This essay was written after the November 25 crackdown on Mong Kok, a major protest camp in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014. The protests, also called Occupy Central, sought reform and genuine universal suffrage for the election of Hong Hong’s chief executive. In Mong Kok, the most volatile camp, protesters were assaulted and abused regularly by the police as well as by civilians. After the camp was cleared by police, protesters returned again to gather on the sidewalks, peacefully dissenting alongside shoppers and pedestrians. The police response was to corral and assault pedestrians indiscriminately. This initiated another wave of protests, a mobile form of Occupy dubbed the “Shopping Revolution.” The second round of public consultations for reform just concluded, marking more than half a year since the protests began. The Shopping Revolution and other forms of dissent continue to this day. As Hon Lai Chu wrote in an earlier essay from last October, “None can say how many more possibilities are on these streets, how big the space can be for new freedoms, how far this road can go.”
— Henry Wei Leung
The night they cleared Mong Kok, my heart was so heavy that the farthest I could bear to go was to a stretch of sea not far from home.
There was a strip of road which entered the sea, with a pedestrian walkway and neck-high railing on one side, and a stone pier sloping down the other, walled with boulders which the waves beat and pounded without cease. I knew that if I stood behind the railing as others have, no one would intervene, but that night I needed to draw near to flowing water, so I sat directly on the rocks. There has never been a “Sea-Watching Not Permitted” sign; it has never been needed; the regulation is already latent in people’s hearts. Behind my back cars passed, firing their bright headlights at me. And sure enough, before long a security guard approached from the side, coaxing me back as though from self-destruction: “Come back! It’s dangerous.”
“I’m just taking a look at the sea,” I told him. “I’ll come right back.”
“And what if you fall?” he said.
“I won’t fall.”
Finally he said, in a fatherly tone: “Be a good girl now, come on back.”
Even though that night I truly did need to see the sea, even though my safety and my conduct are my own business, and no one else’s — there was no way down for me.
This city was never free. It has always had to maintain a status quo which just depends on how much we can endure, on how long our patience holds. People are crammed full of every kind of inhibition, and all it takes is a person in uniform hollering commands for them to tend to obey, probably thinking that this is no big deal. But a life is built out of such tiny nonessentials, and only after something major happens will people realize that the result of yielding without cease may be a convenient harmony, but as time goes on it cripples the ability to defend one’s most basic rights.
The authorities in the occupied sites — who arrest journalists without cause, beat pedestrians with batons, and tackle and drag away frail high-schoolers — their authority was not raised in one night. For a long time the majority has overlooked dark corners: the homeless, the youth at the fringes, the prostitutes, the drifters, every disadvantaged minority, all of whom may have been driven away at one point without cause, or assaulted, or framed for crimes, and it is only because their cries are too feeble that they go unheard — that is, until people can no longer endure, when one after another they walk into the streets, and the experience of the margins becomes that of the whole. After all, the authorities’ power is not vested only in the courts, but even more so in the law-abiding masses who are blind to what is rightfully theirs.
Suppose people accept every moment of their lives as a matter of course, in gardens and in markets and in every kind of public place, obeying unreasonable regulations, unable to rest or sit idly or pause from running or make noise take pictures ride bikes sleep eat even gather with friends, then, when taking a stand on a street corner with the Shopping Revolution, or even just standing aside to watch, one can expect to be handled by the authorities with violence. One can imagine how enforcers and occupiers both have been astonished by what they cannot accept: the former unable to understand how an ordinarily tame group abiding by the letter of the law can suddenly become a mob, the latter unable to accept that those who uphold the law will also hold guns and batons and shackles and run roughshod over the defenseless.
It’s the same way animals raised in cages will unfold their huddled bodies and, by standing, suddenly jostle the iron bars. Of course their trainers and wardens look on in fear.
A great wall can be pushed down by a united throng, but the walls built in the heart must be toppled first, and one can only accomplish this alone. One doesn’t make a stand only in Mong Kok and Admiralty, but wherever one goes — at home, with friends, in the enclosure of a room or of a garden, in an office, in every public place.
The case remains in my heart: to see the sea should be the most basic right for people living on an island, and yet, for even this much one must make a stand. As for that anxious middle-aged security guard who asked me to leave the sea, I knew that standing before me was a person caged for a long time (just like myself), genuinely apprehensive that if I would be the first to toss myself in, it would cause him trouble and put his livelihood at risk. Someone facing such grave worries cannot be convinced of even the most simple fact — that seeing the sea is not the same as wanting to jump into it. Fear is the most effective prison: he was afraid of being called into account, I was afraid of causing trouble.
“Genuine universal suffrage” is an objective, but as an idea it represents more than a ballot. It is about reclaiming anew some part of a citizen’s deserved dignity and selfhood. Even so, if there’s no way in daily life to link these chains in practice, then the slogan remains a slogan, and the word and deed cannot be whole.
