It is an uncomfortable quiet that has taken over the streets of Hong Kong. The combination of a pandemic and a new National Security Law has created a stillness that politicians have gloated about as they take credit for protestless streets, calling them signs of ‘civility’. Press conferences have become shameless displays that almost makes one blush with second-hand embarrassment as leaders, not elected by the people they govern, grin over the seeming success of their policies. They have reached this point by staying deaf, and now, they might as well be mute, given that their words are not for the people they are directly speaking to and about. It is clear by now our government is not interested in understanding the people who called for change.
Disagreeing with somebody does not typically elicit feelings of discomfort, or rage. Disagreement, though it may take many forms that border on being, is not actually destructive, but instead, is a constructive and sometimes necessary process for moving forward; the scientific process depends on falsification and the disproving of previous paradigms in order to uncover another inch of the Universe’s secrets, collaborative work is often successful only when the perspectives of group members and specialists are consideed and weighed against each other, valuing the issues and sentiment that each member might bring up.
On the other hand, when disagreement stems from mischaracterisation of one’s argument or motives, or worse yet, when in discourse one side is uninterested in understanding, that is when discomfort rises like acid from the pits of one’s gut. The most sickening part of this past year and a half is credited to this — those brazen leaders still do not understand the two million citizens who took to the streets. They have called the actions of protesters as ignorant and uninformed, selfish and attention-seeking, euphoric as if on drugs, labelled protesters as being uneducated, underprivleged, even as spies funded by foreign powers.
They have no clue why the youth armored themselves in uniforms that would seem incongruous except under these exact times of duress and desperation; on their arms they wore clingfilm to protect their skin from the fumes of tear gas of dubious manufacture, swimming goggles, laboratory safety goggles and construction caps for the same reason. The incongruent pieces came together to create an aesthetic born out of practicality, but it would be a mistake to ignore what was underneath these protective accessories, to turn a blind eye to the other pieces of clothing worn.
Underneath the protective gear, they wore branded yoga pants, athletic-wear, Nike and Adidas shoes and clothing for heading to the gym. Hong Kongers are notorious for splurging on hobbies, buying top-notch equipment before starting a hobby, buying clothes and shoes for jogging as if it weren’t possible to just step outdoors and begin running with far less. Were protesters really a population of selfish, underprivileged, lawless individuals? Hong Kongers were able to rebut every label; accusations of being uneducated and lazy were repelled by the participation of university students at top institutions, and the support and presence of Central ‘eat-with-me’ lunchtimes on the streets dispelled the idea that it was only the underprivileged protesting. Doing it for attention? Ask that again of the protesters who wrote wills in their backpacks who faced off against trained forces with far more equipment, manpower, and immunity to consequences behind them.
What stings most of all is the characterisation that the protests were a result of not respecting the law, and that Hong Kong is filled with civilians who think themselves above it and the community, as if somehow we have wanted instability. Yet when the pandemic struck, the community banded together, recognising priorities, with the scars of SARS and MERS still fresh in many of our minds. The curbing of the pandemic took priority. In this time of quiet, they introduced the National Security Law, which sent even symbolism of ‘Lennon Walls’, blank post-its, pairs of two four word phrases even in the form of underscores scrambling out of reality, hiding only in the caves of our memories. What law fears symbolism that has already been scrubbed blank? Only the laws created by those who wish to control even ‘nothing’, apparently, as five fingers outstretched fingers on one hand and one on another is now a frightening gesture, and apparently, acronyms are enough to be chargable underneath the new law.
The two million that took to the streets saw that there was a need to take a stand against what would an opening up of what had protected Hong Kong for so long, wishing to maintain, ironically, civilians’ trust in the law, one that once protected citizens from being persecuted by the state. Stability? We would like nothing better, but the extradition bill pushed forward on the farce of a trumped up murder case that has since fallen completely to the wayside ever since the introduction of the National Security Law threatened that stability that Hong Kongers felt. And now many flee, and many now sit, quiet, hopeless, exhausted.
This city was a place where the freedom of expression seemed possible still, for a long time, a unique city where critical and free thought was possible inside of a country where challenging those in power is akin to bringing tragedy down upon oneself. We commemorated Tiananmen Square when all traces of it have been erased within China’s borders. We spoke, wrote, and tried to show what life could be under a system where freedom was protected by a system we could trust. And it wasn’t for the world’s benefit, and though this will be readily contested by others and by no means could I believe myself to be representative of the city, I would argue that we did it for the benefit of showing those who came, what life could be like, when freedom was possible and protected.
We see the results of this, and we are seeing the city-wide experiment of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ crash and burn. Hong Kong will never be the same, and is now the host of a quiet exodus to kinder, but foreign lands that have opened up their gates for an educated, law-abiding population. This is a quiet prayer in stifled times, a hope that they will find a place where they will be cared for and understood, because it is raw and biting to see just how our government never did.