As a historian, one often wonders what it would have been like to live through moments that – in hindsight – changed the world in profound ways. Would I have been shocked by the “excesses” of the French Revolution or count them – as Jefferson did – as the price of liberty? Would I have been alert to the disappearances of the disabled in Nazi Germany? Would I have seen the significance of the Civil Rights movement as deeply personal? Will the 2019 demonstrations in Hong Kong prove significant to 21st century America?
We live in a time when it is possible to chose to follow explosive world events as they are happening with up-to-the minute coverage of current events or to ignore them altogether. Watching the evening news on television is no longer a ritual that ties citizens together in a shared, directed experience of larger current events as it was in the mid-twentieth century. With most people getting their news on the internet, people can choose what news to watch, when to watch it, and when they think they have seen enough. When I ask Americans what they think of the protests in Hong Kong, most do know they are going on. They also mention avoiding the news so that they can sleep at night!
In July, I presented a paper at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for the Humanities and Medicine. I compared the visual graphics of artist/entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian who traveled to the South America in 1699 with that of philosopher/geologist Alexander von Humboldt who traveled there exactly one hundred years later. I then donned my musician hat and participated in a packed week of academic papers (#IGRC2019), classical guitar concerts, and master classes as part of a multi-faceted international guitar festival and competition. Hong Kong is that kind of cosmopolitan city.
The evening before we left, we headed out to dinner a few blocks from our hotel in Wan Chai. Down the block, we could see part of a demonstration as streams of mostly young people walked by, peaceful but determined. A European ex-pat told us that we should take a look since only later would there be any violence. Indeed, as many news outlets have pointed out, the violence associated with the protests has been largely on the part of anonymous-looking police in riot gear.
During the day, we had seen people of all ages carefully arranging post-it notes on walls in public walkways and kiosks. These messages of support in tidy rows with an occasional drawing or larger sign seemed to me to represent a larger undercurrent of concern, a sea of protest in yellow and pink. There are several things we should remember as we consider the impact of events in Hong Kong.
First, the independence of Hong Kong and China’s persistent and ongoing efforts to control this modern metropolis has a long and complex history. As journalists have explained, the legislature has been set up such that the popular vote never can control the main governing body and the head of the government is appointed by mainland China.
Furthermore, we were told that one hundred and fifty immigrants from mainland China have been admitted every day into Hong Kong in an apparent attempt to gradually dilute the population of independent-minded Hong Kongers. We passed the Immigration building every day on our way to the guitar festival and it was indeed very busy.
Second, Hong Kongers are meticulous about following rules. We did not see anyone eating on the metro (it is against the rules). No one cuts in line at a food vendor’s stall. I never saw anyone toss trash onto the street (streets are not spotless but I did see a woman vacuuming the area in front of her shop). When an American friend living in Hong Kong wanted to follow her child into the swimming area, she had to go through the shower area like everyone else in spite of being fully clothed and carrying two babies (solution: she was given an umbrella!). Defying authority does not come easily to Hong Kongers. So it is stunning that nearly a quarter of the population of the city would block traffic (“excuse me, pardon me”) and do something as so out-of-character as to march in the streets.
Third, “tear gas” sounds like such an innocuous substance: a non-lethal weapon used to control, not kill. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the CS gas used by riot police in Hong Kong is a chemical weapon, one prohibited in warfare by the Geneva convention. It can cause permanent blindness and even death. The extent of injuries as a result of police actions is not known. Because protestors have been arrested in hospitals, many of the injured have not sought treatment. I saw one ambulance with grates over the windshield and windows either protecting the driver and passengers or effectively making the vehicle a prisoner transport vehicle.
Finally, the protests have been born of a deep desperation. In the first few weeks of the demonstrations, there were five casualties – all of them suicides. These were young people who wanted to make a highly-public statement. I saw a sign among the post-its that declared, “They can’t kill all of us.” The stakes are high. It is not just the extradition of criminals that is at issue. The definition of “criminal” is highly fluid. In 2015, three hundred human-rights attorneys in China were rounded up and imprisoned. Recently, the wife of one of them went to pick up her husband upon his release and he had gone “missing.” Although he was eventually located, the chilling effect of such an arbitrary legal system cannot be over-emphasized.
Western journals’ coverage of these events is bound to be slanted toward the sensational. Violence in the streets and fist-fights in metro stations and airports sells the news story. Future historians, in contrast, will try to figure out in hindsight how the events in Hong Kong influenced the making of the future world. What were defining events? Who were the ordinary and leading actors? What were the long-term consequences?
My sense is that the situation unfolding in Hong Kong will have a fundamental and long-lasting influence on the shape of that future world. It is a story we should all be watching and pondering. We live in close-knit global community, much more intimately connected than we once assumed. It is not just the well-being and self-determination of Hong Kongers that is in jeopardy. Their future is our future; their history will be our history as well.