Not Long in Hong Kong

ESSAY
Newsdesk
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❖ Note from the Editor This article was originally published in October 2019. This article was written shortly after my return from Hong Kong, where I got caught up in the pro-democracy protests and is a broad response to Australian coverage of the ongoing events.

H ong Kong is a loud, bustling jewel of a city. It is perhaps my favourite city in the world. On sweltering days, what sounds like raindrops smack the pavement as hundreds of air-conditioning units drip liquid into the streets below. In North Point, you might as well be fifty years back in time. Thin double-decker trams ding-ding-ding their way through crowded market streets with smells pungent enough to turn your stomach in the humid air. New tower blocks develop a run-down patina in a matter of years. Everyone is shouting, all of the time.

Enough people have asked me to share my experience in Hong Kong that I’ve decided to get around to doing it. I was reluctant for a few reasons. The first is that I felt I didn’t have anything particularly profound to say (it recalls white tourists returning home from building a cowshed in Vietnam and describing how seeing poverty really, like, made them grateful). The second was that there are enough Western voices telling us how to feel about police brutality and freedom movements, and I don’t see how my anecdotes would contribute to anything but further anxiety and sorrow for Hong Kong. I am not some kind of saviour, or for that matter a journalist. I did not do anything good for Hong Kong. I don’t see how I’ve earned my right to talk about it. So treat this only as a collection of thoughts, influenced and calcified by my time in a wonderful city.

Do not go to Hong Kong right now unless you’re willing to get hurt for it. These are not localised outbreaks of violence. In Tsim Sha Tsui, the trendy shopping heart of Hong Kong, I saw a female tourist carried out of a tear smoke plume by her partner. I next saw her laid out several streets away amidst protester paramedics. It can be difficult to tell which places are safe, even when trying to avoid or escape a protest. I had not realised I was across from a besieged police station when I first had a taste of tear smoke. I hadn’t seen the smoke warning flags or police lights.

The night after the events of TST, the police used tear smoke in an underground MTR station. It should not take an expert to realise why using chemical weapons in an enclosed, unventilated space is an escalation of police violence. Quite frankly, considering the scale of the protests and the hostility of the HK riot police, it is only chance that someone hasn’t been killed (or at least confirmed to be). Hong Kong is a gorgeous, wonderful city, but the risks are obvious and largely unavoidable.

I recall running with some strangers to the corner of Haiphong and Nathan Road, where an MTR station was still operating, as three busses of riot police arrived and unloaded onto the pavement beside me. The protests on Nathan Road clearly hadn’t dispersed to their liking. I was there by chance, doing tourist things. They were carrying tear smoke guns and shields. It is very surreal to be surrounded by some of the most valuable commercial real estate in the world, stocked with Tiffany Blue gift boxes and BVLGARI fragrances, only to be racing riot police to the station entrance before the metro shut down. The following night, my hotel in North Point boarded up its doors in preparation of a riot between protesters and pro-Beijing counterprotesters. I hung around for a while, but it seemed the protesters were smart enough to avoid North Point that night. My point is that, after dark, tourist impulses to see sights and enjoy good food will lead you into an escalating civil disturbance that has been ongoing for nearly three months now.

What are we, the world, supposed to do about Hong Kong? Just this week, protesters marched on the U.S. embassy waving American flags. What do they expect the Yanks to do? Appear off-shore with a aircraft carrier as a show of force? Despite the sacrifice of Hong Kongers at home and abroad, the dialogue still seems to be not of Hong Kong and her future, but of China. Even if every demand should be met, the “two systems, one country” promise will expire in a few decades, and what do we plan to do about it then? Dump more opium into China and demand Hong Kong back?

Despite my unwavering solidarity with Hong Kongers and their struggle, I find myself reeling from the gloating of our media, on social networks and in print, over the grisly iconography of the protests. Crows and carrion, I say. We don’t really intend to do anything about it — China could perpetrate another massacre and we’d only wring our hands about the incivility of it all. Who would we sanction the Chinese mainland from? Ourselves? We’ve spent the entire post-war era comfortably offloading our manufacturing into the cheap, exploited labour markets of East Asia. Are we willing to sacrifice our entire manufacturing base over the blood of Hong Kongers?

Journalists scribble. Social media lurkers like. Politicians wrestle with the reality that our mother country’s navy is no longer able to stomp about the world anymore. Even America, our World Police, seem to be flexing only their civil service — intensifying bureaus and firing up cabinet meetings. So what are we, the world, supposed to do about Hong Kong?

I watched thousands of Hong Kongers risk livelihoods and safety, only to return to the infantilising paternalism of Western commentary, with loaded notions of Hong Kong as a ‘Western pocket’ of Asia, flicking between sympathy theatre and condemnation of Beijing. It seems disingenuous and lurid, and although our free press is more decent about the matter than the Chinese state media could ever be (my Twitter in Hong Kong was sponsored exclusively by Chinese newspapers decrying the violence of protestors), it’s nonetheless uncomfortable for me to tout my own righteous, democratic superiority when all my morals and all my democracy leave me useless in the face of Chinese hegemony.

It’s left me burnt out and cynical in a way that tear smoke and street fires never could. There is spirit and vigilance in the protests in Hong Kong, but we live in a world of global trade and information overload. Hong Kong is very small place, and the world is very big. Our sympathy does the reality of the situation no good.

Hong Kong is not the tipping point — Hong Kong is the first of an ongoing shift of power in our region. There will be more crises like Hong Kong, and our neutered ability to cohesively respond to them without drawing upon our supposed moral superiority is a weakness. China does not understand Western presence and commentary in Hong Kong as a democratic effort — it sees it as the legacy of imperial ambition and colonial politics. How much of Australian shock and outcry is about reconciling our own powerlessness with our principles? What good is an opinion of the People’s Republic or of the HK police? We recognise the distastefulness and incivility of violence, but that does little to influence the imbalance of power spilling blood in Hong Kong right now.

Awareness is not enough — we’re only a few taps and two clicks away from live minute-by-minute updates of every tear shed in the ongoing protests. There are thousands of journalists in Hong Kong covering every angle of police brutality. And yet the violence goes on…

This is my announcement that I am, in fact, useless — that for all my Australian pretensions of decency and agency, the situation has changed not one bit. I thus volunteer my honourable withdrawal from the Discourse.