“It’s Not Enough Just to Stand and Stare”: A Reflection on the Hong Kong Protests

As I write this, I should be finishing my Fulbright application. It’s due in 48 hours, I think. Probably less. But sometimes—and I hope you know this feeling—sometimes I feel so compelled to write about something that I have to write immediately. The words just come pouring out.

While browsing the Internets (as I am wont to do), I encountered plenty of coverage on the Hong Kong protests. I’d been staying casually updated, but I haven’t had the time to browse photos and articles properly (see first sentence; also, midterms). For once, I paused for a moment to investigate something unrelated to coursework.

And God, it was heartbreaking. Hong Kong was my favorite stop on my Asian travels last summer; it’s a stunningly bright city with green parks and pristine beaches and glistening skyscrapers and a top-notch metro system. It retains a sort of vitality I found relatively absent in Beijing or Shanghai; these people are proud of their city. As I meandered through photos of the recent protests, I was shocked—okay, I teared up a bit—to realise that I knew precisely where some images were taken. I had walked along that very street in the Central district trying to reach the bus station; it had been packed to the brim with people. The scene has changed since July. It’s still packed to the brim, but this time with protesters and riot police; a haze of tear gas smudges the air.

Protests are nothing new in Hong Kong. The violence, however, is abnormal. People in Hong Kong usually enjoy the freedom to protest peacefully, one of the proud capacities of a democracy standing against the Communism of mainland China. Now, though, they’re protesting passionately against the potential restriction of those democratic rights; the Chinese government has issued a plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections, and it involves running only Beijing-approved candidates. Doesn’t sound very democratic, eh? It’s not. And the people know that. And those protesting want no part of it.

During my time in China, I had never felt so very American. That wasn’t merely due to my inability to speak Mandarin or to constant requests for my photograph. Rather, nothing made me appreciate my home like being so far away from it; indeed, I even discovered a bit of a patriotic streak. It was the little things. Things like going on road trips and seeing only one company’s petrol stations—Sinopec—along the highway, because it’s a state-owned enterprise. Things like coughing nonstop in Beijing because the air scraped through my throat with its 150+ Air Quality Index rating (100 is considered unhealthy). Things like crossing the border into Hong Kong on Independence Day and almost crying when I realized that I was, in fact, freer than I had been on the other side. Things like the recent arrest of an Uighur advocate for human rights for his discourse on the issue of Xinjiang province. Things that make me realize that, while the American government does a lot of things wrong, it has a pretty great foundation.

I’m incredibly fortunate to live in a democracy. I thrive on voicing my own strong opinions. I, however, can do so with ballot or speech, unlike those elsewhere who must take to the streets to fight for the same right. And I absolutely take that right for granted—just see how moved I was by those small standouts in China—but I also exercise it whenever possible. I have to admit, though, that it makes me sick to realise that while people across the world fight for the powerful right to democracy, many of my fellow Americans dismiss their own right to the very same.

This bit is going to seem tangential, but bear with me. For the past week or so, I’ve been helping out with a campaign to register voters on my university’s campus. Surprisingly, people can be pretty reluctant. “My vote won’t matter,” they say. “I don’t have time,” they say. You don’t have time for democracy? Do you realize how valuable that is? Talk about misplaced valuation. You don’t have time to sign a few pieces of paper, drive down to the polling station in a month, and cast your vote? Hell, you can even vote early by mail now. And while countless organizations try to make voting easier for you, the general American public, people in Hong Kong are fighting for the same right by defying riot police who carry tear gas and rubber bullets. They’re fighting to remain distinct from the same China that brought out my inner patriot. Similar and worse things have happened elsewhere; Hong Kong is now, but let us not forget Tahrir Square or even the Prague Spring of the sixties. People have been fighting for democracy for a long time. We might have declared our rights in 1776, but that doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to become complacent in our perceived security. Complacency is a precarious point; let us not tip over the edge. Some might argue that we already have. We must realize the value of the democratic principles we claim to hold in such high regard; we must live up to the dream of democracy, for it can be demolished so easily.

I am filled with nothing but admiration for the brave Hong Kong protesters who demand their rights in the face of adversity. Stand strong!

*If you want to catch up on the goings-on in Hong Kong, the BBC provides a nice little summary.

**This post’s title came from Pink Floyd’s fabulous “On the Turning Away.” Highly recommended.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

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