Karen Cheung offers a journalists perspective and personal reflection on the recent political crises in Hong Kong.
On the night of Hong Kong’s legislature elections last September, my boyfriend and I were hunched over our laptops on the sofa bed in my shoebox-sized apartment, anxiously hitting the refresh button every couple of seconds to check for the latest updates. We were both freelance journalists, and had spent the day tracking down candidates on the campaign trail, getting quotes and videos, and interviewing volunteers from various political parties; we were exhausted, but wanted to stay up all night and wait for the results to be announced. Because of the unprecedented turnout that flooded the polling stations and drew long queues late into the night, however, voting was not completed until the early hours of the morning. We eventually fell asleep at around 4am, anxious and restless.
By the time we woke up early the next day, the results were rolling in. Both the candidates we voted for had won seats: I cast my ballot for the then 23-year-old Nathan Law, a student leader of the Occupy movement and the youngest lawmaker ever to be elected in Hong Kong. It soon also became clear that the opposition camp—the pro-democracy candidates and the localists—would hold a majority in the geographical constituencies, thereby keeping a veto power on certain bills. We were hopeful. We were not exactly optimistic about the situation in Hong Kong—the government had earlier barred pro-independence and localist candidates from running in the elections—but the results gave us a new surge of energy in the face of increasing political oppression. More than anything, we were relieved.
That happiness was short-lived.
The day the lawmakers were due to be sworn into office, I had been trying to study in a cafe in Sheung Wan, since I was in my final year in law school. Instead, flooded by updates by my journalist friends on Twitter, I watched the events unfold on Legislative Council’s live stream. Several lawmakers changed their oaths to better reflect their stances, but this was not new—former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung and Wong Yuk-man, as well as many others, had done this before in previous oath ceremonies without serious repercussions. But when localist party Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung Chung-hang presented a “Hong Kong is not China banner” during their oath-taking and used a degrading term to address China, backlash ensued. The Hong Kong government moved to disqualify them, and the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which reserved the ultimate power of legal interpretation, issued a ruling clarifying the requirements of the oath. Yau and Leung were unseated even before they had served a single day in office. This prompted heated clashes between demonstrators and the police outside the China Liaison Office, and I watched as Leung and a fellow journalist, amongst many others, were hit by pepper spray just a few feet away from me.
Meanwhile, four other lawmakers, including the newly re-elected Leung Kwok-hung, who had not stepped on China’s toes in the same way, but also altered their oaths, faced similar legal challenges from the government. Since the head of the legislature had permitted the retaking of their oaths or they were not rejected in the first place, they continued to serve their term—until last month, when the court gave its decision in the oath-taking case and they too were removed from office.
For the second time in the past five years, Hong Kong caught me by surprise.
The first time was when Hongkongers turned up to the streets of Admiralty after tear gas was deployed in September 2014, kickstarting the 79-day Occupy movement. Everyone knows how that story goes, given how the largely peaceful, almost utopian protest over those couple of months was too alluring a tale for international media to resist, and I will not go into the details here. But I genuinely never thought Occupy would happen. I had even laughed the idea off as something of a farce. They were shaving their heads and singing a Cantonese version of a Les Miserables song to raise awareness of the movement in the middle of Central, Hong Kong’s most apolitical, apathetic financial district!
It appears I had underestimated the power of the undercurrents of anger running through the city in the months leading up to the event—from the White Paper Beijing issued to reassert its authority over Hong Kong that summer, to demonstrations surrounding the Northeast New Territories development proposal threatening to demolish villages in the area— finally reaching a boiling point with the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision. The decision stated that even if Hongkongers could directly elect the chief executive, the future leader had to be someone that “loves the country” and be pre-approved by Beijing, more or less sealing the fate of Hong Kong’s democratic development.
This time, I had overestimated Hong Kong people. I thought that on July 14, after the courts announced that four more lawmakers would be disqualified, in effect invalidating over 127,000 of the electors‘ votes, we would naturally come out to protest—particularly in the light of dissident Liu Xiaobo’s death, who till the end did not have a chance to leave China for medical treatment despite his failing health. There were some who refused to support Yau and Leung on the basis that what they had done was “childish” and they should have foreseen that their actions would provoke China. This was not the case with these four former legislators. I, naturally but perhaps rather naively, expected uproar.
