We Are All Hongkongers
by Sara Tung
31 August 2019
On 12 September 2001, the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the French newspaper Le Monde carried on its front page the headline “Nous sommes tous Américains”. We are all Americans.
In the summer of 2019, we are all Hongkongers.
When the protests against the extradition bill broke out in early June, I didn’t believe it was my fight. I am an American-born Chinese. Although I spent many months in Hong Kong in the 1980s and lived there in the 1990s, unlike so many other people, I never fell in love with the city. Hong Kong society had always seemed too money-oriented, too status-conscious, and too unequal, perhaps because generations of refugees had had to struggle to survive there. And, with 1997 approaching, people had become increasingly fatalistic about Hong Kong’s imminent takeover by China. I wanted to leave before then, so I did.
Obviously, I had not fully appreciated this great city. Its openness, its cosmopolitan multicultural identity, its sophistication, its prosperity—and its toughness—have all come about through the contributions of the refugees, natives and expats who have called Hong Kong home. Working under British rule of law and guarantee of civil liberties, Hongkongers created a world-class city out of what was once a fishing village.
Now this society built by refugees struggles for its own survival. And, in the past few months, I realised that the protests against extradition are my fight. Like the people of Hong Kong, my family and I have faced repression by the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, Hong Kong served as a refuge for my grandmother, my mother and me when each of us was forced to leave China.
Many Hongkongers hoped that China would honour the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law, only to see their city increasingly stripped of its freedoms. Today, millions of people in Hong Kong, unwilling to be victims, are united in protest as next-generation revolutionaries fighting to preserve their unique identity and way of life. In so doing, they are fighting for all of us who have passed through or lived in this great city or aspired to Hong Kong’s values.
1949: COMMUNIST BANDITS
In 1949, as the People’s Liberation Army completed its takeover of mainland China, Hong Kong figured prominently in my family’s plans as they prepared to flee.
When the end came, my maternal grandfather, a Kuomintang (KMT) general, thought of staying on the mainland. He had joined the army at 16, risen to the rank of lieutenant general at 32, and served as commander along the Yangtze River during eight years of war with Japan. Tired of KMT corruption and unwilling to fight his countrymen in a civil war, he had declined an assignment to be commander of Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin, opting instead to head a military academy in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province. Now that the fighting was over, my grandfather could return to his ancestral village in Guangxi Province for good.
Ultimately, my grandmother convinced him to leave China by threatening to go without him. My grandparents flew to Taipei, taking only my two oldest uncles. My grandmother then flew to Hong Kong to get relatives to return to laojia to negotiate the release of my great-grandmother and my five other uncles and aunts and bring them to Hong Kong. Before my grandmother returned to Taiwan with her children, she bought a house in Wong Tai Sin for her eldest, my mother, to stay in—if she made it out of the mainland.
That spring, my mother, then 18, had stayed on in Shanghai, well after my grandmother had ordered her to leave and join the family in Guiyang, where my grandfather was posted. My mom was enjoying life in what was then the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. Her high school and university friends insisted that communism offered great hope for China, especially against the corruption and bankrupt practices of the KMT. They looked forward to welcoming the victorious “people’s army” when it marched into Shanghai.
When my grandmother cut off all funds, however, my mother had no choice but to leave her life in Shanghai behind, zigzagging her way across China to reach Hong Kong. From Shanghai, she crossed four provinces to arrive in Guiyang in the southwest, only to find the rest of her family gone. Following instructions left by my grandmother, she then crossed two more provinces to the southeast, before arriving in Hong Kong, nearly a month after leaving Shanghai.
My mother stayed in Hong Kong for over a year, hoping to somehow get back to Shanghai and her friends and be part of the new China. Finally, when my grandmother again cut off funds and sold the house in Wong Tai Sin, my mom was forced to join her family in Taiwan.
Back in laojia, my great-grandmother, however, had refused to leave her home and her vast landholdings in Guangxi. The Japanese had left her alone, and, she reasoned, the communists would, too.
