On July 1 of this year, Hong Kong initiated its regularly scheduled mass protests. I am there, another sweaty body among the crowd that spills into Victoria Park. The Independence Day air is heavy and humid, and the all-encompassing buzz of activity is occasionally pierced by the bark of Cantonese through a megaphone. Today the subways and streets are closed, as hundreds of thousands of people struggle to make their way downtown and join the demonstrations. It is hot and it is loud, but there is a defiant revelry in the air. Demonstrators proudly wield their handmade signs, mixtures of Chinese and English text, and distribute flyers and pamphlets to empty-handed participants like myself. Others hydrate, preparing to spend the next several hours on their feet in the sloping streets of Hong Kong Island. College students, middle-aged adults, and seniors are all interspersed, all fanning, all chanting, all milling about in anticipation. It is Hong Kong’s Independence Day, and as usual, the citizens gather to celebrate by demonstrating against social and political injustices, most of which stem from the mainland Chinese government.
While I am crowded into the park with my Hong Kong friends, awaiting the moment to begin our procession from Causeway Bay westward to Central, I wonder:
Why is it that I, a black American who does not even understand Cantonese, who has lived in Hong Kong for less than one month, am out among the crowds supporting the protests?
Of course, I am aware of the political complications at hand, of China’s enforcement of sovereignty over the former British colony. I looked over the flyer-turned-fan in my hand, boldly emblazoned with “689,” an angry allusion to the number of committee members who voted to elect the Chief Executive for a city of over 7 million. I am able to sympathize with Hong Kong’s struggle for a full democratic process. But I knew there were so many more issues at stake within my own country, more directly pertinent to me, yet none of which sent me to demonstrate in the streets.
So why did I become a protestor now?
I notice reporters drifting through the crowd to interview sweat-drenched demonstrators, and I hope that the reporters do not come to ask me this same question. The answer, I think, would not be so satisfying.
Again, last week, Hong Kong was thrown into the midst of mass protests. But this time, it is different; unlike the annual July 1 protests, these are not quite so peaceful. The usually accommodating police force, suddenly more sensitive to social agitation, begins to react in a manner more aggressive than before. Demonstrators don homemade gas masks and protective gear to defend themselves against recently-introduced tear gas and rubber bullets. Rumors circulate that the police have begun to hire gangsters and Triad members to disrupt the demonstrations. Though I am now back in the States, I feel the anxiety from 8,000 miles away.
“Are you okay? Are you all participating in the demonstrations?” We American students have kept a group chat with our Hong Kong friends, into which we type desperate questions. They are the same friends who led us through the July 1 demonstrations.
Another girl in the group chat, from Korea, responds that she believes nearly all Hong Kong students are currently in the protests. For some reason, I do not take her statement as hyperbole, though I know that the equivalent would be nearly unimaginable here, among American universities. There, in Hong Kong, my college-age friends, all they know is demonstration and protest and mass mobilization, regardless of the risks. Here, at Princeton especially, it is the opposite. Our culture regarding activism is completely reversed.
Regardless of whether one supports their demonstrations, Hong Kong’s sheer quantity of participation is astounding. For the past several Independence Day demonstrations, citywide participation estimates have reached around half a million, nearly 15% of Hong Kong’s total population. Judging from the coverage, I wouldn’t be surprised if these most recent September protests exceed this. Their passion for demonstration is unrivaled. The images that reach outside publications have secured the attention, if not the sympathy, of the world. But is all of this the result of a super-enthusiasm, an ultra-fervor intrinsic to the youth of Hong Kong? The answer seems to be no. No, these types of differences are not perceptible on an individual level; I never sensed any extra defiance or inflated sense of social justice in my Hong Kong peers. So where is the difference between them and us rooted? Aside from the particular conditions under the Chinese government (which, I should note, are not the root of all Hong Kong protest issues), why is it so difficult to imagine action of even a fractional magnitude taking place among high-ranking American universities?
Despite the enormous difference in activism turnout between Hong Kong students and American students, I refuse to believe that we Americans are substantially less engaged in sociopolitical issues than our Hong Kong counterparts. In reality, a large part of collective action, or lack thereof, lies beyond our own individual initiative to participate. Instead, I believe the reason why we often remain inactive on our campus is the same impersonal reason why I was so moved to participate in Hong Kong’s July 1st protests; it is a byproduct of surroundings and cultural environment. Though there is nothing extraordinary about the individuals of Hong Kong, their collective culture of protest is the most vibrant that I have ever seen.
It is not only expected of, but almost even incumbent upon young Hong Kongers to be out amidst their city’s demonstrations. Occupation of the streets in defense of their interests is practically a part of their collective identity. In the days before and after an event, their peers, parents, and professors all excitedly ask about their participation, some in support, some in opposition, but always in the expectation that the students are engaged. For us in America, student protests seem to be a thing of our parents’ generation. Our own engagement in active, physical confrontation of our society’s issues is barely accepted, let alone encouraged, by our media and our society and our corporate job prospects. Today, social media bears the brunt of American college students’ social justice frustration, if our frustrations materialize at all. In contrast, the minds, bodies, and youth of the current Hong Kong generation are seen as a perfectly suited for fighting active campaigns of justice and progression.
Unfortunately, at Princeton much of the time that could be spent engaging in more activism is instead spent complaining about our inaction and apathy on the individual level. In fear of falling to the same folly of complaint rather than redress, I only write to make the point that we cannot so easily chastise the individual for lack of a trait that our society itself does not engender. I admit that I do not know why our cultures, Hong Kong and American, have diverged in this sense; perhaps it is American inclusion in the democratic process that quells our desire to demonstrate, or the particular contentment of Americans raised in the 1980s and 1990s (which now day-by-day turns to disillusionment). But I know that it is far easier to complain and critique “apathetic” individuals than to accept that our culture lacks modern precedent and encouragement for strong, united activism. There is no lack of precedent in Hong Kong; massive demonstrations are practically institutionalized, and each year brings together protestors from a different faction of social justice or political dissent (for example, recent years have featured a growth in LGBT demonstrations).
At Princeton, there is precedent for hitting the Street twice a week, but no precedent for hitting the streets at times when crisis strikes. I am regularly asked if I will go to Cannon or Terrace or any other eating club, but no one asked me if I would go to the People’s Climate March last month. And so I didn’t go. I hadn’t even known that the People’s Climate March existed until I saw coverage on social media afterwards. This is the underlying problem that I perceive when I see images of thousands of young Hong Kong citizens rallying in the streets, and I think back to my time alongside them.
Of course, my point is not to neglect individual initiative; on the contrary, I have utmost respect for those who manage to individually bring their frustrations to fruition, reaching places outside of the Orange Bubble. Perhaps it will require the work of these exceptional few to open avenues for the many. But the unfortunate reality is that such genuine personal courage and initiative is rare. Rather than expect every person to develop extraordinary initiative and bypass cultural influences that tell them that demonstrations are pointless and troublesome, why do we not instead engender a culture that encourages each ordinary person to give what they can to a cause, to stir people’s sense of inclusion in our collective challenges, in the same way that Hong Kong’s mass protests manage to do? I know that addressing an issue of such a large, cultural magnitude will be a challenge. Culture, even campus culture, cannot change overnight. But Hong Kong, in its persistence, in its defiance, and in its unity, can serve as an example. They are able to carry such admirable resolve, with no prerequisite for exceptional individual courage. I believe that the most important traits–intelligence, social capital, enthusiasm–are already present in many of our Princeton classmates. The only difference between Hong Kong and us is a culture that directs these resources towards action.