The world has always been broken. The Movement never caused this, only revealed it, and in fact everybody in the city faces a different aspect of that reality. The Movement arrived like a tempest whirling everyone into its center, but of course it has begun to stagnate, and I keep wondering if in the end the result has been greater understanding. After all, this is probably the first time since SARS in 2003 that the city’s people have been intimately engaged in a single affair. Whether strolling on the street, sitting on a bus, or eating out, everyone nearby will be discussing the Movement.
That afternoon, I was in a café for dessert while a few middle-aged women at the table near me were discussing Occupy. “Hong Kong has seven million people. Say two million of them support Occupy, then that means five million are against it. So why don’t we step up and oppose them?”
“Because we’re the rational ones. We don’t go out there pounding our chests.”
“These Occupy people are breaking the law, which means the police have been on duty this whole time without breaks.”
“Right, and nowhere else in the world has there been a show of authority like this, where not even one protester has been seriously injured.”
“The tanks ought to come and put them down.”
I was eating my dessert, reminding myself to listen calmly, respectfully, to words which would have never come from the mouths of my friends. Why did they think this way? Another woman added: “If they don’t like Hong Kong, these people can leave on their own dime. When I was small I was dirt poor, but I worked hard and saved money until I could leave, and then I went back to the mainland to do business. Shanghai’s nice, you know — no one there ever talks politics, they’re that wealthy.”
They each described by turn the hard times of their childhoods, and how so much wealth has been spread today that people have no reason to complain.
I couldn’t argue with them, and only thought to myself: A person’s experiences determine her understanding, which determines her recriminations; every recrimination has a perspective. If people trampling on the heads of others in a cage feel comfortable and safe, they’ll think anyone trying to leap out is the enemy, and just to keep life smooth inside the cage will devise any means to defend its sturdiness. And as for those occupiers? They exhaust themselves smashing bonds and upholding justice, but even though they’re at cross purposes with the rest of society, the emotional content, mutual exclusiveness, and grounds raised in argument are in fact all quite similar.
The cause of divisions, perhaps, is not that our positions are oppositions, but rather that our strengths and gestures are too alike.
In the end, have I drawn closer to those around me and better understood them?
I have avoided bringing up the Occupy campaign with my mother, because aside from the enormous pressures of a confrontation, I have no wish to weigh my family down with fissures and disputes. In fact, it was my mother who took the initiative to bring up the Movement with me.
She said she was grieved deeply by the sight of protesters beaten until blood flowed down their faces. All her friends oppose Occupy, and blame the protesters for wrecking the city. “I don’t argue with them. They probably haven’t even read The Water Margin and wouldn’t understand what it means to be ‘driven to Liang Shan’ – driven to revolt. But I told them just one thing, that if people weren’t striving for something incredibly important, they would not intentionally sleep on the streets.”
She said that, in a senior center, she saw small gifts given in exchange for signatures to petition against Occupy. She was furious with those grandpas and grandmas. “They obviously suffered in the mainland, just like me, until they could escape. How could they so quickly forget? Is it possible they really don’t know the methods of the Communist Party?”
She is over seventy, doesn’t use the internet, doesn’t own a house, only reads Ming Pao twice a week, has never read Apple Daily, and likes to watch mainland television. But the words she spoke were just like those of my own generation. I asked her how she’d come to her conclusions.
She only said that, since Occupy began, she’s kept a close eye on the news.
Thinking back later, I wondered if her stance was the result of lessons learned from her youth in the old village, or from her father enduring persecution. She has always been rigid about the past and is not the type to easily forget.
In other words, if before my birth she never experienced the injustice of an autocracy, or was one of those privileged by the regime, would she then fully oppose Occupy, and how then would I stand against her to speak the facts as I have seen them?
A cage is not just a system, not just a government, not just the might of law enforcement; it is everything, it is built of security guards, and family members, and strangers on the street, and ourselves too.
It always wounds the heart to see protesters beaten by batons, sprayed by tear gas mist, dragged along the ground, insulted, arrested, ganged up on; but I am slowly understanding how every person, in every action, makes a world of her own. Whether or not Occupy Central’s three sons are spit on, whether one is accused of too much violence or of not enough violence, whether one accepts arrest, or is struck below the waist and paralyzed, or sleeps on the street for two months and more — every instance is a different way to break out from the cage, and in this short time of breakthroughs we have come extraordinarily close to freedom, and freedom is the sea, full and unknowable and dangerous, and our companions will probably abandon us, and we will probably be harmed by enforcers, and face legal sanctions, and perhaps end up with nothing, but only those who have fought for equal rights in their own way are capable, in such an instant, of experiencing a whole and intact world. If such people in such a time are only a minority, little by little they can still become a number impossible to overlook, and then become the majority, and then this territory will draw just a little closer to being civilized and just.
The world has always been broken, and it is exactly because the world is broken that this city is not just my city, nor yours, nor theirs, but is everybody’s image mirrored on the shards. Whether viewpoints are similar or not, whether there is love or loathing, this city must hold its water on a common ground, and perhaps only by passing through an understanding, by lobbying and talking things over, even by haggling, can such an image be redeemed before it drowns inside a human darkness.