Hongkongers have always known that we lived on borrowed time. As a British colony and then a supposedly semi-autonomous region under Beijing’s rule, Hong Kong and Hongkongers have never enjoyed political freedom outside of the confines of powerful sovereign states.

Five years ago, I joined tens of thousands of other Hongkongers on the annual July 1 march. It was hot, sticky, and crowded. We were in good spirits. 

Protest against Article 23 on July 1, 2003. Photo: Apple Daily.

Since 2003, Hongkongers have marched every year on July 1 – the day Hong Kong was returned to China – to demand democracy and political freedom. We have always known that the ability to protest freely is a privilege that can be taken away at any moment by an authoritarian regime.

Freedom of speech and assembly is not something Hongkongers ever take lightly. As governmental suppression and police violence escalated since the anti-extradition law movement last year, to exercise one’s right to protest is to risk bodily harm, humiliation, and legal consequences. 

As a diasporic Hongkonger in the US, I bear witness from afar: I have watched protesters – many of them students and youths – brutalised by the police; journalists pepper-sprayed and hit at close range; civilians rabidly attacked by police and alleged gang members inside subway stations with little recourse. On my phone, I saw the neighbourhood I grew up in engulfed with police dressed in anti-riot gear.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

But I also saw courageous crowds time and again gather in shopping malls singing the protest anthem and unfurling banners that proclaim the movement’s commitment to reclaiming Hong Kong from authoritarianism. I bore witness to all these through the screens of my computer and my phone. While the scenes and images were mediated, the pain, anger, uplift, fear, and hope have always been embodied. 

Because of the time difference, many mornings I woke up to live streams of clashes between frontline protesters and police. The night when the Chinese University of Hong Kong was under siege and engulfed in flames, I was in my office at the University of Kentucky, crying silently into the phone with my dear friend in Hong Kong. As a professor, I see the uncanniness between my students in the US, and the young protesters in Hong Kong who have repeatedly put their body at risk to demand a political future free from authoritarian control. They are the ones whose voices we should uplift. 

Protesters take cover during clashes with police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), in Hong Kong on November 12, 2019. Photo: HKU Campus TV.

I have not been able to shake away the image from June 28 of a little boy crying inconsolably in his mother’s arms after he saw his father taken away by anti-riot police. The family was shopping for fruit in Kowloon right when a peaceful silent march was taking place against the looming national security laws. When police decided to quickly cordon off the area, the father was separated from his family and swiftly arrested.

As the mother inquired about her husband while consoling her crying child, the child’s distraught face was visible even behind his surgical mask. His mother stepped between him and the police, protectively draping an arm over the young boy. Video footage showed a police officer loudly lecturing her, “Look – you have scared your son! You should have taken your child away when you saw the police.”

Whose security does the national security laws protect? Certainly not the security and safety of this and many other local families. Rather, the laws function as a weapon for the state to inflict further trauma and harm on anyone who dares challenge the regime. 

Photo: Studio Incendo

While US media outlets report on the national security laws in Hong Kong, the most vocal supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in the US are right-wing politicians who make use of this conflict to bolster their own political agenda and interests. In the same breath, the same group of politicians have either remained silent or have advocated for the draconian suppression of protesters domestically in the US, mirroring Beijing’s discourse against Hong Kong activists.

Before the official implementation of the national security laws in Hong Kong, Chinese state media and some local media outlets have featured interviews with white expats from Euro-American countries – many of them bankers and investors – who sing the laws’ praises.

Unlike me, many of these individuals currently reside in Hong Kong. And yet, while my body aches with anxiety and rage from across the Pacific, they who will remain unscathed unabashedly support a law that would harm all those who resist an authoritarian regime. As I straddle the geopolitical contexts between the US and Hong Kong, being neither fully here nor there, I feel immensely lonely in my grief and rage. 

Police officers are jotting names of more than 50 arrested near Hysan Place shopping mall in Causeway Bay. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Under the newly implemented national security laws, protesters are labelled as terrorists, and anyone who supports them in any way could face a five-to-ten-year prison sentence.

The law also gives Beijing the power to prosecute anyone who threatens the regime from outside Hong Kong. I wonder if I, alongside many other diasporic Hong Kong activists, have become a political exile overnight.

As advocacy groups disband, activists flee the city, and Hongkongers scramble to emigrate, it is those who remain in Hong Kong who bear the heaviest burden and risk.

From my position of relative privilege and safety, I am committed to amplifying the voices of Hongkongers who have lost their platforms, who can no longer express dissent without fearing for their lives and the safety of their families. Yet, I too am scared. The grief is immense.

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Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.