Hong Kong Protest Family Politics

Rachel Lietzow speaking at Hong Kong event, "A Summer of Protests"
(Photo: Rachel Lietzow speaking at “A Summer of Protests”
Credit: School of Global Policy and Strategy) 

On October 10, the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy hosted an event titled “A Summer of Protests.” The talk featured analysis and perspective on the developments in Hong Kong from a variety of experts and those with firsthand experience. Rachel Lietzow spoke on the panel and offers her perspective here for China Focus. 

I would not be here today if not for the anxiety-inducing, politically tense atmosphere of 1989 China.

After the Chinese government deployed the People’s Liberation Army in a bloody crackdown against student-led demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, its credibility in the eyes of the Hong Kong population was partially—if not entirely—lost. 

Hong Kong would be returned to the motherland within eight years. With examples of China’s conduct in the Tiananmen Square Massacre as well as party-led disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, many feared that China would not honor the “One Country, Two Systems” blueprint and rights delineated in the Basic Law. This uncertainty was shared by my grandparents—both Hong Kongers. Under these circumstances, they allowed my mother to leave the country and enter the United States on a student visa. Her immigration story shows that—while no one truly knew how Hong Kong’s future would play out—common people tend to believe that the worst of history could repeat itself. 

Why do Hong Kongers have the political views that they do?

While I was born and raised in America, I happened to be in Hong Kong visiting extended family this summer, just in time to witness the first month of mass demonstrations. My family is spread out across the entire range of the political spectrum. For example, my cousins took part in many of the protests and prayer events advocating for a freer Hong Kong. With the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) under Chairman Xi Jinping cracking down on religion throughout the Mainland—forcing Xinjiang Uighurs and other Muslim minorities into detainment camps, Sinicizing Tibetan Buddhism, closing churches and removing Bibles from e-commerce platforms—the extradition bill created a unique concern for religious Hong Kongers, many of whom feared arbitrary arrest and unfair trial due to their faith. 

My participating cousins are in their late teens and twenties. Aside from being representative of the overall “反送中” (fan song zhong, anti-extradition) movement in regards to age demographic, they also share two primary stressors facing the majority of Hong Kong youth: sky-high housing rates and wages that are far from catching up. They may never be able to afford a place to live independently, especially after their parents’ generation was already battered and drained by the prices. Mainland developers, consumers, and Hong Kong tycoons who have been given free reign by the Hong Kong government bear a large portion of the responsibility for driving common people out of the market. The second concern has driven no small number of Hong Kong youth to mental illness and even suicide: notoriously difficult college entrance exams which essentially determine their fate to comparatively low wages. Thus, before the emergence of the extradition bill, Hong Kong was already a “pressure cooker,” to borrow from the words of economist Andy Xie. 

With the future of Hong Kong up in the air, the young people will be the ones to live with the consequences. Frustration, hopelessness, and social immobility are non-political factors that have become political this summer. In fact, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam brought the housing issue to the forefront in her annual policy address, attempting to appease young protesters while steering clear of their political requests. This seems to be a case of “too little, too late.” Misconstruing civic engagement as solely a response to socio-economic issues is not a new theme—the CPC newspaper China Daily labels protesters as “radical youths” and “impulsive and reckless young people unhappy with social inequality.” Other Mainland outlets and the government portray Hong Kong demonstrators in a similar light.

On the opposite end, one of my uncles—whose daughter was among the protesters—is a policeman. At the onset, the police force simply fulfilled the role of maintaining order during demonstrations. However, as clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent, and riot police have been accused numerous times of police brutality, the protests are no longer only anti-extradition. Notable incidents include the blinding of an Indonesian journalist by a police rubber bullet and the excessive use of tear gas, even in constrained indoor spaces such as the Kwai Fong MTR station. With the chants “黑社會”(heishehui mafia) and “黑警”(heijing gangster police), protests are becoming more intensely anti-police and anti-Chinese establishment. This has posed a challenge for my uncle, who must balance clashing career and familial obligations. 

Finally, my grandparents make up what many in Hong Kong have labeled as the “silent majority.” Whether or not this group truly makes up the majority of public opinion remains contested. To focus on what is generally agreed upon: they are pro-law, pro-status quo, and pro-Chinese government. My grandfather spent his childhood on a fishing boat, undergoing financial uncertainty and exceedingly limited education. My grandmother was adopted and grew up with hard labor. She had only two months of formal schooling and frequently worried about food insecurity. Having lived in an era where many of today’s commonplace opportunities would have been considered unimaginable, it comes as no surprise that many Hong Kong senior citizens—including my grandparents—view the protesters as entitled, privileged, and dependent youth. 

My family’s diverse political views are a simplified microcosm of Hong Kong’s current atmosphere. The city faces generational disunity due to age and role-based fundamental disagreements regarding what Hong Kong’s future should look like. From a political standpoint, the future of Hong Kong looks bleak. 

Prospects for Peace

All recent developments suggest that the Hong Kong government—under the pressure of Beijing—has chosen to swing in the direction of authoritarianism. As of October 4, Chief Executive Lam invoked the emergency regulations ordinance from Hong Kong’s colonial period to ban masks from being worn in protests. Referring to Lam’s mask ban during the panel discussion, UC San Diego Professor of Political Economy, Dr. Victor Shih, noted that by evoking the emergency ordinance the Hong Kong government was preferring British law to Chinese law. Instead of abiding by the Basic Law adopted by the Chinese National People’s Congress in 1990, the Hong Kong government has decided to borrow from the British law written in 1922 and reserved for “emergencies.” Equally disturbing is the NBA-China incident and the Chinese state’s decision to not only condemn the Houston Rockets general manager’s tweet, but even pull the Rockets game from being aired on state media television. 

The latest development is perhaps the most chilling of all, as matters grow complex with the US House of Representatives siding with the Hong Kong protesters. In response to the House passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, China issued a stern warning and accused the United States of meddling in its domestic affairs. Chairman Xi took a hardline approach with the following words, “Any attempt to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.” With the United States and China embroiled in the Trade War, Hong Kong can easily get caught in the middle. The need to maintain a strong national image for domestic public approval ties Chairman Xi’s hands: he cannot buckle on both US trade and Hong Kong protests. Given the Hong Kong government’s inability to put out the fire, the opportunity for everything to hang delicately in balance for China and Hong Kong may have already expired. 

(Image: Anti-extradition protest, 16 June, 2019, shot by Etan Liam;
The Chinese characters mean “We are not rioters.”)

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Rachel Lietzow

Rachel is a Master of Chinese Economic and Political Affairs student at UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy. Her research interests include Hong Kong-China relations, the intersection of cultural and political identity, and challenges of Chinese sustainable growth.

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