Oscar was 7 years old. Tony was only 2.
Two children lucky enough to be raised in the pearl of the Orient – Hong Kong, where everything was possible. Commonly perceived as China’s rich cousin, back then Hong Kong was nothing but a land of promise where East met West.
It was July 1st, 1997 – and everybody seemed to have a lot to talk about. Yet Oscar and Tony were just too young to care – too young to understand how their lives had just changed forever.
“Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise – that is the unshakable destiny” said British Governor Chris Patten during his farewell speech.
“One country, two systems”, repeated everybody, sounding like a broken record.
China was back. Beijing regained control of its leased lands – provided that Hong Kong would be treated as a Special Administrative Region, maintaining both its unique Capitalist System and its democratic way of life.
22 years have passed since that day. Voci Globali met Oscar and Tony: they have grown up, and so has Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the city is not the land of promises it used to be. Adrift between its British colonial past and its reunification with the Chinese motherland, Hong Kong has now turned into the land of broken promises.
Today Oscar lives abroad. When he tells his mother that he is considering to move back to Hong Kong her chin trembles.
“Maybe it is not time for you to come home”, she answers.
Tony still lives in the city. He works in a hotel whose rooms have been left nearly empty over the past 4 months. When his shift is finished, Tony doesn’t do what any other 25-year-old guy would do. Instead, he wears black clothes and takes to the streets, careless of the fact that he is risking a 10-year jail sentence while facing a brutal police. All that matters is that he fights for his own future.
“One country, two system” everybody promised.
And yet Oscar and Tony can perfectly remember how China interfered into Hong Kong’s internal affairs over the years, just like an unwanted guest breaking down the main door.
Maybe it all started in 2003, when a mysterious virus began spreading around China, soon reaching Hong Kong and other Asian countries. Fearing an economic downturn, the Chinese government took little action against the disease and tried to withhold information from the public. As a result, their hesitation to share the news ended up encouraging the spread of the virus rather than preventing it.
In the blink of an eye more and more people got affected, and Hong Kong happened to suffer the greatest number of casualties (299 deaths).
That mysterious virus is what we all remember as SARS, and its legacy is still felt in Hong Kong.
In 2012 Oscar and Tony were two students. They saw with their own eyes how China tried to introduce the ‘national education’ program in Hong Kong schools, a curriculum very similar to the so-called patriotic education taught in the mainland. Feeling that the program was nothing but a brainwashing strategy that glossed over major events like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown, thousands of students took to the streets to express their opposition. Their minds were just too free and independent to welcome brainwashing techniques.
And when in 2014 the government passed a reform by which Beijing would select two or three candidates that could run for Chief Executive of Hong Kong, the city exploded into a peaceful protest remembered as ‘the Umbrella Revolution’: people claimed that China changed its electoral guidelines, granting them open elections and true universal suffrage. It was like Beijing was saying to the people ‘you can vote, but China selects who you vote for’. Yet the protests ended without any political concessions from the government – and the bitter taste of failure still lingers on.
Later on it was clear that freedom of speech was in danger too.
There was at the time a tiny bookshop at Causeway Bay, sandwiched between a pharmacy and a lingerie shop. At a first sight, the little shop seemed completely ordinary – nothing you would worry about. But a closer look would reveal that the bookshop was in fact selling titles banned by the Communist Party: you could leaf through books on Mao’s private life, to books depicting the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square movement. It comes as no surprise that since 2015 the shop has been closed and that five members of the staff went missing, leaving many questions unanswered.
Discontent expanded to the economic sphere too, and Hong Kong today has lost its shine and its role of China’s rich cousin. At the time of the handover the city accounted for close to 20% of China’s GDP, while today it’s less than 3%. Hong Kong has lost its edge as financial hub too, because China now has Shangai overtaking.
Home prices dramatically skyrocketed, reaching levels never seen before and leading to a massive housing crisis.
“Back in the days even streets vendors could afford to buy an apartment in Hong Kong. Now you will see doctors and lawyers struggling”, recalls Oscar.
Many people found themselves with no choice but moving to the so-called ‘cage homes’, cubicles surrounded by a metal cage that are only large enough for one bunk bed. In what seems to be the worst of the nightmares, they don’t even have enough room to stand up.
Once upon a time there was a land of promises, where people now feel overwhelmingly scared for their own future.
Oscar clearly remembers how in his early days he was sleeping on a tiny bunk with little space around: every single morning he would wake up hitting the ceiling. Sharing his 38-square-meter apartment with other 4 family members, he grew up in a sort of physical and mental claustrophobia just like many other kids.
