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Letter from Hong Kong

Reflections on a new normal

I think you should still have the party later in the month,” the gallery owner was saying to a friend. We were at the opening of an art show. “It’s important to let people know that life still goes on.”

Life went on—at a gallery, a hotel bar by the water, hot pot at midnight—until out of nowhere, people who were just on one side of the room laughing to themselves rushed to the window where I was sitting to take a better look at the scene below. Riot police were chasing a protester down a barricaded thoroughfare in the middle of a busy shopping district. “Do they really need seven cops in full gear against someone walking around in a T-shirt and jeans?” I asked, now squeezed between my friend and a man who had installed himself at our booth with a big camera. A small part of me was ready to play devil’s advocate: what did I miss that justified the excessive violence?

“It’s just the way it is now,” said the man, while his friends teased him for interrupting our dinner.

If at the beginning of the crisis in Hong Kong, three months ago, it was hard for some to imagine how a supposedly democratic conclave within authoritarian China and the pride of imperial capitalists everywhere would soon become the undeclared police state it now is, it’s an even bigger challenge to imagine how the political crisis might be resolved without a dramatic redefinition of the relationship between the semi-autonomous territory and Beijing’s dictatorial central government. The movement—the revolution, the rebellion, the resistance, the terrorism, the uprising, whatever it is called, depending on who you ask—started as a protest against an extradition bill that, if passed, would have left the door open to compromising Hong Kong’s judicial independence from mainland China’s opaque legal system, in turn accelerating the collapse of the former British colony’s administrative autonomy and the personal freedom of its citizens. The bill had refreshed in everyone’s mind protests against controversial high-speed railway construction in 2009, ill-founded electoral “reform” by Beijing that failed to deliver universal suffrage as promised and triggered the Umbrella Movement in 2014, and the abduction of five liberal local booksellers by the Chinese government in 2015.

At every point of unprecedented escalation in this fight, there has been reason to expect it to be the last.

After June’s historic, nearly two million-strong march in a city of around seven million failed to move Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to withdraw the extradition bill, protesters stormed the Legislative Council building in July and defaced the Hong Kong regional emblem. In August, the city undertook its biggest general strike in decades. Weeks later, riot police charged onto a subway train and attacked passengers with batons and pepper spray. The government denied claims made by protesters that a death resulted from this action, though discrepancies in the number of wounded reported by firefighters and the police that night suggest some kind of cover-up may have occurred. By the time Lam finally conceded to fully withdraw the extradition bill in early September, mounting distrust in state authority and public anger at the police’s unduly violent, incompetent, and selective law enforcement had led to a full-fledged resistance against the dysfunctional government under Lam’s failed leadership.

At every point of unprecedented escalation in this fight, there has been reason to expect it to be the last. But the unraveling of Hong Kong has fallen on a series of deaf ears: first those of its ineffectual local government, and then the central government in Beijing, who jumped to take out fire hoses on the banging of pots and pans. The unraveling has been lost, too, on some at the office, in the family group chat, on first dates. When you meet someone, the first thing they want to know is, what are you doing this weekend? What does your family think? How do you think this will end? Of course, under any circumstances, what everyone asks is, which side are you on? 

Tear gas, water cannons, fire, vandalism, “mobs,” and blood make headlines, but as anyone can tell you about what it’s like to fight for things that have been taken away from them, the real test is in the tedious minutiae of organizing, strategizing, communicating, reading the news, reading the enemy’s news, analyzing, investigating, budgeting, fact-checking, panicking, and waiting. There is, most of all, the waiting. Waiting in line at the ticket machine, waiting for the daily police press conference, waiting for the bus in boycott of the subway, waiting for the “I’m home” text from friends who live in neighborhoods threatened by state-sanctioned thugs, waiting for time to pass during the eighth hour of a three-day airport sit-in, waiting for a news-free hour to pass, waiting for a single sensible response from the government.

What protesters in Hong Kong are up against is more than often absurd, but no longer shocking, even when the small victories won with orthodox protest tactics feel dated by the time the government counteracts them with brute force. Barely a month ago, few would have expected that a peaceful 1.7 million-person rally against police brutality might be the last of its kind legally permitted in Hong Kong. Police had rejected the organizers’ original application for an August 18 march but allowed for an assembly at Victoria Park, the route’s original starting point and a space that fits approximately 100,000. To bend the rule without breaking it—an assembly is not illegal if the crowd is waiting to enter a legal assembly—the protesters came up with a strategy called “orderly flow.” On paper, we were to fill the park to capacity until the crowd inevitably spilled out onto the streets, forcing the original protesters to vacate and make room for newcomers, and creating, in effect, a conveyor belt of protesters on the original marching route.