On the other side of my family, my father, who was descended from landowning peasants, saw his father taken away by communists when he was eight, never to be seen again. Afterwards, when his family became poor, his older brother, also a Kuomintang general, took him under his wing and put him through school. Sometime in 1949, my father fled with this brother from Fuzhou to Taipei, leaving behind their mother and six brothers in their ancestral village in Fujian province.
My parents later met in Taipei in the 1950s, emigrated to the United States soon after and married. They graduated from university, built successful careers, bought a home, and sent their three children to university—living the American dream.
When I was growing up, my mother, who had toyed with communism in her youth, grew to hate it almost as much as my grandmother, who always referred to communists as gongfei—communist bandits. My father, on the other hand, glorified the communists for having unified China, even though they had killed his father.
Decades later, during their first visit back to China in 1983, my parents learned the fate of family members who had stayed behind. After the officials responsible for the release of my mother’s siblings had been executed, her grandmother was starved, put in a bamboo cage, and thrown around until she died from the trauma.
Five of my father’s six brothers, all but one of them KMT officers, were executed, died in prison or committed suicide. His mother was starved to death. Only one brother, a farmer, was allowed to live.
PUBLIC SECURITY BUREAU, OR WHY ANTI-EXTRADITION
I understand why the people of Hong Kong would unite in opposition to the proposed extradition bill. No one would want to face charges in China under the Communist Party’s legal system, as I did in 1985.
I had grown up with stories about China from my parents, who had vastly different backgrounds and views about Communism. In university, I studied under a professor who idealised the early Chinese Communist Party. His best lectures were about the Long March in 1935-36 and the incredible odds the People’s Liberation Army had faced to emerge victorious against the corrupt Kuomintang.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Marx’s famous dictum was the guiding principle of the early Chinese Communist Party.
In the early 1980s, China was beginning to open up to the world. I wanted to see what the country was really like, especially with all the conflicting information I had received. After graduation and a student tour of China in 1982, I returned the following year to teach English at Shanghai Jiaotong University, where I taught brilliant students training to be future leaders. Everyone, not just students, however, wanted to learn about the outside world and move on from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. It was an exciting time to be in China, as people were hopeful about the country’s future and eager to contribute to its development. Foreign companies were starting to set up offices in Shanghai. A year and a half later, I became the first locally hired professional for IBM there.
In June 1985, six weeks into my job, I was called into the Gong An Ju, or Public Security Bureau, for what I thought was a routine visa matter. Instead, I was questioned several times over a two-week period about my activities, my family, my boyfriend and friends in Shanghai, and finally IBM’s business in China. First, a smug, young male officer named Chen interrogated me. Two days later, he was joined by a balding, middle-aged officer with a slight paunch. Then the balding officer and a middle-aged female officer in cat-eye glasses played good cop, bad cop. Finally, young Chen returned for the final week.
At first, I was defiant. Then I was told I had violated the law—apparently, I did not have the appropriate visa—and would be subject to a fine or imprisonment. My passport was taken so I could not flee the country, and I was asked to write an essay—essentially a self-criticism—upon which my punishment would be determined. After submitting my essay, however, I was required to return for more questioning. After the next session, I was asked to return again. This pattern was repeated without any indication of when the matter would be resolved. My colleagues, worried I would disappear in the middle of the night, offered to stay with me around the clock. I declined their offer. Alone at night, however, I wondered how long this might go on. I wanted nothing more than to resume my normal, otherwise happy life. The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, and the Embassy in Beijing, advised that I go along with the questioning and continued to monitor the situation. Soon everyone in the diplomatic community knew about my predicament.
At the beginning of week two, questioning turned to IBM, and I realised this was about something bigger than me. Although, as a new hire, I knew next to nothing, I spun narratives around what I thought my interrogators wanted to hear. Ultimately IBM’s regional personnel director flew in from Tokyo headquarters to meet with the Public Security Bureau. That Friday, I was told I would be fined a nominal amount and the matter would be resolved. However, I would need to leave China until my “papers were in order”. I was being expelled from China, a country that had been my home for nearly two years, for reasons that were never made known. My visa issue, a matter for which IBM was responsible, was merely a pretext.
