News on what was happening in my hometown Hong Kong made it to the front page of many international newspapers the day after the police used tear gas on protesters on September 28th. Protests of an unprecedented scale posed the greatest challenge to the Hong Kong and Mainland governments since the hand-over in 1997.
The protests were preceded by a week-long class boycott in universities which later extended to secondary schools. Unmistakably, it was the young people about our age, or even younger, who first led the way and are major participants of this campaign for genuine universal suffrage. The strong presence of youths in Hong Kong can probably be explained by their realisation that they have the biggest stake in the democratic future of our territory. Many of the older generations now residing in Hong Kong fled from political turmoils in China decades ago, yet never really considered calling Hong Kong ‘home’. But my friends back in Hong Kong and I are there to stay. We call Hong Kong our home.
The seeds have been sown. Protesters impressed the world with the high civic spirit that was manifest in many self-initiated acts such as sorting rubbish for recycling and clearing puddles after rainfall. Journalists reported how well-organised the protests were, with tents being set up for medical care or storing of resources. A lot of discussions on the political future of Hong Kong were sparked because of this, and this peaceful and quiet town of St Andrews was no exception. People wore a yellow ribbon to show support for democracy and solidarity with students, others signed petitions and organised protests outside Chinese embassies. No matter where we are, so long as we care to keep up with the unfolding news from home, this is a transformative experience for all of us.
This is because of the gravity of the situation. Mainland government promised ‘a high degree of autonomy’ and universal suffrage in the Sino-British Declaration signed 1984 and the Basic Law, two documents which formed the constitutional basis of Hong Kong. Yet the framework for electoral reform decreed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) at the end of August seemed to revert on this promise. Under the framework, over 3 million eligible voters will each have a vote to choose our next Chief Executive, but only after the candidates are vetted by a Nomination Committee that is stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists. There is no real choice.
Still, there are others who are either cynical of these events or do not approve of them. They say that democracy is not the be all and end all, and that this movement cannot be justified because it will not yield any meaningful result. Once I was wearing a t-shirt that had the words “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” written on it. A person spotted it, dismay flashed across his face, and he told me that China could do without such kind of hindrances on progress.
As deserving as this is of a detailed and well-measured reply, all I have to say to this is that tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong think otherwise. The crowds that throng the streets are, collectively, an everlasting testimony to the strong desire for social change. A lot of the time people fight back not because they see that they are likely to succeed by doing so, but because they see no other way out.
Events of the past weeks have given hope to those who seek to preserve the autonomy of Hong Kong and the freedoms that are essential to our way of life. We are emboldened to make demands for greater representation of the Hong Kong people in government, which would otherwise have been inconceivable before this popular show of strength. The voice of the Hong Kong people has emerged from that muted past when Britain and China bilaterally decided our fate 30 years ago whilst denying Hong Kong people of the right to choose our destiny. How are we to preserve a high level of autonomy? What does a future in which China and Hong Kong have mutual respect and benefits for each other look like? For the first time, Hong Kong people realised that their answers can matter, and do matter.