The Ghosts of Protests Past

by Zixin Jiang and Martin Yip

‘Nostalgia’ has two meanings. Originally, it meant ‘homesickness’. Today, it means ‘longing for the past’. For Hongkongers living in the UK, both meanings are apt.

On Sunday 9th June, huge crowds filled the streets of Hong Kong to protest against a proposed law that would allow anyone in Hong Kong to be extradited to face trial in mainland China. In a city of 7.5 million people, between hundreds of thousands to over a million joined the protests.

Critics, including judges, lawyers and representatives of foreign countries, say the proposed law has insufficient safeguards for the accused, in light of strong distrust towards the legal system of mainland China. The local government has ignored calls from all sides to delay the passage of the bill to address the concerns raised, and has instead pushed ahead at full speed. The government’s original pretext for this rush, that it is necessary to deal with the murder of a Hong Kong citizen in Taiwan, is unconvincing since Taiwan has already said it would not recognise the proposed extradition law.

The huge peaceful protest on Sunday drew comparisons with a similar march in 2003, when half a million Hongkongers took to the streets in protest against a proposed national security law. Then, as now, it was feared that the government would use the law to persecute and silence political dissidents. Then, as now, the bill drew criticism from a broad segment of society. Then, the protestors wore black; this year, they wore white. Public pressure in 2003 eventually led to the bill being shelved. Similarly, in 2012, student-led demonstrations led to the withdrawal of a ‘moral and national education’ curriculum which critics said was an attempt at patriotic indoctrination. This time, however, there have yet to be signs of any such withdrawal.

Hong Kong is not the city it once was. Its political liberties have suffered one attack after another: a promise of democratic universal suffrage turned out to be a farce, sellers of books critical of the Chinese government were suspectedly abducted to the mainland, and opposition lawmakers were disqualified from office pursuant to a retrospective re-interpretation of the city’s mini-constitution issued by the standing committee of China’s congress. The political controversies surrounding such events have left Hongkongers polarised and distrustful of one another. For many, nostalgia means looking back to a time when Hong Kong was a freer and kinder place.

In the face of disillusionment and desperation, the shape of protest has also changed. Sunday’s protest hearkened back to a time when Hongkongers prided themselves on making their voices heard simply by peacefully marching in large numbers. Yet the government’s dismissive and apathetic response reinforced the widespread conviction that those days are now past. On Wednesday 12 June, striking protestors blocked roads and surrounded the Legislative Council in order to prevent the scheduled second reading of the extradition bill. The police met them with tear gas and rubber bullets, which they used with such liberality and carelessness that Amnesty International has condemned such use as ‘excessive force’. Welcome to Hong Kong in 2019.

These scenes are reminiscent of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a 79-day mass civil disobedience movement in which protestors blocked the streets of Hong Kong’s core business districts in a bid for genuine universal suffrage. Then, we had hopes of standing firm against the might of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. We stood with each other in solidarity, and our friends from abroad stood with us. We disagreed more and more over tactics, over objectives, over visions, and distanced ourselves from each other. In the end, the movement failed. All this we remember.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool. It helps us to recognise what we cherish and gives us hope for the future. It binds us together through our shared experiences which give us a set of values and a store of collective wisdom that illuminate the way forward. We remember the 2003 march: it teaches us that despite the current political fragmentation and widespread pessimism, we can still unite around a worthy cause. We remember the 2014 Umbrella Movement: it showed us what full-fledged civic participation could look like. ‘WE WILL BE BACK,’ proclaimed the banners and the stickers and the drawings on the roads in 2014. Today, protestors draw on these lessons, and return more determined than ever.

But beware: sentimentality glorifies the past and distorts the present. Some Hongkongers wish Hong Kong would return to colonial rule – even teenagers who have never experienced it. The same danger threatens those who look back on the movements of 2003 and 2014 with nostalgia. Those who remember 2003 perhaps harboured a silent hope that the protests on Sunday would lead to a repetition of the past success; as circumstances are different today, such a longing would have been misleading. The youths who remember 2014 might delight in being back in action; but sentimentality may well betray them. The point is not to be back. It is to succeed.

So, we must face the present inspired but not enslaved by the past.  Protestors in 2019 are ready to do more than turn up, follow a predestined route, shout some slogans, and go home. Some of them are prepared to further the struggle, and others are prepared to support them. The march on Sunday is only the beginning.

However, for us Hongkongers studying abroad, our feelings now are better characterised by the older meaning of ‘nostalgia’. For all the hours we spend watching live streams from local media, all the declarations and petitions we sign, nothing can be as impactful as being in Hong Kong in person; nothing can cure the helplessness and distress that we feel. But for all the uncertainty surrounding the bill, the protestors and the future of our city, one thing is certain.

We are back, and we will not go down without a fight.

Addendum: On Saturday 15 June, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the government would temporarily delay the second reading of the bill. She also said the bill would not be retracted.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Student Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, SCR, Staff. Current Executive Editors: Fanxi Liu, Samanwita Sen, Monim Wains and Martin Yip

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