Can Divergences become Dialogues? A Reflection on the Hong Kong Protests

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“The pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong would seem to have universal appeal — a David and Goliath tale starring young idealists, polite and considerate in their defiance, standing up to a mighty authoritarian government with a history of mercilessly crushing dissent.”

This is the beginning of a typical English-language article about the protests in Hong Kong. Like others, this article’s author imposes an emotionally-charged interpretative framework on Hong Kong’s protests for free elections, which started near the end of September. The writer, Andrew Jacobs, invokes the Biblical story of David and Goliath but adds a modern twist to this ancient battle between good and evil: between “democracy” and the “authoritarian government.” The result? A villainous Chinese regime pitted against the noble, young protesters, with no room for ambiguity.

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In fact, what the author calls the “universal appeal” of the movement is not shared by everyone, especially those in China. In his article, Jacobs perfunctorily lists the ways in which people on the mainland criticize protesters. He accuses some of ignorance, others of swallowing down “government narrative.” It is true that the Hong Kong student protests have suffered from a lack of representation in mainland Chinese media. It is also true that the media in mainland China has been busy creating stories of its own to describe events in Hong Kong, ranging from harmful disruption to the act of a rebellious child. A piece from the state-sponsored Xinhua news agency makes it a matter of kinship in which Hong Kong is financially dependent on China. It accuses those who support the protests of “earning fistfuls of cash while turning around to rebuke your mother.” It continues by asking “Is this how you treat the country that gave birth to you and raised you?” The anti-protest media has made some pointed criticisms — it’s hard to deny that — but the problem remains that authors from both sides tend to ignore their own possible biases.

It’s understandable why journalists resort to these tropes; they feel the need to make their points more palatable to readers, especially if their target audience isn’t familiar with the nuances of Chinese regional politics.

There are many more popular tropes that have been applied to the Hong Kong protests. As someone who followed events primarily in Western news media, in past weeks I’ve seen demonstrators portrayed as “the world’s politest protesters” or spiritual descendants of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre pro-democracy students. Again and again, those in the streets of Hong Kong are painted as young, high-minded heroes struggling against authoritarian China. You’d have to be heartless not to support them, it seems. It’s all too possible to get caught up in this endless spiral: one naturally continues to read similar articles, each one confirming the last.

Comparisons can be useful, but only to a certain extent. It’s understandable why journalists resort to these tropes; they feel the need to make their points more palatable to readers, especially if their target audience isn’t familiar with the nuances of Chinese regional politics. But there’s a line at which allusions cease to be useful, becoming misleading over-interpretations instead. This line has already been crossed over many times, as at least one commentator has remarked.

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In an effort to get a better sense of events, I conducted eight interviews, almost all of them students attending Brown. They came from different places — Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, and the US — and each carried a particular blend of international experiences and influences. By talking to people of different backgrounds and viewpoints and then writing about it, I had hoped to eventually inspire new dialogues between opposing worldviews; although the accounts I heard occasionally diverged, the common desire for a better future gave me reason to hope.

One of the topics that came up repeatedly in the interviews was the possible underlying factors behind the Hong Kong protests. Many of my interviewees attended a teach-in hosted by Brown’s Watson Institute entitled “The Future of Democracy in Hong Kong.” One of the speakers, Professor Robert Lee, brought up the role of class difference and uncertain economic prospects for many young people in the protests, which the students I talked to also generally agreed with.

What was missing from the teach-in, though, was sufficient representation of people from areas involved in the protests. For some who had grown up in Hong Kong and could therefore claim insider status, the economic factors underlying the protests held a very personal significance. One student from Hong Kong put it this way: “I’m frustrated. I don’t like seeing my home like that…I really like Hong Kong, and I really want it to prosper, and I think  the current generation…the society that they are living in right now is kind of deteriorating.” She expressed solidarity with the protesters who may see no other way out: “I think that these students take it to the streets because they don’t see another way to make the government confront them directly.” She and others expressed sympathy for the protests, but considered their demands for suffrage to be too short-sighted.

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Larry Au, on the other hand, argued for a different understanding of the protests. Besides being from Hong Kong, he also visited several key sites during the beginning of the protests and the class boycotts that preceded them. He had the chance to talk to protesters and watch them in action, and he justified their stance: “A lot of people try to ascribe different factors, like increasing identification of Hong Kong, or of economic inequality, or of larger structures of exclusion that push people out into the streets. I think that if we really want to understand what’s going on, you really have to get what people say and trust it as well.” In his view, to dismiss the movement’s stated goal would be to downplay the protesters’ agency in the process of formulating it.

Au also brought up the issue of perspective. Those who hadn’t been at the site of the protests, who were removed from the scene, necessarily had less emotional reactions to it. Within this group of outsiders were further distinctions. One graduate student had grown up in Taiwan, regularly visited mainland China, and  even considered working there. Her experiences  shaped her perspective on the protests. On the one hand, people she knew in Taiwan who had never been abroad didn’t feel the same level of concern that she did about the power struggle currently unfolding. The Americans she knew were generally even less invested in the issue, perhaps because of its distance from their everyday lives.  She insisted, though, that “this movement is actually related to every person in the world.”

As international observers, we are limited in our observations on the events in Hong Kong, and it’s important to remember this.

Given these stakes, interviewees’ responses to the question, “What do you hope for the future?” were varied. One person’s immediate answer was “democracy in China.” Surprisingly, the students who identified themselves as more pro-Beijing also held the same hope, albeit through an incremental process carried out over the next few decades by a new generation of leaders. Most were cautiously optimistic for some form of compromise between the Hong Kong government and students, although they emphasized the uncertainty of the future.

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As the protests in Hong Kong continue, I hope that the viewpoints that have been absent from recent media coverage gain more representation. A positive step was taken on Oct. 21; after putting it off, Hong Kong government officials finally consented to a dialogue with protesters broadcast on TV. Still, whether or not the dialogue will be followed up with effective action remains to be seen. Meanwhile, people continue to occupy the streets more than a month after the protests started.

As international observers, we are limited in our observations on the events in Hong Kong, and it’s important to remember this. What’s even more important is to use our limitations as an impetus to continue talking and learning about the issues around us, ever more thoughtfully.

~ Photography by Larry Au. 




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