I spent the next three months in Hong Kong attending a training course, then working out of the IBM office there. I awaited word about a possible return date, if any, to Shanghai. At times I wondered if I should return to China, go back to my family in Los Angeles or build a new life in Hong Kong, where I was safe, visited by many friends from China and befriended by other young people. But Shanghai still felt like home, even after what had happened.
One day in September, the secretary at IBM in Shanghai informed me I could return. IBM and the government of Shanghai had somehow reached an agreement, and the matter of my employment, residency and criminal offence had all been resolved—though no one ever explained why I had been detained. I returned to Shanghai in time to attend the grand opening of the new IBM office, to which the mayor, Jiang Zemin (China’s future president), his vice-mayors and representatives of many foreign corporations had been invited.
Life then returned to normal, but, as it turned out, only for three months. At the end of 1985, IBM closed the Shanghai office, and I, along with other foreign staff, were transferred to the office in Beijing. I stayed with IBM—and in China—for another year and a half—without ever getting a proper employment visa.
For a while, I believed my experience with the Gong An Ju was an aberration, one I attributed to growing pains and Shanghai’s and foreign companies’ inexperience in doing business with one another. It was highly unusual then for a foreigner to undergo such treatment. And, yet, there was a dark history to my interrogations, too. The charges against me, the threats of imprisonment, the requirement to write a self-criticism – these instruments of intimidation and coercion had been widely used during the Cultural Revolution, as well as in the Chinese criminal justice system generally. I realised, too, that I was chosen out of the IBM staff because I was junior and a huayi whose family had fled China. My interrogators must have thought their methods would be particularly effective on me, given what they knew of my family history.
I suspect my interrogators also believed that “we are all children of the Yellow Emperor”. I was ethnically Chinese. Therefore, regardless of my citizenship or status as a privileged foreigner, I should be subject to the same treatment and conditions as all Chinese citizens. The same principle has been applied in recent years to Chinese of foreign citizenship who have been detained in China or Hongkongers abducted in Hong Kong and elsewhere to face charges in China. And the same principle could be applied should the bill for extradition become law. This is why the people of Hong Kong are right to protest—so such treatment will not be legally sanctioned.
Many years later I realised I would never really forget what had happened. The memories I thought I had buried would keep coming back.
In 1999, I met a foreign journalist who had been arrested in China for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was held for a week, beaten and put through a sham trial. Finally, after convincing the local authorities he was not a spy, he was expelled and banned from China.
Three days later, I was walking with my cousin and my sister in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. My cousin made a small joke about me and began laughing.
I suddenly snapped and yelled, “I want to go home! I want to go home!”
Back in my apartment, I sobbed for what felt like hours. Everything was dark all around me. I did not understand why I was in such a state and worried I was losing my mind.
After an hour or two, images of my interrogators appeared to me. There were four of them—the smug young male officer, whom I was reminded of by my cousin’s laughter, as well as the balding middle-aged man, the middle-aged woman in cat-eye glasses and a fourth who looked like a phantom.
My interrogators had come back for the first of many unannounced visits. The impact of the Chinese criminal justice system—even my little brush with it—would stay with me.
Four years after my run in with the Public Security Bureau, it looked as though the phenomenon of China opening and closing would repeat itself, albeit on a national scale, with Tiananmen.
In the spring of 1989, I was a first-year student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. I was not completely done with China and decided that Hong Kong would be my next home, so I lined up an internship with Jardine Fleming for the summer. That April, the death of General Secretary Hu Yaobang served as a pretext for Beijing’s university students to fill Tiananmen Square, launching their demonstrations for greater openness, reform and democracy. For six weeks, peaceful protests dazzled in their scale and breadth. Tiananmen Square was occupied not only by students and workers but also intellectuals, teachers, journalists from People’s Daily, even the police. The organisation by the students of the square reflected the kind of government they believed China should aspire to. Everyone played a role in this movement. Train and bus conductors let students ride for free. Food vendors gave away their wares. After martial law was declared, the people of Beijing flocked to the square and pleaded with soldiers to leave the city or at least put down their weapons.
