Sunday, October 05, 2014

Hong Kong democracy debate also a question of the Chinese Diaspora

The Wall Street Journal recently published two pieces on the different responses of older generations of Hong Kongers and the youth of the city.

China’s World: The View on Protests From Old Hong Kong
A Walk to the Past: Some Veterans Remember Having a Lot Less Say in City’s Fate

In Hong Kong, a Family Divided
After Pro-Democracy Protests, a Son Faces Arguments at Home

According to a community elder in the first article, "there’s freedom to work and freedom to live. 'How can people criticize?'"

Perhaps that was enough for our parents' or grandparents' generation—but it's not enough for people coming of age today. Those who came before struggled, bled, and worked themselves to the bone to give us, their 後代, a better future.

But what does a "better future" mean? It means we have an opportunity to become ourselves. We have a choice of being anything we want to be—doctors and lawyers, artists and designers, or even politicians and social activists. To love whomever we want to love. To lead a life that matches our principles and values and our vision for society.

Their struggle was, in large part, about economic security—something elusive when they were growing up in developing country (literally Third World) conditions. That is why so many of them chose to immigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia, or other countries in search of jobs and opportunity.

However, going abroad wasn't just an economic decision—it was also about human dignity. They worked hard to provide for us, not just so we could live comfortably, but also so we could choose our own future, in a way they might not have been able to. They had to take secure jobs (hi there, engineers!) and work long hours. They had to look for stable income to support a family. They had to stay silent and not express themselves fully. They had to make the conventional and "safe" choices—often under authoritarian threat and political monitoring in Nationalist-ruled Taiwan, or colonial disdain in British-ruled Hong Kong, or immense social pressure in LKY's Singapore, or outright persecution in Maoist China. All this just to live in peace and safety, and have a shot at life.

Now, because of their struggle and sacrifice, we-the-next-generation have the ability to make different choices.

These debates about democracy, activism and social change are not only an issue among Hong Kong's citizenry, though they are literally at the front lines of battle. These debates are manifested between Chinese generations— old and young, parent and child, foreign and native-born—all around the world. It is the ongoing transition from traditional culture to modernity, the ever-present question of the Diaspora, of immigrant families, of pioneering generations, whether in the 19th century, or the 20th, or the 21st.

It is why all of us in the Diaspora must watch what happens in Hong Kong. It is why we should care about the fate of Taiwan's democracy, or whether Singapore fully liberalizes and empowers its opposition. It's why we must be concerned with what happens in China itself. In every Sinic community around the world, the same questions resonate. These struggles and negotiations happen on a daily basis, in the family unit, but also in society more broadly.

Today, I sincerely believe that our parents support us in working for and achieving a better future, because we all ought to have the right to choose.

It's not just about choosing political leadership, though that might be part of the equation. It's about the right to go to the streets. The right to ask for change. It's about having greater agency over the life we wish to live. That right was not available to them. Some would prefer to call this ability to choose a "privilege"—something belonging only to the wealthy or the connected, to those who need not fear social repercussions. However, just because this right was denied to our parents and grandparents does not diminish its worth. It means we ought to cherish it all the more.

Their gift to us was to open a door, to point us toward something different: a world that is less subject to social pressure or familial coercion or political suppression. A world that is freer and truer, that is more benevolent and caring. A world that lets us be who we wish to be.

In our own ways, whether through street protest, or volunteering in the community; through the creation of literature and art, or through political engagement and voting, we can move our society toward that dream. It is not just for us; it is for our 後代 too.

We've been given the opportunity to look upon a better future. We would be remiss not to struggle for it.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Rhetoric & Reframing

In Larry Diamond's TIME magazine article about the peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong, he notes that:
"The mammoth protests that have gripped Hong Kong for the past several days have implications far beyond this Special Administrative Region of more than 7 million people ... the youth-led demonstrators have posed the most serious challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party since the massacre in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago."
As momentous and unprecedented as these events are, if the goal is to create a framework for negotiations that helps to reach a democratic resolution without the use of force, I wonder if it is helpful to be using cataclysmic terms that presage the end of the Communist Party. (Maybe that fear is precisely why they don't want Hong Kong to be free?)

Is it possible to reach a more desirable outcome if we lower the stakes and start calling this a "local issue" or a "small thing" with few implications for the CCP? If Hong Kong's fate—in this particular pitched battle, or in general—is seen as "not such a big deal," not an existential threat, then it will be easier for Xi to back down. He will not have to take a hard line because it's ostensibly small potatoes—something on the margin that people shouldn't pay too much attention to.

Of course, the outcome in Hong Kong is a deeply meaningful issue, and there will obviously be implications for liberalization on the Mainland. But could there be some utility to backing off the rhetoric of "make-or-break", "pivot-point", "history in the making" and reframing this as a kind of "business as usual"? Then Xi Jinping will have more space to maneuver. He can grant concessions without seeming weak. He can back down and negotiate without seeming to capitulate to a fundamental threat to the CCP.

On the other hand, diminishing or removing the spotlight from Hong Kong could simply be an invitation for the Beijing (and its HK proxies) to crush the demonstrations by force. Beyond the immense courage, determined conviction, and sheer decency shown by the protestors, there is an additional protective halo of international media coverage, which will amplify the business and economic costs for Beijing should it resort violence.

Finally, another random thought is that while the CCP and its shock troops People's Armed Police may have practiced intensely for Tiananmen-style demonstrations in China itself, all that preparation and war-gaming goes out the window when the massive protests are taking place in Hong Kong—a society with free speech and free press, and importantly, people used to regularly taking to the streets,to assemble in an orderly fashion and express their dissatisfaction with poor governance.


Also check out Prof. Diamond's video remarks about the democracy movement, including messages directly addressed to the people of Hong Kong and to democrats worldwide:

Remarks on Hong Kong's Pro-Democracy Movement (source)

(Excerpt) Message to People in Hong Kong and Democrats Worldwide (source)

The Goddess Returns

Do you know why a 17-year-old boy can rattle Beijing? Because the force of truth flows behind his words. Because his cause is just, so he can rally the public. Because when he speaks, he gives voice to an entire generation that believes in democracy and universal suffrage—that basic human rights are fundamental values that cannot be bought or sold.

Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old student activist, has been at the center of the democracy movement
that has rattled the Chinese government’s hold on this city. (Source: Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Sixty-year-old men in Zhongnanhai are quaking because of a child. They call him radical, crazed, deranged, extremist. In their flurry of condemnation, they fail to see the walls of calm, peaceable, everyday people who stand up beside him, coalescing into a broad tidal wave of humanity.

These old, tired, brittle men stand atop the fearsome machinery of state control. They threaten violence—wield brutal power. Yet they fear today the goddess of victory, carried aloft by wings of truth.

Oh this goddess! She wears the cloak of democracy and raises the shield of freedom. Her hair shines with human solidarity; her eyes become beacons of liberation.

Oh this goddess!—who bears the torch of sincere and idealistic hope, blazing forth the memories of history, eliciting our most humble sense of gratitude.

Welcome back, goddess! You had gone for 25 years, but we are glad to see you astride the earth once more. Protect our brothers and sisters. Ferry them to freedom and safety. Let them and their democratic dreams take flight.