While I was a Hong Kong expat for three years, I left the island with too much respect for it than to pretend to be a qualified expert on its rich heritage, culture or politics. But watching its fresh round of protests from afar, including today’s round of tear gas, reinforces what I felt in my time there. Hong Kong is deeply mired in an identity crisis. One that is both fascinating from a socio-political and historical perspective, and a powerful warning for the current protest community here at home.
Crowd estimate games there are no more accurate than here, but claims from organizers of that one million were in the streets again today seems accurate enough. That equates to somewhere around 12% of the population of Hong Kong Territory fighting, in many ways, for their last rights. If we apply that to the States, it would equal well over 30 million pairs of boots on the ground.
Size and scale are one of the quickest adjustments required to wrap your ahead not only Hong Kong, but the entire region. As impressive as it is to see its streets swelling with a million fired up citizens, the protest is still just a shell of what it was just five years ago.
Unlike its northern “neighbors” in Seoul who successfully ousted its leadership after an impressively tenacious effort, Hong Kong’s activist mobilization efforts are producing little signs of tangible gain. While today was a minor victory to stall the extradition bill, there’s little chance that it won’t soon become law. Reported quotes from the streets around this recent wave of action are dripping with defeatism.
China is a notorious master of the long-game. And the one it is playing out as it dissolves Hong Kong back under its control is now entering a new, final stage. From interlocking its infrastructure to repositioning the region into the vague moniker of the “Greater Bay Area”, Hong Kong’s identity is not just going through change and upheaval, it is facing extinction. It’s like watching a chess match where the queen was long ago toppled and is now two moves away from check-mate. Both players know what comes next.
Hong Kong morphed significantly in the relatively short time I was lucky enough to be stationed there. Corporate headquarters that once dotted its epic skyline shrunk at best and showed signs of rapid disintegration. Multinational marketers shifted their perspective of leveraging Hong Kong as a launching pad into the riches of the broader China marketplace, to seeing it as little more than a confined micro-market with low probability for margin gain. While a beat of start-up innovation remains present, it’s impossible to ignore the migration of most of its entrepreneurial talent to the boom-town that is Shenzen. Its claim to the title of “Asia’s World City” was already in question given Singapore's rise in the past decade and will be even more so weakened as Tokyo welcomes the world to the Summer Games next year. My own departure from Hong Kong was in many ways forced by these dynamics as my company moved its regional office south.
Though I wasn’t shocked to see a burst of more umbrellas on the shores of Victoria Harbor this morning, an aura of defeatism is understandable and unavoidable. During the run-up to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China’s control, several local friends there explained the climate of exodus that gripped the Territory. One claim I’ve never verified was that for every Cathay Pacific plane that landed during that time, two left. A mass exodus of locals and expats sent an entire generation of kids to distant lands and started to erode the City’s once proud foundation as a critical global business hub. When those kids returned several years later as young adults armed with Western educations and hopes of building a new era for their homeland, they were soon crippled by SARS, global economic instability, unsustainable housing costs and a plague of plastic pollution filling its iconic beaches. Now, as Beijing’s political muscle flexes stronger with each new policy, another exodus seems imminent.
I’m inspired daily by those mobilizing on our streets here in the States. From pussy hats, to #wearorange, to the upcoming climate strikes in September (let alone the 2020 election cycle), it’s a safe bet we’ll see equally impressive crowds choking major cities to a standstill. But yet it’s hard to ignore the fact that material progress on issues like women’s rights, gun safety and climate change (and countless other fights for the soul of our humanity and democracy) will run into the same long game tactics that are suffocating hope in Hong Kong. And with each defeat, an erosion of our character, fortitude and future.
Will we follow the Seoul model and sustain pressure long enough to trigger a real transformation of power? Or will our fate mirror that of our fellow former British Colony, with bleak chances for real progress, a methodical stripping away of our rights, and, ultimately a shattering of our identity?