeff Widener speak at a university to a large audience. He candidly condemned communism and the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Having lived in communist Vietnam for over six years, I heard Vietnamese tell me how the “government was like a child playing in the sandbox outside the house” and that I should “let them do what they like because it really didn’t mean anything to the day-to-day chores of life.” I saw how little the Vietnamese cared to openly discuss the inner workings of their government. After all that, such incendiary language like this from Jeff Widener astonished me, struck me with a thunderbolt, and it was then that I felt the invisible power of democracy that allowed for its abstract freedoms to exist.
Later that night, after meeting the man who influenced me all those years ago, I visited Victoria Park in Hong Kong to witness the sublime candlelight vigil that marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre and the crackdown on democracy. Here, I witnessed some 180,000 Hongkongers, who gather each year to “always remember and to never forget,” give fiery speeches against China and sing tearful songs of brotherhood for the wrongly imprisoned.
On a sleepy Friday just a few short months after that vigil, the pro-democracy protests began with “Occupy Central” and the business hub of downtown Hong Kong was shut down by tens of thousands of demonstrators. This grew into the “Umbrella Movement” or the “Umbrella Revolution” when two days later, officers attacked crowds with teargas and pepper spray while innocent protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves. Out of this came “Occupy Hong Kong,” where peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were university students, began shutting down the entire city, pitching tents and barriers in roadways, blocking many of the city’s major arteries. This lasted for 79 days until December 15, 2014. For once, power had rested with the common person. Hong Kong had become a ghost town.
For weeks, I walked among the tents lining the streets beneath Hong Hong’s iconic skyscrapers, listened to the speeches in Cantonese and English, examined the Lennon Wall, read signs that declared, “They can’t kill us all” and “United we stand for true democracy.” Despite the brutal attacks by the Hong Kong police, to this day, the Umbrella Movement has been the most peaceful and most beautiful display of protest by a group of individuals I have ever seen. Unfortunately for everyone involved, that winter marked the beginning of the end to their cherished “one country, two systems.”
The following year in 2015, Jack Ma, the Chinese tycoon who owns Alibaba, purchased the South China Morning Post, the largest English newspaper in Hong Kong, and almost overnight its pro-democracy slant switched to pro-Beijing. Also in 2015, several booksellers and publishers mysteriously disappeared from Hong Kong and later re-appeared imprisoned in mainland China. This was the beginning of censorship and the end of editorial independence and press freedom in Hong Kong. Since October 2016, nine Hong Kong legislators have been barred from their elected posts due to an “oath taking row” that saw democratically elected legislators denounce China during their swearings-in. One legislator even unfurled a banner that read: “Hong Kong is Not China.”
By the start of 2018, universities in Hong Kong were taking hits to their reputations internationally because academic freedoms were eroding and on-campus discussions about democracy and independence were being limited or banned outright. By October 2018, the Hong Kong government, mostly controlled by Beijing at this point, banned the British citizen Victor Mallet, who was the Financial Times’ Asia editor and vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, after he chaired a speech at the FCC by the pro-independence activist Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party.
Also in 2018, Chinese “President” Xi Jinping consolidated his political power by removing the two-term limit to the presidency. He can now remain in power for life, as would any dictator controlling an autocracy. One would be foolish to think that a feeling of oppression hasn’t gripped Hong Kong. Citizens have grown cautious in their rhetoric towards China as they continue to watch their beloved city fall in international prestige. Many believe that is exactly what Beijing wants: just another ordinary Chinese city.
In late 2018, as part of its “Greater Bay Area” initiative, Beijing further blurred the boundaries by opening two concrete links (representative of umbilical cords) connecting mainland China to Hong Kong. The new high-speed train caused great debate because it allowed Chinese immigration officials to work inside the Hong Kong border, while the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the longest in the world, allowed 70,000 to 100,000 Chinese tourists to be bused in per day, causing congestion and chaos.
Little by little, industry by industry, mainland China is swallowing Hong Kong.
By the end of 2018, the Hong Kong government, under Beijing’s official direction, legally accepted China’s national anthem as their own by approving an amendment to Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor warned citizens of Hong Kong not to challenge the anthem. Nevertheless, as recently as January 23 of this year, protesters marched on Civic Square to express their contempt for the anthem law. Many international schools, meanwhile, are feeling pressured to teach Chinese history and the Chinese anthem as part of their curriculum, a mandate currently in place for many of Hong Kong’s public schools.
By December 2018, the 20-day trial involving nine 2014 Occupy movement leaders had ended, and in April 2019, a verdict will be heard. Facing up to seven years for his role in the protests, Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at Hong Kong University, stated in his final arguments: “If this is the cup I must take, I will drink with no regret.”
In the less than five years since the pro-democracy protests ignited the Umbrella Movement, mainland China and President-for-Life Xi have asserted their irrevocable and tentacular hold over Hong Kong. Now they’re setting their sights on Taiwan, which one can expect will soon become just another island belonging to China. As for Hong Kong, it’s now just another third-tier polluted harbor city along the Chinese coastline.
CG Fewston is an American novelist, a former visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome, and visiting fellow at City University. His most recent novel is A Time to Love in Tehran, published in 2015.