The demonstrations were the natural culmination of a decade of opening. A big part of me wished I had not left China and could join friends in Beijing who skipped work or classes to visit the square regularly to support the students, workers and other demonstrators.
Then, in the early morning hours of June 4, the massacre happened.
Although troops had occupied Beijing since May 20, many of us never believed the People’s Liberation Army would attack its own people. During final exam week, my mind was on the soldiers, tanks and the dead and wounded that filled the newspapers and TV screens. In shock, I rushed to find out if everyone I knew was safe.
How was it possible that China, while opening to the world, would suddenly decide to kill its own children, who simply wanted what was best for the country?
I sought out my old professor, who agreed to take part in a televised public forum at the university. He explained to everyone that the Chinese leadership, who had gone through the Japanese occupation, the Civil War and the Cultural Revolution, among other campaigns, had acted out of fear of luan, or chaos.
Two weeks later, I was in Hong Kong for my internship, still numb. In the meantime, friends had been evacuated from China and brought with them their eyewitness accounts of what had happened.
When shots were fired in Tiananmen Square, Peter saved the life of an injured journalist by carrying him to a rickshaw driver, then rode thirty kilometres himself in a bicycle rickshaw, reaching the airport in time to be evacuated with other foreigners. After checking into their room at a tourist hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, his girlfriend tried to wash his bloodstained shirt in the bathroom sink.
As we waited for tea in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, Peter, still dressed in a t-shirt and shorts his girlfriend had carried in her daypack, looked around and said, “Can you imagine what this place will be like when the Chinese take over? They’ll be spitting on the carpets.”
That summer, all of Hong Kong mourned the tragedy. One million people, dressed in black, protested the massacre. My community in Hong Kong was a mix of finance types I had met through work, old friends now living in Hong Kong and friends who had been evacuated from China—all united in our collective grief. The sense of connection between us and the rest of Hong Kong was palpable. I could not walk far in Central without running into someone I knew, even vaguely, without feeling as though I was meeting a true comrade. Each of us would go about our daily lives, working, then socialising at drinks or dinner parties or junk cruises, acting as if things were normal. It was too difficult to talk about what had happened. Instead we did our best to kill the pain.
At the same time, Hong Kong felt like the Casablanca of Asia, with people trying to figure out their futures while the larger conflict played out on the mainland. Hong Kong natives contemplated what communist rule might be like or their chances of getting another passport, if they didn’t already have one. Expats wondered how long they might stay in the British Crown Colony, with eight years left before the handover. And the most recent group of refugees to arrive—foreigners evacuated from China—wondered when it would be safe to return to the mainland, or alternatively if they should go back to their home countries or to a third country.
The giant up north was starting to leave its footprint on Hong Kong, and the clock had begun ticking.
In August, two months after Tiananmen, I befriended a journalist who had been expelled from China. When Andrew and I met in Lan Kwai Fong, he hung his head, seemingly in pain over the crushing of the pro-democracy movement. Andrew was like a mirror for me, reflecting the feelings I could not face. When I thanked him for his contributions, Andrew said he had been an observer, not a participant. But, to me he was a fellow traveller, someone who had gotten involved with China and had suffered for it. Andrew had also been through the Gong An Ju. We were, therefore, partners in crime and understood each other when we talked about China.
In September, three months after Tiananmen, I returned to China.
Darkness had fallen on the motherland as the government continued its crackdown, pursuing anyone connected with pro-democracy, “counter-revolutionary” activities. Anyone suspected of being an instigator was hunted. Protest leaders who had not been killed or imprisoned went on the run. So many groups had participated in the demonstrations. A hotline was set up, and the laobaixing were encouraged to report on family members, co-workers, neighbours—in short, on each other.
I sat up late with an Australian friend in Shanghai as we waited for a call from his fiancée, a teacher who had gone into hiding after she had been recorded exhorting her students to protest. When I returned to Shanghai Jiaotong University, where I’d taught, I was relieved to find out that my old students were out of the country in graduate school. Among former Chinese colleagues at IBM, everyone worried about their future under the ongoing crackdown, families split over opposing views on the massacre, and one took his own life.
Everyone in China remained paralysed in this climate of fear. The rest of us with ties to the country just went on with our lives, trying to forget.
