Let me begin with a clarification that may come as a surprise:

I do not support the idea of Hong Kong independence. Neither do I consider myself an activist. Though I have attended protests, I have neither advocated nor assisted in organising one. I am an observer.

Nor do I have any credentials as a radical or dissenter. I read history, a traditionally conservative subject. I am also a social conservative, and was a politically apathetic student. As my tutor would have put it, I was that annoying student who was “too good by half.” Never once have I received a detention. I detest an absence of order.

The “Democracy Wall” at Chinese University. Photo: In-Media.

Yet today in Hong Kong a once curious young man from an establishment background is presumed an activist, a radical, and a dissident. I cannot so much as open my mouth or pen an email without some people taking exception.

This has nothing to do with what it is I have to say or write, or my pronunciation or how I elucidate my point. All too often my position is judged not on what it is but what it is not.

I am not referring to those who are provocateurs by nature. People I know, educated, reasonable and by all other accounts amiable, will on the mere mention of any subject vaguely political point the accusatory finger.

“Please forgive Evan, he’s one of these young political student types.” And so recently a friend vouched for my character among acquaintances I had known almost all my life. I was outwardly forgiven and allowed to join the circle. However the eyes and the following silence suggested otherwise.

Then there was this classic I was told earlier this year by a distant relative when I asked her of her opinion of my then fiancé:

“I’ve never had any doubt about Jennifer. She’s such a sweet girl, and well mannered. It is you I’m not so sure about. All this radical protesting and politics you go in for.”

All she knew was that I was at Occupy Central on the Sunday when the police shot tear gas into the crowd, and that I write on Hong Kong. She did not know I am and have never been a member of any political party or association, and that I was at Occupy with the support of my family.

The Occupy protests. File Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

She also did not know, and continues to be blissfully unaware that my now wife once worked for a political party, with which she is still involved.

This is a common trait among certain die-hard blue ribbon, pro-establishment figures. Quick to judge and condemn, she does not want to know nor have her prejudice challenged. Needless to say, she has never read anything I have actually written. But the real point is that she does not want to either. That I have an opinion that differs from hers is in itself considered rude.

Perhaps the most disappointing prejudice directed at me is that from people who are genuinely and sincerely trying to do me a good turn. There is a local editor, for example, who for three years now insists on introducing me as an idealistic activist, or as the “Young Turk.” I have attempted to correct him at least a dozen times, to no avail.

I see nothing wrong in those who are activists — indeed, many of my good friends are, and Hong Kong is better for them — but it is just not who I am.

This ease with which we now prejudge a person’s politics as extreme is not unique to me, nor to those who share my sympathies. A good friend, a university professor who will shortly be taking up a senior administrative position, faces prejudice as puerile and abusive for his views that, whilst not pro-establishment, are deeply suspicious and critical of the pan-democrats.

My friend is a deeply thoughtful and reasonable man. His criticism stems not from a dislike for the pan-democratic cause — like everyone I know if given the freedom to choose he would prefer to see a more genuinely democratic China — but because he expects better from those who claim to represent such a high ideal.

Not without reason he finds the antics of the democratic camp to be at times unnecessarily confrontational and at worst hypocritical. In the way some of our more senior democratic politicians were seeking to be “relevant” to the youth movement, they have allowed standards of respect and behaviour slip and have alienated more of their natural support base than they perhaps realise.

Like me, my friend is worried by the rise in nativist and localist sentiment. Ironically, in rejecting an official Chinese identity as defined by Beijing, they have created an equally exclusive, racial and intolerant local identity of their own.

Where we differ is in our degree of criticism. Whilst I believe it is for the government and pro-establishment groups — for those with power — to set the example, my friend is less willing to turn a blind eye to the deliberately provocative actions of what remains a fringe element.

However, every comment my friend leaves online on a prominent Hong Kong news site is greeted with a flurry of abuse. As with me, his points are never addressed. He is accused of either being a bot or a 50 cent-er — either a mindless programmed response or a mindless man without conscience.

