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How China Drained Hong Kong of Its Color

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 [1].”

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).

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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 [2] of the Tiananmen Massacre and the crackdown on democracy. Here, I witnessed some 180,000 Hongkongers [3], 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 [4]” or the “Umbrella Revolution [5]” 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.

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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 [6], 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 [7], 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 [8] 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 [9] from their elected posts due to an “oath taking row [10]” 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 [11] 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 [12], 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. [13] 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 [14]” 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 [15] caused great debate because it allowed Chinese immigration officials to work inside the Hong Kong border, while the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge [16], 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 [17] as their own by approving an amendment to Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor [18] warned citizens of Hong Kong not to challenge the anthem. Nevertheless, as recently as January 23 [19] of this year, protesters marched on Civic Square [20] to express their contempt for the anthem law. Many international schools [21], meanwhile, are feeling pressured to teach Chinese history and the Chinese anthem [22] 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 [23] had ended, and in April 2019, a verdict will be heard. Facing up to seven years for his role in the protests, Benny Tai [24], 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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "How China Drained Hong Kong of Its Color"

#1 Comment By Kouros On March 14, 2019 @ 12:07 pm

Mr. Fewston uses the concept of democracy in a very liberal manner. The many ways in which one can have government by the people of the people for the people is pigeonholed into one way: elective representatives, possibly with first past the post system, and with a very strong separation between executive and legislative, in which the executive has very much leverage in bringing down the decisions of the legislative.

Plus the co-option of all branches by private interests. Maybe Swiss and Iceland has some semblance of “democracy” in this world. Just the fact that in some parts of the world you can throw insults at the powers that be doesn’t amount to much, if anything. Ultimately the Vietnamese are spot on, with their realistic approach.

As for Beijing, trying to shake up Honk Kong, it is a matter of national security ultimately. China, having experienced in the past many times, aggregations and collapses and fragmentation, will not feel secure unless unity is manifest. Because a splintered polity will be used by outsiders, and it is being used by outsiders.

#2 Comment By hooly On March 14, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

China has this Umbrella movement, France has the Yellow Vests and the USA has Black Live Matter. And so it goes, you can’t satisfy all the people all the time.

#3 Comment By lawrence g. proulx On March 14, 2019 @ 12:50 pm

By coincidence I was finishing today “In Praise of Empires,” a book published in 2004 in which Deepak Lal argues for America to embrace its imperial destiny without trying to impose its “habits of the heart” on other peoples. He writes: “As Henry Kissinger has sagely remarked about the continuing attempt by the ethical imperialists to link trade access to China with its human rights record: ‘the proposition that freedom of speech and the press, which has never existed in five millennia of Chinese history, could be brought about through legislation by the American Congress’ is laughable. It can only lead to the far from inevitable cloash of civilizations posited by Samuel Hungtington and others.”

#4 Comment By david On March 14, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

Hong Kong is part of China, period. End of story. I don’t even know why this fact need to be stated.

If Hong Kong wants to be a first tier city, she needs to work within the Chinese economic framework to seek its own opportunities and develop its own strength, there is no other ways.

Fighting about whether to play Chinese national anthem or pro-democracy protests aren’t bringing you a step closer to your goal, assuming it is economic in nature.

However, if your agenda is political, then have the courage to state it clearly so that it can be identified and ignored more easily by the majority of people in Hong Kong.

#5 Comment By snapper On March 14, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

“Hong Kong is part of China, period. End of story. I don’t even know why this fact need to be stated.”

And China is becoming an increasingly dictatorial and repressive country. You can see why they’re not happy.

We can only hope China’s economy implodes as soon as possible.

#6 Comment By Sharon Chau On March 14, 2019 @ 4:29 pm

Hi,
I am from Hong Kong and now an US citizen in California. I was shocked when i saw what had happened during the umbrella movement and wished i was there with the rest of the Hong konger in 2014.

There is not many article in Hong Kong/China supporting this pro-democracy movement. I am glad that I found your article. It is very well written. Thank you so much. 🙂

#7 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On March 14, 2019 @ 5:48 pm

Concerned about what?
China shouldn’t rule Hong Kong because?
Honk Kong is made up of…Chinese!
And, who are they that are behind the so-called agitators in Hong Kong?
Lemme get to this point:
Hong Kong is a successful place isn’t it?
But, let those that are demonstrating take a look at the ‘uprisings’ in Egypt, Syria, Libya. This is what the neocons are encouraging in Hong Kong and they want mayhem because it’s against the Chinese government.
Because the neocons are against any government that does not go along with their agenda.
Anyone concerned about what happened to the Syrian people or the demonstrations by Palestinians? Didn’t think so.
Y’all go ahead and check out what the neocon agenda is. It has nothing to do with giving a damn about people’s rights in Hong Kong, Syria, Venezuela or anywhere else.
These people are nutty hard core extreme right wing fascists and support the most extreme positions, these neocons. Come on, were not all dumb enough to think people’s rights are the concern of American foreign policy.

#8 Comment By H HOPKINS On March 15, 2019 @ 5:15 am

If color is the issue, H K lost most of it prior to 1967. By late 1966, the only traditional Chinese neighborhood on the HK side was that where The World of Susie Wong was filmed. I personally watched the wrecking-balls flatten the area of the famous Cat St. Greed and Venality did THE job in H K, not the communists. HH

#9 Comment By TG On March 17, 2019 @ 8:55 pm

There is an old saying: amateurs talk strategy, and professionals talk logistics.

Here is the logistical bottom line of Hong Kong: a tiny densely-populated rock, for a time it lucked into being the toll booth skimming off a percentage from products made in the slave-labor factories of communist China and then shipped to the more prosperous west (it is an open secret that for a long tine, virtually everything stamped “Made in Hong Kong” was really made in the People’s Republic of China). It was a nice gig while it lasted.

But now mainland China can export directly to the rest of the world. Hong Kong is no longer needed. Oh sure, trade is ‘sticky’ and existing arrangements tend to stay the same, and the British legacy of the rule of law gives Hong Kong an edge in some financial markets, but logistically, Hong Kong really just is another third-tier Chinese city. It would be this way even if it was politically independent, because the special trade circumstances that Hong Kong once enjoyed are gone. And are never coming back.