“Three Paradoxes” by William Nee

Three Paradoxes
by William Nee

As I’ve watched people demonstrate, seen videos of thugs attacking protestors, read supportive tweets and disagreed with news analysis, I’ve felt increasing torn inside about the dynamics of the Hong Kong protests.

These thoughts below add nothing of significance to the overall sociological understanding of the protest movement or the politics involved, but merely reflect how I, as one Hong Kong resident, feel about it.

A bridge-builder with no ability to bridge thoughts

For most of my professional career, I had seen myself as a “bridge-builder” between China and the United States, or Western culture. I taught in various universities in China for six years.  Standing in front of blackboards in cold winter attire in unheated classrooms in northern China, I would give renditions of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. I’d chat with students in the Literature Club I had founded, or help them with their speaking and writing skills as they prepared for the college test known as IETS, with dreams of going abroad. Through all these experiences, I developed a deep love for China, and saw the creativity and potential of each student.

Then in Hong Kong I worked at the China Labour Bulletin, one of foremost organisations building a labour movement and a strong civil society in China. In that role I helped explain the nuances of the rapid change that was under way in China to foreign audiences. Then later at Amnesty International as a China researcher, I worked to expose human rights violations against lawyers, feminists, ethnic minorities and human rights defenders.

In early June last year, millions of people peacefully took to the streets against the extradition bill, and what they saw as a back door for the flawed mainland Chinese legal system to enter Hong Kong’s legal system, with its prized rule of law. The editor of the Global Times, a Community Party-controlled tabloid, characterised this as a “Colour Revolution”.  I argued with him and others on Twitter saying that this was a profound and tragic misdiagnosis. At the time, people had a narrow goal—to not see the extradition bill passed. Unlike a typical “Colour Revolution”, which implies an overthrow of the current government and system, this was actually to preserve the integrity of the existing system.

This framing—seeing the initial stages as a foreign-backed “Colour Revolution”—was destructive, and ultimately a major policy misstep. And yet, even though I felt I could see this clearly, I couldn’t play the “bridge-building” role I had hoped.

The mainlanders most capable of avoiding a tragic outcome
were incapable of doing so

As the summer wore on, the mainland’s reaction went from uncertain—with only a few mentions of the Hong Kong protests in the mainstream press—to a full-out propaganda war against the protests. Mainlanders showing support of the protests on social media had their posts deleted and then were subsequently detained. Meanwhile, on Weibo, the Twitter-like web platform popular on the mainland, other types of posts were not deleted: people praising the police’s tough handling of the “cockroaches”. Hongkongers were characterised as high-strung mistresses or petulant teenagers who didn’t appreciate the good life their Daddy had given to them.

But there were worrying elements in Hong Kong as well. In early October 2019, a banker from mainland China was punched on the street after speaking Mandarin and saying “we’re all Chinese!”

Seeing this demonisation, this otherisation, this deliberate spreading of stereotypes felt like a slow-moving tragedy.

A tragedy, in part, because I had known so many mainlanders over the years who had sophisticated views on Hong Kong. I thought of my former boss, Han Dongfang, who had lived in Hong Kong since 1994, He knows Cantonese, knows the frustrations and hopes of people who live here, and he knows who to communicate effectively with people of the same cultural background as him. Or I remember my ex-wife, who is from the mainland.  Her grandmother was sold into slavery for a bag of beans. Her father was a Red Guard. And, although she grew up in poverty in the 1980s, she witnessed the impressive development of her country, and knew the radical transformations in circumstances and attitudes that people could experience in just one lifetime. She knew every lyric to every Beyond song – in Cantonese. And after living in Hong Kong, she spoke Cantonese well, and could easily relate to mainlanders and locals.  And I thought of many other mainlanders I knew in Hong Kong: people dedicated to human rights and understanding others.

But, in the “New Era” of Xi Jinping, an era in which the media is “surnamed Communist Party”, in an era in which positive posts about the Hong Kong protests could lead to jail, and  in an era in which a Chinese human rights lawyer who reported on the protests was detained immediately after returning to the mainland and warned not to do so, there was simply no way for the mainlanders who had the most knowledge of Hong Kong to play a decisive role in shaping the mainland debate over the protests.

And, in turn, as some people within the Hong Kong protests adopted an arguably nationalistic, or even anti-Chinese tone, and Chinese perceptions of Hong Kong hardened, I couldn’t help but remember my mainland Chinese friends—and think of what could have been in a more open society.

I’ve felt disappointment and even disgust at people
both locally and globally who were unwilling to speak out,
and yet, I’ve also been inspired by the dedication of so many

At this important time of crisis in Hong Kong, I’ve felt disappointment at those who were willing to go about daily life without doing anything. I’ve felt disappointment at those who were unwilling to speak out, even once. I’ve felt disappointment at the public intellectuals who have been unwilling to speak out against some of the more worrying tactics, and to try to keep the movement more peaceful. I’ve been disappointed with the so-called “international community” that often appears too distracted to do anything. And at times, I’ve felt deeply disappointed in myself for not doing more too.

But I’ve also been inspired.

I’ve been inspired by some lawmakers in the international community, who have taken a strong interest in Hong Kong. I’ve been inspired by all the people internationally who have stood in solidarity with Hong Kong, like the members of various PEN centres how have held readings in solidarity with PEN Hong Kong.   

I’ve been inspired by the protesters who continue to take to the streets, despite the risks. I’ve been inspired by the journalists, risking tear gas and injury to document history. I’ve been inspired by the poets turning particular incidents and the city’s mood into permanent pieces for reflection and contemplation. I’ve been inspired by average Hong Kong residents who have shown defiant creativity in posting their thoughts and hopes on Lennon Walls.

I’ve been inspired by the Hong Kong spirit to never give up.

I hope we can all keep fighting for Hong Kong, while trying to do so in an inclusive and peaceful way that reflects the best of our values and hopes.

(Photograph: William Nee read his article “Tiananmen anniversary lays bare China’s contradictory attitude towards history” at Worldwide Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (6 September 2017.)

This essay was first read at the PEN Hong Kong event Keeping Our Voices Free (21 September 2019).

William Nee is a Business and Human Rights Analyst for Amnesty International and a Vice President of PEN Hong Kong. He currently researches human rights abuses caused by multinational companies. William was formerly a China Researcher, were he carried out research on human rights in China, particularly on freedom of expression, human rights defenders, the death penalty, while monitoring the situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. William’s commentary has appeared in the Diplomat, the Hong Kong Free Press, and Open Democracy. William is on Twitter.

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