Photo: HKFP remix.

I have read many of the posts my friend has written. They all make well articulated points, even if I do not agree with them all. But never once have I seen any attempt by those who condemn him so vehemently to address his argument.

This is the point: it is not his argument with which they take issue, but his criticism of their beliefs; his reasoning is an affront to their emotions.

My friend and I meet when we can, and I enjoy his conversation and company. We may not share the same politics, nor is there much in the details that we agree about. But it is by discussing our differences, by putting our ideas to the challenge of reasoned criticism that they may gain value and we may develop more complete views of our own.

It is also through discussion that we might reconcile opposing views, and if not, at least have a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s position.

What I and my friend have in common is that we are essentially moderate people of moderate politics. We are both children of Hong Kong, and though he may be a little older than me, we were both raised to a very different kind of politics that we find today.

We are, though he would probably not wish me to say this, very British in the instinctive respect we have for politics and those who dedicate their lives to shaping civil society; in the manner in which we believe problems ought to be discussed; and in the manner the game of politics should be played.

We both feel calls for separatism are silly, not because Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China, but because such calls will only stoke anger in Beijing — anger Hong Kong could well do without.

However, though he is identified as pro-establishment, he does not believe talking about separatism is illegal nor that students and the people of Hong Kong should be denied the opportunity to discuss it as an idea.

Photo: In-Media.

Likewise, we do not consider the student leaders to be political prisoners, and as leaders of an act of civil disobedience they should have accepted their courts ruling — both rulings — with more grace.

There is no sign that the independence of the judiciary has been compromised, yet we both see that rule for law is being tested by our government in the obviously political action that Rimsky Yuen took to go against his own counsels’ advice to reopen the case.

And we both condemn the recent statements made by Junius Ho. No person, let alone a lawyer and a man of his position in the establishment, should advocate the killing of people for merely considering a future for this city separate from the PRC. Regardless of politics, we both condemn those who would try to defend these statements.

The reason my friend and I are so misjudged is because too often today judgements are made not on what you say, think, do or represent, but what you do not. One is no longer judged on who you are but who you are not — and if you are not of my opinion, you can almost hear it now said, “Hell to you and your lot, there is no place for you here.” That’s what those so many eyes have told me.

Recently, a distant relative and Eurasian, was approached by another member at the Jockey Club in Happy Valley. He was told, to his face, “There is no place for you people here now. This is China.”

The experience would have hurt me deeply. Instead, I came to know of it when being told that I should not be so “political” as this is indeed China now. There was nothing to be said of what happened. It was reasonable. My sensitivity, rather than a sign of my humanity, has in this distorted city made me unreasonably political.

The trouble is not just that of the illiberal and radical fringes on both sides of the political divide that today prevents any meaningful discussion. What is often ignored is that this is also the politics of our national government.

National Day 2016. Photo: GovHK.

What my distant relative, a successful man, meant was that in Hong Kong, as on the Mainland, you just let things be. Like generations of his family, he has learned not to really care about people or politics as long as the business keeps coming. I respect that this may be in his nature, and that this is his choice. But it is not the right choice for me.

It is easy for Carrie Lam and our government to talk about reconciliation, but for that to happen we need a return to moderation and, more importantly, to there being genuine political dialogue. This will not happen as dialogue is anathema to single-party rule.

This could not be better illustrated than by the accusation levelled at my friend, that he is a 50 cent-er. It is our nation that attempts to manipulate public opinion online on any issues not only by using fake news, but by filling comment pages the world over with fake abuse and fake support for what the CCP decides is in favour or against China.

This outrageous policy is indicative of the intolerance of the CCP, the only party and the only government we are really allowed to recognise. It says, quite clearly, you have a choice: you are either with us or against us.

Evan Fowler

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a UK-based researcher and writer on HK and China affairs.