In early 2019, nearly 30 years after Tiananmen, I met Andrew again at one of his speaking engagements in the San Francisco Bay Area. After he finished his remarks on China, I approached him, and after a moment of surprise, we embraced, happy to see each other again after so many years.
Andrew and I caught up briefly. We were both writing, though Andrew was no longer writing about China.
“I hate China,” he said. “They won’t let me back in.”
The love-hate relationship had come full circle.
“Do you remember how we met?” I asked.
“Sure.” Then he said, “I took you to a river once. We went swimming. Do you remember?”
“And you also took me to a beautiful beach,” I said. “I had to meet you somewhere, but I was afraid of getting lost, so you told me to go north, toward China.”
Our exchange continued for a little while longer before the event ended, and we agreed to reconnect later.
In the weeks that followed, I had a strange reaction to meeting Andrew again. For a while, I kept seeing images of him doubled over, as if he were being interrogated again and was asked the same questions over and over.
“What are you doing in China?”
“Who are you working for?”
Then, for the next few weeks, I cried every morning over all that was lost, the China that had been our home and our hopes for the country.
2019: LIBERATE HONG KONG, REVOLUTION OF OUR TIMES
On 9 June 2019, less than a week after the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, one million people take to the streets of Hong Kong in outrage against a proposed extradition bill. It is like the demonstrations in 1989 all over again.
Seven days later, two million people clog major arteries of Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Admiralty for miles on end, bearing larger-than-life banners with characters that say “No China Extradition” or “Free Hong Kong”, just like those of 30 years ago calling for democracy. Hong Kong people, with access to resources and their own creativity, outdo themselves. A similar banner will appear on the face of Lion Rock. At month’s end, members of this cosmopolitan society will crowdfund HK$5.5 million to promote their cause in full-page ads in major international newspapers during the G20 summit.
During these protests, young people occupy the front lines, as they did in Beijing. Many are still children. But their youth belies their sophisticated methods. Dressed in improvised armour—hard hats, goggles, masks, cellophane and umbrellas—they prepare to face riot police. Makeshift barriers, bricks and bottles meet with police tear gas—more than 1,800 canisters and counting—and rubber bullets. Hand signals and Telegram groups round out their arsenal.
The earnestness of many protesters is seen in their actions. While destroying symbols of oppression in the Legislative Council chambers, protesters leave coins to pay for cans of soda. A bespectacled teenager places a traffic cone over a tear gas canister, before dousing it with water. It is a battle between many Davids against the giant Goliath, with kids using homemade tools.
“Be Water” is to today’s protesters what Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” was to the activists of 1989. It is, however, more hopeful and perhaps more effective. Faced with overwhelming power, protesters must adapt to any situation.
Yet, how is it possible that children as young as 12 and 14 have been arrested? Will they be subject to 10 years in prison, charged as rioters for protesting to save Hong Kong’s freedoms?
Not only young protesters improvise. As in Beijing, where art students sculpted the Goddess of Democracy and medical students treated hunger strikers, in Hong Kong, people from all walks of life participate and apply their trades when possible. A Cathay Pacific pilot introduces his passengers on a Tokyo-to-Hong Kong flight to the peaceful protest at the airport, as well as the now ubiquitous chant, “Hongkongers, add oil!” Lawyers, civil servants, airport personnel, medical staff, teachers and accountants all come out to protest, just like the many segments of society that demonstrated in China.
People leave fare cards and coins at MTR turnstiles so protesters can ride without having to pay or be identified. Thirty years ago, students from all over China travelled for free to join the demonstrations in Beijing. Indeed, many of the protests are orchestrated by the young, as were those in Tiananmen Square. In the Hong Kong protests, everyone is assigned a task, and litter is collected afterwards. However, unlike 1989 and the Umbrella Movement of five years ago, no one is in charge, though unity is a guiding principle.
Mothers organise to lambast Carrie Lam’s reference to protesters as spoiled children. The elderly and the middle-aged will come out to protect the children, just as they did in Tiananmen Square.
