Hong Kong protests: Lessons for Duterte
“Never trust China,” a wrathful Hong Kong protester told me during one of the large-scale protests in Sha Tin district earlier this year. In his every word, which immediately solicited nods of approval from protesters who were around us, one could detect the man’s unshakable conviction built on profound fear and hopeful defiance.
“We are not fighting to gain anything, we are fighting not to lose anything. I am worried about Hong Kong becoming China,” the protester added with a heavy breath, as we were whisked away from an area that was about to be swarmed by police officers.
“We don’t want to be China,” he exclaimed, as other protesters began nervously clapping in a spontaneous show of support. Not long after, I found myself drowning in a sea of protesters who wore black shirts to express their discontent and masks to conceal their identities. Numbering in the tens of thousands, they extended far into the distant horizon, in an indubitable expression of popular will.
The air was filled with electricity, as a cocktail of fear (of authorities), menace (of uncertainty of the future), and an all-consuming quest for freedom (against all odds) animated the collective spirit, which took possession of large roads of the city. A good number of protesters were preparing for the worst. With focused haste, they assembled an array of improvised equipment to defend themselves against the police violence that would storm upon them later that evening.
The crowd was diverse, cutting across generations, socioeconomic classes and genders. But the protests were overwhelmingly led by the Hong Kong youth, especially students. Along the way to the protest proper, I met two students, still in their teens, who bravely shunned any mask or means of concealment.
I asked them about the benefits of growing Chinese investments in Hong Kong, where underemployment, inequality and lack of proper housing are serious concerns. I wondered whether they appreciated the value of tighter economic engagement with Beijing, which has turned the city-state into an even more crucial bridge between a rising superpower and global corporations.
And what they said shook me to the core. “The only thing I know is that no matter how much money I earn [because of Chinese investments], freedom is something I can’t earn from China,” one of them said, his face contorted in frustration and rage.
Earlier, I asked two ladies, both concealing their identities behind various forms of masks, about their motivation to join the protests despite the heightened risk of legal retribution, if not physical injury. They raised similar concerns, namely the fear of losing their basic freedoms amid China’s increasing encroachment in the economic-infrastructural and politico-ideological areas, in violation of the “one country, two systems” principle. For them, Beijing is adamant about the subordination of Hong Kong under “one China,” disrespecting and violating the city-state’s unique political freedoms under the “two systems” element.
I asked if they had any advice to other regional democracies that seem eager to court Beijing. “We should not only focus on economic growth, since China is just using economic ways to influence [other countries],” one of them said. “Regional states should [instead] focus on [protecting] their freedoms and own citizens.”
Come to think of it, while these protesters were Chinese nationals themselves, they unabashedly shared their apprehensions about the ruling communist regime in Beijing. Standing their ground at the frontline of the battle against authoritarian expansionism, their message to the world is crystal-clear: Don’t sell your democratic soul in exchange for short-term material gains.
It’s hard to see how the Hong Kong protests will triumph against the world’s most powerful and determined authoritarian regime, which notoriously used brute force to crush democratic protests in Tiananmen three decades ago. But as one protester put it: “We are never going to give up, people [of Hong Kong] are fighting to their last breath.”
How I wish our leader, who has eagerly embraced and defended Beijing, would pick a thing or two from the courage and wisdom of these young protesters, who rightly cherish their besieged freedoms with a strength of conviction that towers above all.
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