Opinion Politics & Protest

The least an expat Hongkonger can do in the city’s summer of protest? Empathise

The on-going protests have made it abundantly clear that millions of Hongkongers believe their political autonomy and civil liberties are necessary parts of their future.

Hong Kong folks come in many stripes: locals and non-locals of varying, complex, and sometimes overlapping identities. One can be “local” and hold more than one passport or have spent parts of one’s life abroad, but ethnicity and familial history likely allow for inclusion in that category. One could also consider oneself “local” and not be ethnically Chinese like many Hong Kong-born people with one or more foreign-born or non-ethnically Chinese parents.

October 20 mask ban china extradition protest

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Some are considered “expats” and others are “immigrants” – people like me who moved to Hong Kong from somewhere else. The difference between those two classifications is laughable when parsed, and based on socio-economic-cultural privilege in any given context. Still, others spend decades of their life in Hong Kong without access to residency rights, like the city’s hundreds of thousands of domestic workers. Such is the city’s non-exhaustive contemporary denizenship.

Let’s talk about the expats. As a rough definition, these are the privileged immigrants in Hong Kong (privilege is relative, and this is a diverse group). Some of us consider Hong Kong a temporary home, and some have put down such deep roots here that we are often culture-shocked in any other home country.

While we are hardly a homogeneous crowd, we generally share the privileges of mobility and choice: the ability to choose to move out of Hong Kong. We live in Hong Kong because of jobs, businesses, low taxes, family ties, or perhaps simply because we love it and have configured our lives to be here. When the politics of our chosen current home detonates as it has, what role we choose to perform, and how we think of ourselves in the incendiary landscape, becomes a point of deliberation for each of us.

It took me a while to get a proper sense of Hong Kong’s pulse when I moved here almost a decade ago. There were parties in 1997 when Hong Kong was handed over, so I initially surmised that the general mood must have been positive, in spite of my personal and academic sensitivities to colonial histories and unequal societies. Later, I would mull over what it must feel like to be “handed over” like a chattel.

Working with companies to help them grow and hire people across the region, I observed the assumption that “local” culture in Hong Kong could be one of passive acquiescence. The irony of that does not escape me now, as we watch coverage of a diverse range of protesters forging through tear gas with bold determination, refusing to take no for an answer.

1997 handover

Photo: GovHK.

The Occupy protests in 2014 took many expats by surprise. The first night, I was at a dinner party at a fellow expat friend’s home, and we all marvelled disbelievingly at the scenes from afar. Then, I came much closer to it after an accident and having to be wheeled through the blocked roads to get to my physiotherapist through the protest period.

The protesters were unfailingly kind and sincere, and it gave me the opportunity to see and hear the hope with which they were taking up space. Seeing the peaceful crowds gathered at the annual Tienanmen vigils in the city’s traditional gathering spot, Victoria Park, also brought me an extended appreciation for the beacon of freedom that Hong Kong has been in this part of the world.

Fast forward to 2019, and we are now in an era of banned protests, tear gas buffets and mass arrests. I, like so many others, have come to understand what it is like to be among more than two million diverse people peacefully marching — students, bankers, lawyers, children, legislators, and grandparents among them.

I follow coverage closely, including live reports from a swathe of journalists on the frontlines, some of whom are now routinely abused when trying to do their jobs. I happened to fly out of Hong Kong the night of the first airport protest and experienced what I did during Occupy – sincere protesters trying to convey their fears and hopes, making a stand because there was no other way.

Some of the teenaged protesters exhibited maturity and self-awareness I have seldom seen in years of hiring powerful executives. In relaying this, I am aware that these are only my own experiences, not everyone’s.

admiralty hong kong democracy occupy universal suffrage umbrella movement

File photo: inmediahk.net.

Expats occupy a strange frontier, in which many are unsure of their rights and protection of their privileges. Often, some make a sort of uncomfortable peace with the many glitzy cities around the planet where one can live well in a bubble, as long as one is not a part of a vulnerable local population.

They may become anxious, perhaps wanting to participate in local politics and activism, but feeling afraid of the consequences. After all, even global corporate behemoths have been firing people shamelessly for supporting protests in Hong Kong.

Some enjoy what Hong Kong has afforded them, but may not see themselves as one with the people because they can move to countries that will let them have those rights, or where they are free to protest or seek assistance from reliable courts if it comes down to it.

Some directly profit by supporting the establishment, or at least, by not rocking the boat, and feel they cannot risk irking the power at any cost. A handful engages boldly. Still, others stuff their fingers in their ears, and are, or pretend to be glib to it all.

It comes down to what one believes is essential and right. It is worth asking yourself where you stand on people (including yourself) being able to live free from authoritarianism or repression. If you value it for yourself, it is crucial to extend the support to others who do too.

If you would fear losing civil liberties, but your privilege (including the ability to move away) currently shields you from that as an immediate concern, consider what might drive people without that privilege to turn out onto the streets in the face of weapons and arrests.

This is not to say that I expect any or all of us to dash to the frontlines, or even support every single one of the protesters’ actions. In any large movement, it isn’t possible to stand by the actions of every single participant. But, I suggest we all try to empathise and understand the nuances, and not just “sin by silence” even in these jarring times.  If we do, it will make us cowards, as the perpetually relevant Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem warns.

October 20 mask ban china extradition protest

Photo: Studio Incendo.

The violence we see week after week is deeply upsetting to any resident in Hong Kong with even the most basic concerns about safety and the future health of the city.

Whatever one might think of it, it is hardly surprising that one faction of the protesters has reacted to the situation with violence, because peaceful protest attempts have not been honoured with true dialogue; instead, the response has been replete with threats and bullets.

I baulk at violence like many of you, but find it essential to highlight that both ‘sides’ are not equally balanced, if we are to compare even the most reactive protesters with what they are up against. De-escalation is still very much in the wheelhouse of the authorities, but the choice has been to provoke.

Any expectation of the protesters simply going home and allowing their fears to recede, seems off-base. It is increasingly obvious that many fears are legitimate in the menacing environment that has come to be, even in light of the recent withdrawal of the extradition bill.

If people stop protesting because they are made to be afraid, expat or not, we should be worried. Harmony and peace do not come from repression, nor are clear streets a sign of health – if they are clear because of intimidation.

A population ruled by fear of recriminations, afraid of their rights and freedoms vanishing, is not the way to a healthy and safe Hong Kong for anybody, expats included. Even if some of us may be able to up sticks and relocate if and when the going gets worse, I hope we will not be grossly solipsistic.

A lot of us may not have the boldness or desire to engage in the protests physically, but at the very least, let us profoundly empathise. If you live in Hong Kong, you are part of its people.

The least an expat Hongkonger can do in the city’s summer of protest? Empathise