The response, however, was scattered and lukewarm. The rally held that night by the pro-democracy camp was attended by scores of lawmakers and a handful of supporters, but it was fairly awkward and failed to bring the sense of unity they perhaps hoped for. The ousted lawmakers vowed to keep fighting the good fight. They promised they would continue to do work in the community after being vacated from their seats. They urged us to keep going. They told us to re-elect some of them to show Beijing that their actions were futile. In an uncomfortable attempt to ease the mood, lawmaker Claudia Mo at one point even asked Nathan Law about his girlfriend. But as a participant at the event, I did not feel entirely convinced. State power had won. The people had lost.
Leung Kwok-hung, also known as Long Hair for his mane, was a seasoned lawmaker and activist who had long stood up to the government in the legislature, in courts, and outside these realms. He revered Che Guevara, and has a track record of grassroots work as well as challenging laws he believed to be unconstitutional. Even after he was expelled as a lawmaker, he returned to the Legislative Council chambers as a member of the public to advocate for the poor. Such was the dedication pulsing through his veins; he even said in the rally that he had let Hongkongers down, because during his terms as a lawmaker he was unable to lobby for a universal retirement pension scheme. What I had felt was that it was us that let him down, for not doing more to let the government know how much he meant to the people.
I was deeply depressed. Not only had we taken a further blow to our political rights, but – more alarmingly – we seemed to be witnessing a Hong Kong is losing its hope and accepting the situation without a fight
Three years ago, almost everyone I knew from my generation came out to call for the right to elect our own leader. Today, representatives we have elected ourselves, with the little power we do have, have been expelled, and I barely even see responses on my peer’s social media. Even Cardinal Joseph Zen commented that he was surprised there were not stronger reactions against the ruling, and that if it had happened in other countries, there would have been riots. And yet here we were, with our muted reactions.
For the first time ever, I contemplated moving. In 2014, when I wrote about Occupy for Glasgow University’s student magazine—I had been there as an exchange student—I mentioned how Anson Chan once said in a New York Times interview that we had to think about the people who had no alternatives and could not, things go wrong, “just up and go somewhere” like the rich. Earlier this year, when I was interviewed for a job at an international newspaper, I was asked whether I had ambitions outside of Hong Kong, and if I wished to one day be a foreign correspondent in another city. I was honest, and told them I did not. I did not mind doing a placement elsewhere and leaving the city for a year or two, but ultimately this is the place I want to cover as a journalist. I recall a popular slogan from the Occupy days: “the responsibility of being born into turbulent times”. I saw my responsibility as being a reporter here, and telling the story of these turbulent times, so as to motivate others into action.
Now, just two months after I made those statements, I felt stupid. I had romanticised the situation. I had thought that I was going to be able to “make a difference”, ignoring the fact that most Hongkongers who were apolitical would continue to be apolitical, and that those who had invested too much energy into following political developments were too well aware of the realities to be hopeful. We had been fighting, and each time we were reminded how powerless we were in the face of state power. And now, I wanted to give up too. I had no passport other than my Hong Kong one, no savings or family money to support my move to any other country, no job that could easily transfer me elsewhere. But I had to figure something out. If I can’t “save” the city, I might as well work as hard as I can to save myself.
Meanwhile, the number of participants at the annual July 1 protests dwindled, and the June Fourth commemoration attracted even fewer attendees. Instead, university students held forums to “discuss” and “debate” the occasion, and last year, there were groups that boycotted the vigil. Some said that Hong Kong’s self-determination and nationalism was not compatible with what the organisers of the vigil preach—that being that they still more or less believed democracy could be realised in China. At the same time, I fail to understand why they didn’t see the enemy of their enemy as their friend. The students had died fighting for democracy in China, sure, but they had also resisted the Communist Party’s regime—wasn’t that exactly what we were doing too? After Liu Xiaobo died, someone I knew posted the story on his wall, and commented, “Whatever.” Was that really necessary?
Deep down, I knew it was not the fault of Hong Kong people that they felt this way. If Occupy had enlightened a generation into caring about politics, the side effect was also that the more we know, the more helpless we feel. The ultimate failure of Occupy, accentuated by the incumbent chief executive Carrie Lam being “elected” (i.e. chosen by China) to run the city this March, as well as a series of setbacks—the prosecution of Occupy leaders, the harsh sentences imposed on “rioters” who took part in the Mong Kok unrest last Lunar New Year, the NPCSC interpretation last November—all only highlighted our role: ants to be squashed underneath Beijing’s boots as they become one step closer to annexing the region once and for all. As a result, the divide between young localists and the older pan-democrats, who took noticeably different stances on a variety issues of such as how the future of Hong Kong should be and attitudes towards mainlanders, only further deepened. Unity almost seemed far-fetched at this point.
