This past summer I was urged by Octagon adviser Patricia Fels to write an entry about the political tensions that were brewing in Hong Kong.
I even penned half of it on July 1, the traditional day of protest against the government.
But halfway through, I stopped writing. My cousin convinced me that the city was going back to normal.
“This is just what happens every year since Hong Kong was taken back,” my cousin Rocky said.
“It’s nothing. You Americans are just not used to seeing 40,000 people walking down the street together.”
So I tossed away what I had written and then got overwhelmed by work, never finishing.
That was until this past weekend. Hong Kong, the gleaming emblem of order, has irrevocably changed.
Ironically I was in New York City, at the base of what was to be named “Freedom Tower” adjacent to the old site of the World Trade Center, when my former Hong Kong Summerbridge students began messaging me.
I had assumed that they were just sending pleasantries, the type that happen once a week.
But they weren’t.
They were sending me videos of the protests erupting across the city.
It took me by surprise, actually, that my students were on the streets. The majority live in the suburbs of Hong Kong, an hour or more away from Central and Admiralty, where the protests were happening.
But they were out there, joining tens of thousands of their fellow citizens, standing up for their future.
Watching the videos and seeing the pictures of my own students, 12-15 years old—who seemed naive and young at times this summer—getting pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, and fleeing for their lives from militant police in riot gear shocked me.
For the closing celebration at Hong Kong Summerbridge, my students sang a song about the classes that they had taken part in. One class was on Human Rights. The lyrics now seem prophetic.
“We have human rights; no one can bring us down; social change is just around the corner now; apartheid, segregation, we know what they mean; What can we do to make a better world?”
They know. They are marching.
Since Saturday Hong Kongers have been hitting the streets in droves. From Causeway Bay to Admiralty, Central to Wan Chai, and even on the Kowloon side in Mong Kok, spontaneously Hong Kongers flooded the streets. All the places they went to are major transportation, business, commerce or retail hubs. The beating hearts of Hong Kong are paralyzed.
The efficient subway system that became my addiction this past summer is not working in some parts of the city. Exits in Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Central are either shut, or barricaded by police to prevent more protesters from coming. Tanks rolled under the Victoria Harbor tunnels, clearly trying to send a message to Hong Kongers.
“You’re not special anymore. What we did in Tiananmen Square, we can do to you.”
But Hong Kong and Hong Kongers are special. A century of British rule, law and respect for human rights has created a people dramatically different in thinking.
“Whatever, it’s Hong Kong, not my problem. After all, the government is always right,” a Country Day student from Mainland China told me recently.
I sat there, incredulous. Could they really be that unfeeling? Can 1.3 billion people really be that naive?
In Mainland China, mentions of “Hong Kong,” “Central,” “student protests,” even the word “umbrella” are being censored. The information control is so effective in China that when I called a close friend’s mother living in Shenzhen (just 15 miles from Central), she had no idea what was happening.
China hawks in the media have said that Xi Jinping, president of China, won’t dare to comment in a forceful manner because he fears unrest in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, where incomes in some segments of the population have reached Hong Kong levels.
The rationale is that if the people of Hong Kong can get democracy, what’s to stop a Beijinger or a Shanghaier from expecting a vote?
I have news for you, Mr. Xi.
It won’t matter if they know. Your party’s brainwashing has been so effective—so meticulous at wiping out any trace of opposition in the streets, on the Internet and in the history books—that they won’t care.
But over in Hong Kong, my students are popping up across the city in protest after protest. In fact, my director Shirley Man told us that Summerbridge students are manning the provisions stockpile.
“This isn’t organized.” a former Summerbridge student emailed me. “We are all banding together, all for one, one for Hong Kong.
“Like that movie we watched at Summerbridge (“High School Musical 2”).”
Hong Kong was a powder keg when I arrived in June. I chose to ignore the situation. Now I’m afraid it has blown up.