Hong Kong’s protests could end as a clash between east and west

When I first took to the streets in late March to protest against my government over the proposed bill to allow extradition of people in Hong Kong to China, I did so as part of a march a few thousand strong. I call it a “march” but we were really just a motley crew of students, teachers, academics, journalists, politicians and lawyers. I remember the despair we felt. We were not listened to. We were called fearmongers, or traitors.

Months passed, and our anger fanned itself into a flame. The thousands on the streets became hundreds of thousands. By June 9 the protest was 1m people strong. By June 16, it was the voice of millions. And on Monday, after 22 years of Chinese rule, we took back our legislature.

Today the people of Hong Kong are waging a war of ideas. It is fought between, on one hand, freedom, equality and the dream of a government by the people for the people that is tempered by an impartial system of laws and, on the other, authority, autocracy and a government over the people, kept in their place by a fist of iron.

Today Hong Kong is dying and the world must take notice. We do not march for the sake of this one extradition bill. We did not even march for the sake of the principle of “one country, two systems”, which has enshrined our civic freedoms and judicial independence ever since the handover from British colonial rule more than two decades ago. It is for the sake of something at once greater and more humble: the future of a little sandcastle perched on top of a barren rock, about which great waves are forever crashing. We fight for Hong Kong’s place in the world.

In a happier present, we might have hoped for a China that had learnt to be more humane, more democratic and more liberal — or we might have met each other halfway. But that is not our reality.

When told, 22 years ago, that we would have Chinese masters instead of English ones, there were those who left Hong Kong. But most of us stayed behind and stood our ground. Over the subsequent years, we have given up, little by little, much of the freedom we hold dear — some of it willingly, most of it unwittingly. No longer do our politicians answer to us, or do our own newspapers publish dissent. We are faced with a future in which not even our own courts will guard our freedoms.

An instrument of thuggery such as the extradition bill could only have been conceivable in a vacuum of democratic accountability. That Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and her top officials persisted in thinking it a good idea, despite all signs to the contrary, betrays their contempt for their own people. They gave us 20 days to speak out on Hong Kong’s self-inflicted demise. When we did, our reward was the swing of batons and the firing of guns.

If giving way is the price of peace, I would take unrest. I have heard people say that Hong Kong’s protests are a storm in a teacup. If that were so, it is a particularly large teacup. For just as the extradition bill represents Hong Kong’s problems in microcosm, these protests reflect something of the wider world’s troubles.

Today Hong Kong rests upon a delicate balance — one in which western liberal capitalism and Chinese authoritarianism find themselves juxtaposed, not always without conflict, but never without mutual benefit. For the past 22 years, Hong Kong has proved that peaceful coexistence is possible. It has been the living proof that the costly mistakes of the cold war need not be repeated; that China was capable of opening up; that there was room enough in the world for two superpowers.

Far from the parallel tracks that we had once placed our obdurate faith in, my fear is that “one country, two systems” will end its days as a violent clash between east and west. The death of an independent Hong Kong will mean the death of the peaceful coexistence we have all come to take for granted.

The writer is a student at the faculty of law of the University of Hong Kong and a freelance journalist

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