Text Messages | History and inevitability in Hong Kong 

The unequal struggle for continued autonomy in the city of ‘skinny skyscrapers’ has moved from the streets to the campus, where it appears there can be only one outcome.

There is a small garden of exquisite bonsai trees near the main entrance to Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). Or at least there used to be, in December 2004, when I spent a month as one of nine writers who made up the inaugural session of the International Writers’ Workshop (IWW) of HKBU.

Associated with the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the HKBU version was a notable attempt by the university to reach out in the bigger world that had opened up for Hong Kong after it was released from the clutches of the British in 1997. Seven years on from that, this Special Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was finding its feet and exploring its identity. 

Back then, there was no panda-like embrace from the PRC. The agreement with Britain was still freshly inked and there was no attempt to work around or incrementally neglect the clauses guaranteeing the continuation of Hong Kong’s way of life and relative autonomy until 2047.

In the past few years, though, the PRC has shown it is not intent on keeping faith with the Hong Kong treaty. The extradition bill proposing that “lawbreakers” in Hong Kong can be transferred to the PRC for trial was a signal of intent, a deliberate red flag. It had the intended effect: mass protests, at first peaceful and comprising a cross-section of Hong Kong’s populace, then increasingly volatile expressions of dissatisfaction, characterised by blockades, sit-ins and destruction of property.

Despite well-founded fears that Beijing would intervene militarily in the gruesome style of Tiananmen Square, no such action has been taken. True, there was a moment when armoured vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army were massing in nearby Shenzhen – a vast dormitory city of 13 million that completely dwarfs Hong Kong, as it would Manhattan – but that turned out to be a case of the threat being stronger than its execution.

Nonetheless, the latest act in the drama has been to shift the battleground from the streets with mass mobilisation of young and old, workers and bourgeoisie, students and their elders, to the city’s tertiary institutions. Campuses and their environs have seen skirmishes between police officers using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets and students deploying Molotov cocktails, bricks, burning barricades and, bizarrely, bows and arrows.

Courage/foolhardiness

This is an unequal struggle, a guerrilla-style campaign waged by students in the least-promising setting for such weapons and tactics, hemmed in as they are on their own campuses. Despite their laudable courage – foolhardiness in the view of others – there can be only one outcome: defeat. And that will come at a further price too, a hardening in attitude from the PRC to any aspirations the protesters have to broaden and deepen Hong Kong democracy (“democracy” is more accurate).

Many young pro-democracy activists interviewed by international media have spoken about their sense that they are fighting for the very life of Hong Kong, that this is the last stand against encroaching Chinese domination. A decade and a half ago, when I was in the city, there was a different sense of identification with Hong Kong and with China. Many of the students our IWW group spoke to were seized by a fervour that they were Chinese rather than “just Hong Kongers”, or Chinese as well as Hong Kong citizens.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of this “dual citizenship” or mutual identification took place when the group made a side trip to Beijing. There, at Tiananmen Square to watch the changing of the guard, it was astonishing to see the reaction of our chaperone, guide and translator from HKBU, a postgraduate student in her mid-twenties. 

As the PRC flag was lowered and then raised, as the music to the Chinese national anthem was played by the military brass band and as the throng of thousands around the square burst into its lyrics, our chaperone joined in, head raised, eyes fixed on the flag, dulcet voice carrying the words of the anthem. Someone who a few days earlier had identified unequivocally as a Hong Konger had, in that moment of patriotism, real or manufactured, become Chinese in the nationalistic sense.

Shift in allegiance

Thinking of that now, one wonders whether she holds the same affinity with the PRC after the past months of protests against the “motherland”. Certainly, young Hong Kong residents now identify with the city rather than with the PRC. Ultimately, they will likely have no choice but to be citizens of the  PRC living in Hong Kong, once a relatively autonomous city-state.

Footage of protests at HKBU in recent weeks prompted worries for its bonsai. Their fate brought to mind the words of Xu Xi, whom we met in those halcyon days of December 2004, from her novel The Unwalled City: A Novel of Hong Kong (2001):

From a park in Aberdeen Street
I gazed at a full moon.
Its glow caressed skinny skyscrapers
Desperately trying to scrape the heavens.
This is Hong Kong, I said to the moon.
The ugly is beautiful, and the beautiful
Is lost forever.

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