It has been quite something watching the events going on in Hong Kong in recent days. I have been captivated and humbled by the scale and speed in which the public has mobilised itself in demonstrating its anger at the central government in Beijing and its refusal to grant true democracy in the territory.
Living in Hong Kong last year (I returned to the UK in June) I became absorbed by the undercurrent of dissent that existed within society. My first job after graduation was to work as an English teacher in a state post-secondary institution in the Kowloon district of Kwai Fong. My students were aged between 16-24 and were considered, having failed to pass the standard university entrance exam, to be in the lowest segment of their peers academically. The level of English generally was poor, yet the students, having faced their own confidence knocking failure within this hyper-competitive society, were for the most part determined to work hard. The students specialised in vocational subjects such as Hairdressing and Sport Science, but were also required to take languages (English and Putonghua) and mathematics to give them the skills required to thrive in their future careers.
My role was extra-curricular, which afforded me the freedom to teach students English in a flexible and innovative way. With hindsight, my most successful activity was a voluntary chat group that I led on Hong Kong – China relations. Using my own interest in politics to lead debates, I was able to coax strong opinions from students over the direction that they saw Hong Kong heading. Students who had never once demonstrated to me any English ability would all of a sudden (albeit with the help of Google translate) come out with strong opinions: denouncing the government of CY Leung as a puppet of Beijing, expressing anger at the migration of “mainland” Chinese, and quite amusingly for myself often stating a preference for British over Chinese rule.
As I came to better understand the politics of Hong Kong during my period living there, reading the local press and listening in the morning to the debates on local radio station RTHK, the movement Occupy Central seemed to become increasingly the white elephant in the room. Talk was of a group that threatened to paralyse the financial district with crowds of enormous magnitudes. Could they do it? How many people would participate? Nobody seemed entirely sure.
Watching the past few days as once again an outsider, I have seen my social media feeds colonised by images of thousands of Hong Kong residents blocking the streets. I have watched video of police using pepper spray and tear gas against unarmed protesters. And I have seen the widespread adoption of the yellow ribbon and umbrella as symbols of a people’s refusal to submit to encroaching authoritarianism. Students who I have remained in contact with seem completely engaged in the political movement. One told me that she had been caught with pepper spray as she attended the protest. Others have posted pictures of themselves sleeping with their fellow protestors. I have been thoroughly impressed by this engagement, and I regret that I am not in Hong Kong to support them.
Today I stand not quite shoulder-to-shoulder, as this is not my fight, but only ever so slightly behind my friends, colleagues and former students who remain that have chosen to stand up for their freedom and for true Hong Kong democracy. Hong Kong is a wonderful place full of incredible people, and I was privileged to call it my home. I hope that the democratic aims of the demonstrators will be met, and that nobody has to lose their life in achieving them.