In practice, it was a slow procession of first making our way through an over-crowded subway station to the park; then sitting around, suffering the blitz of traffic directions over loudspeaker, following the call to slogan chants and cringing when the response waned; then standing around, waiting for the crowd to move, the downpour to stop, the march to begin. I thought of Renata Adler’s report from a 1966 Mississippi Black Power march:

Perhaps the reason for the disproportionate emphasis on divisive issues during the march was that civil-rights news—like news of any unified, protracted struggle against injustice—becomes boring. One march, except to the marchers, is very like another. Tents, hot days, worried nights, songs, rallies, heroes, villains, even tear gas and clubbings—the props are becoming stereotyped.

For the ordeal that Hong Kong’s protesters have put themselves through, there are no traditionally understood rewards to speak of: no recognition of individual heroism, no big checks, no promised land. Even moral superiority grows stale in political warfare. The paradox of this insurgence is that the protests have been driven by defensive necessity rather than choice. It is those who don’t come out for whatever reason—because they support unquestioned authority, because they don’t think they have a stake in politics, because they believe this is other people’s fight for other people’s futures, because they have more important interests to protect—who are really choosing.

Around me at the Victoria Park assembly were middle-aged couples, families with young children, fashionable girls leading the chants with their perky pubescent voices. As someone crowd-adverse and by nature suspicious of mass emotion, I tend to recoil at these engines for rousing collective morale. If protesting against the tyranny of an unaccountable government is the noble thing to do, am I supposed to feel invigorated, exhilarated, or at least enthusiastic? What is the correct emotional expression of a moral duty? Nonetheless, my reaction to these call and responses has become Pavlovian: whenever I hear “Hong Konger,” my brain completes, “add oil.” “Liberate Hong Kong”—“Revolution of our times.”

In the rain, it took more than an hour for us to advance less than half a mile. I began to understand the urge to set things on fire—a Maslowian desperation to make something, anything, happen. By the time we reached the end of the route, we had been out for six hours. The organizers of the march and the legislative council members leading the front of the group suggested dispersion at the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. But perhaps because of the habitual pull of nightfall, youth’s attendant insomnia, or the burst of energy from having refueled at dinner, it felt to most of us like things were only getting started. My friend and I doubled back along the water to the government headquarters in Admiralty.

Back on Harcourt Road, we reached the overpass that protesters had occupied for months during the Umbrella Movement. We knew it right away, the way you can feel the bass and smell a keg three blocks away from a party: people were still out, mostly young, in black shirts, standing in huddles, eating McDonald’s, scrolling on their phones, trying to kill a cockroach with a laser pointer, and when that failed, making a light show with the pointers on the government headquarters’ wall. Nothing was happening. Nobody was going home.

I suddenly felt ashamed. Perhaps I was wrong to dodge collective morale, when showing up is about collective purpose. But more than that, I was hit by an uncanny sense of belonging—remembering when, instead of protests every weekend, we used to rotate between the same two or three clubs, run into the same people, time our drinks at the same pace, dance to the same BPMs, bum cigarettes from the same friend, complain about the same capitalism, make eye contact with the same crushes, and let another night pass in peace, because we could.

If protesting against the tyranny of an unaccountable government is the noble thing to do, am I supposed to feel invigorated, exhilarated, or at least, enthusiastic?

Since school resumed in Hong Kong in September, rallies have continued, and students have boycotted class or formed human chains in front of their campuses in a nod to the Baltic Way. Meanwhile, the police’s arbitrary discretion in (dis)approving marches and assemblies has effectively given them grounds for mass arrests and more violent suppression of the tens of thousands who show up despite the bans. Movements for self-determination in China tend to have a fatal ring to them (Tibet, Xinjiang); as much as the leaderless, groundswell fluidity of the protest movement has stopped a militant central government short in a political quagmire, the downside of asking for things is that the other side can keep saying no.

Just as Trump’s presidency was quickly normalized in the American public imagination, it now seems cruel to conjure a previous time of complacent faith in promises made by Beijing. The circumstances of “one country, two systems” have changed since the governing model was conceived in 1984; it is hard to imagine a future in which Hong Kong is not actively resisting a regime that disregards the lives and interest of its people. In the matter of justice, there is, in the end, no court to appeal to. But in the matter of life, there are new norms, new priorities, new principles, and new anthems. We should have always known: the future, if there is one, will be in what we create rather than what we are owed.

Long after we went home from the Harcourt Road overpass on the night of the Victoria Park march, it finally occurred to me what had felt so miraculous about the day: nobody saw a single cop. Something had felt off—it felt normal.