It is not all exhilarating, however. From bricks and bottles, protesters turn to bamboo sticks and Molotov cocktails, not to mention the destruction of the Legislative Council chamber in July. The frustration of the protesters at not being heard leads to violence that is understandable but worrisome. The response of the police, triads and other thugs and possibly Beijing itself is definitely not like water. Casualties among protesters mount as a woman is blinded by a rubber bullet, and others are attacked by masked men with sticks, baseball bats and cleavers. Hong Kong police, once known as “Asia’s finest”, are now condemned for their brutality.
In 1989, no one believed that the soldiers would actually shoot their own people.
Weeks later, in early August, such protests spread throughout Hong Kong, just as protests spread to many cities in China in 1989. A general strike paralyses the city as public transport and flights are disrupted, roadways blocked and shopping malls and other urban centres shut down. Protesters have borrowed from the communist playbook, engaging workers throughout Hong Kong.
There are moments of ingenuity and beauty. Lennon walls and human chains evoke past movements in Eastern Europe, just as the Goddess of Democracy took its inspiration from America. Protest art and literature flourish.
The occupation of the airport in mid-August marks another turning point. The police and protesters face off as the airport is completely shut down. A gun is drawn. In another sign of earnestness, protesters later apologise for the inconvenience to travellers and ask for forgiveness.
The following weekend, in a great show of strength, 1.7 million Hongkongers demonstrate peacefully.
More strife follows, however. Police fire a warning shot into the air. Next weekend, water cannons are used.
Meanwhile, Beijing increasingly shows its heavy hand. In typical rhetoric, protesters are labelled terrorists, just as they were called counter-revolutionaries during the Tiananmen crackdown. This popular uprising is attributed to the work of “black hands.” Troop movements are among many ominous signs about the possible use of force.
Ahead of the August 31 anniversary, the police round up dozens of high profile activists and legislators with limited roles in the current protests, following corporate witch-hunts by Cathay Pacific and other multinationals. Already, more than 5,000 people have been arrested. It is like Tiananmen all over again—killing the chickens to scare the monkeys, but so far without the blood.
Carrie Lam, like Li Peng, appears to be the front person for the one(s) really pulling the strings. She does nothing without Beijing’s approval. Only, she hardly appears in public, letting the police confront the protesters. One country, two systems?
No compromise, reject all demands. Possible invocation of emergency powers would be like martial law 30 years ago, but the order will be given by a fashionably dressed, 62-year-old Cambridge-educated Hong Kong woman who speaks British-accented English and wears Ferragamo pumps.
Like many Hongkongers, I may not always agree with the protesters’ methods, but no one can impugn their courage or determination. I would never have imagined that this city would fight with such unity and dignity.
In China, the communist victory is called jiefang to honour the liberation of the motherland from the corrupt Kuomintang by the revolutionary heroes of 1949.
As for Hong Kong in 2019, who are the revolutionaries and who are the representatives of the corrupt, old order?
During Tiananmen, demonstrators called for a society to which they aspired; whereas, Hongkongers act to save their society that is being ruined, fighting back against the Chinese Communist Party, which is communist in name only. Thus, Hongkongers set an example for all of us as we face a world that has become increasingly fascistic.
While I cannot help but support Hongkongers, I also cannot help but worry. Three months into this war of attrition, will conviction alone sustain these warriors? How much more will Hong Kong lose?
“If we burn, you burn with us.”
What will Hong Kong be like when I see it again? Will it be anything like the city I once knew?
How to cite: Tung, Sara. “We Are All Hongkongers.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 3 Sept. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/09/03/hongkongers/.
Photograph © Oliver Farry.
Sara Tung was published in Cha‘s “Tiananmen Thirty Years On” feature. She studied creative writing at Stanford University, where she earned degrees in history and business. Raised in Los Angeles, she spent nine years in China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. After teaching English at Shanghai Jiaotong University, Sara worked for IBM China, Booz Allen and Hamilton and Hutchison Whampoa. She also consulted to nonprofits in Bali and the San Francisco Bay Area. Most recently, Sara administered and mentored students in international policy, management and public service programs at Stanford. She is currently working on a novel about China.