Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Forever Hong Kong

I’ve always had a tricky relationship with Hong Kong. Being an expat has meant that it’s taken me a long time to feel at home here. It’s hard to settle somewhere when you don’t speak the language, or share the same cultural values, and when you simply don’t know how long you’ll stay. But I’m rapidly approaching the 7-year mark, which is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I never imagined I’d still be here to reach this milestone. For a start, it’s the longest period of time I’ve lived anywhere since I moved out of my parent’s home. It also means that I’m eligible for permanent residency in Hong Kong. No more visa renewal, no more sitting on the sidelines as a transient visitor. There’s even a different queue at the airport for those holding a permanent residency card. I’ll never be granted citizenship, but as a permanent resident I can now vote. Given that I’ve lost the right to vote in my native country, this is a pretty big deal to me.

After the events of this week it’s suddenly huge - Occupy Central has been a game changer (for a great explanation of what it’s all about read here). For months there’s been speculation on Occupy Central and many, our government included, have tried to garner support by talking up the negative impact that this movement will have on stock markets, and housing prices and tourism (an excellent piece on this here ). Hong Kong is nothing if not resilient, and it has survived much worse. But one thing is for certain, however these protests end, the ramifications will change the course of the city’s future. 

The protests here are peaceful. Medical school students are positioned to assist those who are injured, there is a team responsible for clearing away garbage left by protesters - they’re even sorting recyclables. So far no one, with the exception of the local police forces, has resorted to violence. The overwhelming number of images of what’s been labelled, “the most polite protest in the world,” show the sort of civil disobedience you would expect from a nation as law abiding as Hong Kong. No stores have been looted, no cars overturned, no one is rioting. In Causeway Bay last night a chamber ensemble played “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Miserables in the streets. Once again, it is students who are taking the lead, those who will be most affected by the outcome, and I’m filled with immense pride as I watch it all unfold. They've shown nothing but respect and compassion for their city and fellow citizens that I never expected to see. In a city of 7 million people, it’s very easy to adopt an “every man for himself” mentality. But this movement, this coming together of so many locals, from so many walks of life, shows that this just isn’t the case here at all. There’s a belief in Hong Kong as an independent nation, capable of deciding on its own future, and with such pride in its own unique culture that its citizens have risked unknown ramifications to fight for it. After witnessing the calm and almost well-mannered way they have gone about it, I truly believe these young people deserve to get what they’re asking for, which is simply what they were promised.

I was still a child when the world watched on in horror as the tanks rolled through Tianamen Square, but I remember it vividly – the news footage, our Prime Minister breaking down in tears as he gave a press conference, and the anti-Chinese sentiment that wafted through our tiny town. We were so far removed from those events and yet so engrossed that for just a short while we stopped taking our everyday freedoms for granted. While nowhere near on the same scale, the Occupy Central protests this week have reminded the world just how impassioned people can be when it comes to democracy, and how dangerous it can be when you stand up to those who oppose it.  Many in the media have made comparisons to the fight for democracy in Egypt, Tunisia and the Ukraine, where protesters and subsequent changes did more harm than good. There’s quite a difference between making a point and widespread anarchy, and confusing the two will lead to very different outcomes for the people of Hong Kong. There’s always the risk that Occupy Central will end in bloodshed, and there's a distinct possibility that people will begin to grow tired of the inconvenience and disruption to their daily lives. But there’s an even greater risk that it will all come to nothing in the end. Whether they take the city by force, or simply gradually reduce the degree of autonomy we enjoy, those calling the shots in Beijing won’t simply let the city go. The people of Hong Kong are standing their ground, but I have to wonder whether or not they will politely pack up and go home when more serious interventions are brought in to remove them…

Joyce Man wrote a brilliant piece in the SCMP about leaving Hong Kong earlier this month and for us, reading the perspective of someone who was born and raised here was a real eye opener. She talks about leaving, and the ability to do so, as an “insurance policy.” As expats we always have that insurance policy, we’re free to leave whenever we wish. But her sentiment, that she might one day choose to leave because she can’t bear to see the city that she loves “slip away,” really resonated with me. If China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, which now seems almost inevitable, Hong Kong as we know it will slip away. I’ve come to love this city too, and for my children, who were both born here, it is the only home they’ve ever known. But it’s a very different city to the one we moved to seven years ago, and the difficulties of life here that Joyce Man mentions are the same aspects that have come to frustrate us over time. We’ve always complained about the pollution, the expense of living here and the ever-growing number of tourists poring through the city, but I honestly had not given much thought to local politics until recently. I preferred not to get involved, believing it didn’t really affect me – my expat status affording me the right to live in quiet ignorance of the unrest and disharmony slowly building momentum. And then I realised that if we are to have a future here, to really prove that this is our home now, we need to stand up and own that disharmony. At the end of the day it isn’t our fight, but if we care at all for our neighbours, our colleagues and friends - those who we interact with and rely on on a daily basis - we have a responsibility to support those fighting for change and to make sure their voices are heard.

We may have the luxury of being able to leave but for the first time I can honestly say I don’t want to go. Hong Kong is a part of us, and now after building a life and family here, we are a part of it too. We support the students and protestors, not because we’re pro-democracy, but because we’re pro-Hong Kong, and the outcome of this movement affects us, and our way of life too now. When I vote for the first time in 2017, I want to know I’m voting for a representative chosen by the people of Hong Kong. I’ve been heartened by the number of expats supporting this movement, including those we know who once lived here but have moved away. We may not have been born here, and many of us won’t die here, but I know we will always have a connection to Hong Kong, whether we live here or not. And I will make sure that my boys know that they came from a place where tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2014 to stand up for their right to decide the future of their country. I truly hope that these will be stories I can tell them with pride one day, and not with sadness.