Last year, as the height of the Hong Kong protests, I received a message from an old friend in Hong Kong. For 20 years we had played tennis together and our families had always got on well.
He forwarded to me a message alleging the Americans were behind the “riots’ and that key people in the protest movement, many of whom I happen to know personally, are on the payroll of the CIA. The message also included a flippant note to kill rioters.
Having followed developments closely, I had seen this message before. I am also aware of the origin and the political thinking behind this narrative. It isn’t new. So I replied to my friend, telling him I was not prepared to accept these allegations, for which there is no actual evidence — what has been presented does not stand up to scrutiny, and belies an ignorance of what certain US organisations actually do.
I also expressed my personal disappointed that my friend would circulate allegations with such an extreme message. Promoting hate, which is sadly all too common on all sides, is not going to help the situation.
Over the next few months I received similar messages from many friends of a certain political persuasion. Despite our friendship, given the nature of the messages I decided it best not to respond. Many of the message framed Hong Kong’s problems, and rising international criticism of China, as a clash of civilisations. Noble and “Asian” values were extolled, often drawing on supposed Confucian wisdom, with a familiar dose of early 20th century pan-Asian nationalism.
Underlying each message was a condemnation of “Western” civilisation, morality and values. “The West is intelligent,” read one. “But China is wise.”
During this period I found it hard to cope, both professionally and emotionally, with the stream of news and other information on Hong Kong. Two research trips in 2019, during which I spoke with people on both sides of the frontline, were not only emotionally draining but also highlighted to me the difficulty of maintaining a balanced perspective in a highly charged environment. Now more than ever Hong Kong needs calm, understanding, empathy and compassion. Frankly, all seemed in short supply.
As emotions flared, what people increasingly sought was confirmation of what they wished to be true. On both sides a narrative emerged, disconnected from reality, to offer this. Though Hong Kong journalists rose to the challenge, nuance is often a casualty of a search for clarity. And as a situation becomes more complex, the more important are those details and connections, especially in seeking a resolution.
Thus, as sad as the actions on the streets were, it was the narratives being spun that I found most troubling. The decision by the authorities to construct a narrative that only demonised the other side left no room for understanding or compromise, and was most telling of the way Hong Kong has changed.
As Covid-19 began to take hold in the West, the messages I was receiving began to change. One conversation began with “Why are you so angry?” I was accused of having become “evil” since moving to “the West”. Another friend, much to my pain, ended all correspondence when I refused to be drawn into supporting assertions that all protesters were mindless rioters. Simply seeking to change the subject was enough for me to be condemned.
Without asking to know my thoughts, let alone engaging me in person, I found I was being condemned not for who I am or what I think, but for what others believed me to be, according to the narrative to which they had subscribed. The messages had also become increasingly personal.
From asserting the sanctity of filial piety, often with allusions to state as well as family, one stream of messages devolved into thinly veiled assertions that I was a bad son, and that my relationship with my family exemplified the corrupting influence of an immoral West. However in matters of family I have always identified more as Chinese, and despite now living away from home I continue to have a close relationship with my family.
People who know I was born and raised in Hong Kong, to a Hong Kong family, have casually slipped into referring to my move to the UK as a “return” home. Perceiving the West to be anti-Chinese, too many people have allowed personal relationships to be the casualties of this clash of civilisations narrative. It is ugly to see identity politics and racial nationalism rising in what was once a successful multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. And it is heartbreaking to discover so many people place so little value on relationships you hold dear.
Legitimate and reasonable criticism of an increasingly assertive Chinese authoritarianism, that is, consciously or not, being exported beyond China’s borders is given as evidence of a supposed anti-China West. So too are the voices of those politicians, journalists and scholars who speak out. But a free society neither can nor should shut down critical discourse.
To see the West’s refusal to constrain such liberties as an attack on China is to profoundly misunderstand both the West’s intentions and what constitutes a free society. It is also hypocritical. Beijing does dictate what is written and said in China’s public domain, and increasingly within the Chinese diaspora. Critical voices in the West pale in content and tone to what is stated by Chinese officials and carried in Chinese state media.
Especially hypocritical is that a narrative of hate is often presented as one of conciliation. You do not promote forgiveness and harmony by denying genuine grievances, complex as they may be, with the simple story that Hong Kong’s youths are the victim of a malign foreign actor. To unite Hong Kong society with a lie is not only dishonest, but the redirection of blame towards such an imaginary dark hand only intensifies hate and deepens divisions.
I like to think friendships run deeper than politics. For me they always do. Times of difficulty and confusion pass and we are often better for the experience. So whilst I may be evil in the eyes of some, and thought of as an anti-China Westerner, I continue to hold out hope that once the red mist rises I will again be able to enjoy the company of people whom I know, deep down, are not bad people. As when losing a friend to a cult, it is not the friend that is the problem.
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