Then the jailings happened.
In the third week of August, the appeal court sent 16 young people to prison for taking part in the 2014 protests. Three of them were in relation to the Civic Square clash outside the Legislative Council that triggered the Occupy protests – Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow – while the other 13 had been protesting Northeast New Territories development plans. Even though the activists had all already previously completed their community service sentences, the Department of Justice, citing a need for deterrence, lodged reviews and demanded harsher punishments.
I was outside the court when the three Occupy leaders met with the media before the sentence was announced. They knew what was coming: they had watched the court do it to the 13 activists just two days prior. But with an odd spark of defiance in their eyes, they said that Hong Kong people should not give up, especially when even they have not done so. They had witnessed firsthand, even more acutely than I have, the gradual disinterest and growing apathy – feigned or otherwise – of the city’s inhabitants, and yet, they were still praying for that silver lining: that this could pull the people out of that black hole of indifference.
Miraculously, as though waking from a deep slumber, those around me who had stopped commenting on politics broke off their hiatus started writing on social media again, to vent their frustration towards an increasingly authoritarian government that masks their oppression in a façade of legality. Many of my peers knew Alex Chow personally, as we were all at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Arts together; they posted intimate fragments of memories they shared with him, while I recalled the animation with which he spoke about things close to his heart – democracy, Buddhism, city design – the two times I interviewed him. The jailing of Leung Wing-lai, social activist and vocalist of local band An ID Signal, hit friends of mine in the music scene hard; they dedicated songs to him and spoke at lengths about the kind soul he is. Friends, lovers and family members of the jailed activists openly expressed their pride for them. The proximity of it all made one thing clear: one day, in the near future, I could be visiting my loved ones in prison too.
When I mentioned this to my editor, he assured me that this was because I lived in a “journalist bubble” – meaning that as a reporter I naturally hung out with people who were addicted to the news, hence creating a false sense that the general public, too, cared about current affairs. This was proven wrong when Hongkongers took to the streets this past Sunday, resulting in one of the biggest political rallies since Occupy. Everyone I interviewed that day – from ousted lawmakers, singers and activists, to families of the young protesters – expressed a rare optimism despite the blatant political oppression. As heartbroken as they were, the incident gave them a renewed burst of motivation that had long been lost in the city.
At the same time, I felt increasingly unease at the role I was meant to play in these turbulent times. On one of my first reporting assignments around two years ago, I nearly got into a heated argument with a pro-Beijing counter-protester after he was slandering a professor I greatly respected, until I learned that as a journalist, I was to be a passive, non-interfering, unbiased observer and bystander in the state of affairs. Was it perhaps more constructive for me to be chanting on the streets rather than writing? If I accidentally clapped and cheered with the protesters on while I was covering the rally, as I had wished to, have I abandoned my post? If none of our coverage on the previous political incidents ever achieved anything and it took young people being locked up for Hong Kong people to get back up, is anything I am doing truly making any dent upon society? Is my own fate, being someone who could not “just up and go somewhere,” too intertwined with the city’s for me to pretend I had not lost sleep over recent developments, or that my lips had not quivered in betrayal when it finally sank in that Hong Kong has put behind bars a group of young people who had never wanted anything except to stand up for the minorities, correct injustices, and fight for what was right?
Earlier this year, I attended a talk where Nathan Law and veteran journalist Kevin Lau—who had been stabbed by thugs during his career—were speaking, and asked them what to do in light of the looming hopelessness shrouding the city. Law said he was familiar with the emotions, having experienced them himself. But it was really Lau’s comments that really stayed with me. “There were other journalists in the city who felt like you, back when June Fourth happened. In order to document what was happening, they came together and the result was the book—People Will Not Forget.”
Perhaps journalists can’t ever be more than an onlooker standing on the fringe of the action, unable to take part. Perhaps we can’t inspire change. And perhaps the people, in turn, can’t change what the power centers in China do to us, it’s become increasingly clear. But we can still continue documenting what’s happening. Time and history are on our side.
Karen Cheung is a senior reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and the Hong Kong desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific. She is also co-founder and managing editor of online music and culture magazine Still Loud. She has also contributed to Al Jazeera, openDemocracy and ChinaFile, amongst others.