“Young Hongkongers live carrying a weight on their shoulders. Since they are kids, they are told by their parents that they need to study hard and make money. ‘Otherwise you will never be able to afford a house in this city’, they say. And so we grow obsessed by competition, good universities, career. Nothing else seems to matter. No wonder that over the past years depression and suicide rates among young generations have increased dramatically“, adds Oscar.
Already as brittle as glass, in 2019 Hong Kong started to shake again. On June 9 more than one million people took to the streets claiming the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extradition to China, fearing that anybody suspected to be an enemy of the Communist Party could be sent to the mainland for trial. That being the case, kidnappings like the one at the Causeway Bay’s bookshop would somehow be legalised and probably become very frequent.
As David fought against Goliath, Hong Kong started once again to fight against China. This protest doesn’t have a leader: activists gather online to plan their next steps, mainly using forums and encrypted apps such as Telegram. It’s a protest for anybody who fears their identity is being taken away, anybody who doesn’t want to give up on their democratic values to fall under an authoritarian regime. It’s a loud call for democracy.
And as the police has been accused of extreme violence, dealing blows to protesters with batons and shooting rubber bullets at people’s eyes, today young Hongkongers like Tony have no choice but to wear anti-gas masks and yellow helmets to defend themselves from their brutality. They have no choice but to fight against a police that often disguised as demonstrators to make mass arrests. They have no choice but to speak up against a police that did not intervene when Chinese triads attacked civilians in the streets and in the metro on July 21st at Yuen Long Station: as a result, 45 people got injured (included a pregnant woman) – but nobody was arrested.
Eventually, protesters came to realise that money speaks louder than any demonstration – and decided to change their tactics.
While during the Umbrella Revolution they didn’t really try to affect the city’s financial resources, this time they decided to apply economic pressure.
At first they disrupted operations in shopping malls and subway stations, and later they decided to go further occupying the Hong Kong International Airport. Therefore, authorities had to cancel tens of flights and the government lost millions of Hong Kong dollars in less than 24 hours.
Shortly after protesters called for massive ATM withdrawals on Telegram groups, encouraging everybody to take as much cash as they could to convert the notes into US dollars. The Hong Kong dollar interest rate raised from 1.2 to 1.9 overnight – another blow for the government’s pockets.
“We really aim to make a huge economic impact on Hong Kong economy, even if this will ruin the financial market and related industries. We have nothing to lose, and we believe that the situation couldn’t be worse anyway: maybe Hong Kong needs to be destroyed and rebuilt from scratch. Our special financial system well assists the Communist Party officials to secure their money and to make transactions in a way China wouldn’t allow them to. China still needs Hong Kong – and this is why we started to advocate the slogan ‘if we burn, you will burn with us”, tells Tony.
Protesters have five core demands: one, the full withdrawal of the extradition bill; two, an inquiry into alleged police brutality; three, leader Carrie Lam has to step down; four, those who have been arrested needs to be released; five, the most sensitive one, universal suffrage. For Hong Kong wants to choose its own government rather than choosing among China’s candidates.
As a first concession, the extradition bill was withdrawn at the begin of September – but for the protestors this means only winning a battle and not the war itself.
And when a young protester was shot in his chest by a police officer on October 1st during the celebrations that marked 70 years of Communist party rule, many people couldn’t help recalling the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
“We are very well aware that Hongkongers alone can’t defeat China, an aggressive superpower that aims to conquer the world. We need more action from the international community, we need the approval of policies like the ‘Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act’. China will kneel down only when other powerful countries will fight together with Hong Kong”, says Tony.
Some people might blame Hongkongers for shaking the city’s stability.
However, there is something that everybody in the world should be able to see.
For example, how the ‘frontliners’ are facing off against police, protecting who stays behind them and risking to be arrested at any time.
They should see volunteers like Uncle Wong, a 82-years-old man that has been placing himself in between the demonstrators and the police over the past months, just to delay police’s actions so that the protesters can gain time to run away.
“I’d rather take a beating in their place”, he says.
They should know about who doesn’t take part to the street protests, and yet tries to help by donating money to buy helmets and anti-gas masks for the young people – or tennis rackets, so that they can bat away the tear gases.
They should be told about the random acts of kindness happening in the streets every day, when perfect strangers give each other water, snacks, and eye drops to get some relief from tear gases.
Like them or not, agree with them or not. Yet Hongkongers showed a bravery and a dignity that will make history.
Let’s not forget that despite this being the largest protest in the territory, demonstrators always find the time to return in the middle of the night to clean up the streets. Because they don’t want to leave any rubbish in the city they love.
Let’s not forget how they demonstrated their politeness even upon occupying the airport, when they apologised to the public for the chaos they were causing.
“We are really sorry”, they would say, “we didn’t want to create any problems, but we need to fight for our city. We promise that when you will be back Hong Kong will be a better place.”