With my new book, Liberate Hong Kong: Stories From The Freedom Struggle, I’ve now written a trilogy on Hong Kong, remarkable given that I never set out to write any book at all. All three books were a response to an imperative, a sense that the Hong Kong freedom struggle was being distorted or misunderstood and a corrective was needed.
My first book, Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong, was about the Umbrella Movement. I started out thinking I would just write about my own personal experience, but nearly as soon as I got started, I found that to be wholly insufficient and ended up writing a very different kind of book. I came to see it – a project of detailed documentation – as a form of resistance to the Communist Party’s “amnesia machine” that seeks to rewrite the history of everything that occurs under its rule to conform with its political objectives. Coming in at over 600 pages, the book’s been described as both “exhaustive” and “exhausting”.
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The book is also an argument against the conventional wisdom that prevailed among both commentators and many Umbrella Movement participants that the movement failed. It asserts that the movement thwarted the Party’s attempt to foist fake universal suffrage on Hong Kong. This was no mean feat given that the imposition of fake suffrage was key to the Party’s end game. Once it was in place, the formal political system would forever after be under direct Party control and Hong Kong people would be forced to relinquish their demand for real democracy because, according to the Party, they already had it. The movement torpedoed this grand plan. Not only that; it was the beginning of so many other things, including mass youth participation and leadership in the freedom struggle.
My second book, As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle in the post-Umbrella Movement era, 2014 to 2018, traced the many ways that after the Umbrella Movement, the Communist Party tried to crack down on Hong Kong, to control and assimilate it, and to erode its autonomy. Its depiction of the political situation in that period is quite bleak, but its title grew out of arguments I had with people, especially young people, in those years. They would say something to the effect of, “There is nothing to be done; nothing works; there’s no way out.” I would invoke the Hong Kong protest motto that is also the epigram of my new book, “It is not that we see hope and therefore we persist. It is that through our persistence, hope is created.” The book was an argument against despondency and pessimism and for the power of the powerless.
All that the Communist Party has done against Hong Kong has never really gotten me down—I expect it. The Party is very predictable. It has only one mode, crackdown and oppression. It is implacably hostile to anything remotely resembling popular sovereignty or even the proposition that anyone opposing it could have a legitimate concern. It treats all under its rule as subjects whose primary duty is to obey. This has been a constant throughout 70 years of dictatorship, in both relatively liberal and hardline periods. In this sense, Xi Jinping is hardly a new phenomenon; one should expect nothing else.
No, I don’t worry about the Party; I worry about my own side. Hong Kong people must always remember that we have the power to resist, and in that power lies our eventual victory. My second book was published in March 2019, only three months before mass protests against the extradition bill broke out. The protests have been a vindication of its title. Through them, Hong Kong people have realized their own power and insisted on taking the destiny of Hong Kong into their own hands. As long as we continue, there is hope. Hope stops only when we do.
I never had any intention of writing about the 2019-2020 protests. The longer they went on, the more immense they became. When asked whether I’d write about them, I thought, How would you even begin? After a kind publisher eventually prevailed upon me, I thought the only way I could make the task manageable was by telling stories. Ironically, with this book, I’ve gone back to my original intention with the first book.
This decision to tell stories was made not only to cope with the enormous proportions of the protests. While the copious media coverage has often been excellent, it is usually from the perspective of observers. I wanted to present the protests from the point of view of the protagonists, the protesters themselves. I wanted to convey a sense of the experience of being part the protests.
So this book was written by a protester who over the past year has participated in hundreds of the over one thousand protests that have so far taken place,
A protester who has known and interacted with many other protesters of all different kinds, the young braves, the peaceful and rational, the moderate and middle-aged, the arrested and prosecuted, the seriously injured, traditional pan-democrats and advocates of independence, those trying to work within the rigged political system to further the aims of the freedom struggle and those who believe such an approach is futile, those advocating revolution and those who want nothing more than for the Communist Party to simply fulfil its legal obligations and promises, to grant Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” and genuine universal suffrage.
What emerges from the stories, at least for this writer, are several clear characteristics of the freedom struggle.
One is a strong, distinct Hong Kong identity. It has felt at times as if what I was witnessing was a nation being born. The people in the freedom struggle have such an extraordinarily deep attachment to and love of Hong Kong, their home. They are willing to do anything to stand up and fight for it. This is “patriotism” in the best sense of what can so often be an obnoxious word. Of course, this Hong Kong identity has been forged over several years, but it has become more definite, recognizable, assertive, confident and powerful through the protests. One of the purest of motives, the wish to defend one’s home is also one of the freedom struggle’s greatest strengths.
Another element is the equally extraordinary solidarity and unity among all protesters, no matter our many differences. The freedom struggle is made up of a cacophony of voices, of many different political opinions and ideas about correct action and strategy. I often laugh at the prospect of actually achieving our goals of real autonomy and democracy: once we do, we’ll have so many disagreements! But out of that diversity, an incredible unity has been forged. People in the freedom struggle take care of one another, whether volunteer lawyers or the Yellow Economic Circle or funds for protesters in need or ordinary people providing shelter, protection and variety of other services and supplies. I’ve seen innumerable examples of this over the past year. Like Hong Kong identity, unity and solidarity are powerful. The shared experience of fighting for freedom has brought us all closer.
Lastly, in fighting for freedom, protesters have lived freely. For anyone involved in the freedom struggle, this has been an extraordinarily intense year, lived at a fever pitch, full of elation, despair, love, hate, exhaustion, adrenaline. The feeling of freedom, in all its richness and complexity, has been overwhelmingly palpable at times, my heart nearly beating out of my chest. This, I think, is what it feels like to be free, really free, to be alive, really alive. It’s hard for me to imagine HK people, having tasted freedom, ever giving up.
My main feeling looking back on this as yet unfinished story is immense gratitude to the literally millions of people who have dared to take history into their own hands. What has been achieved so far is precious and yet tenuous, fragile, incomplete, far short of our ultimate goals. My book is dedicated to all freedom fighters, all sisters and brothers in the struggle, the 勇武 [the “braves”] and the 和理非 [peaceful demonstrators], all who have sacrificed and suffered for the greater good, in the hope that one day we shall all be free.
Hong Kong people have already endured so much under Communist rule. Now we are faced with perhaps our biggest challenge yet: the direct imposition by tyrannical fiat of what promise to be draconian “national security” laws, perhaps the biggest test of my belief that Hong Kong people have the power to determine the fate of Hong Kong. But if we remember our “original intention”, if we remember how hard we’ve fought already, if we remember how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, if we remember our shared Hong Kong identity and the unity and solidarity we have forged among ourselves, if we remember the taste of freedom, and if we bring all that to bear on the struggle ahead, I think this too will ultimately be overcome.
煲底見- See you at the pot!