By Benjamin Allee, Viking Fusion Reporter
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. — Jacky Kwok, a senior biology major at Berry College, was with his family in Hong Kong this summer as citywide protests took place. In late July, he participated in the protests himself.
Kwok sat down with Viking Fusion to discuss what the protests were like, why they are happening, and how they have affected the city.
Born in Hong Kong, Kwok lived there for 18 years before moving to the United States. He first saw political tension rising around 2012, but says he and many others were not as “politically engaged” at the time.
Hong Kongers began the protests after the Chinese-appointed Chief Executive of the city, Carrie Lam, proposed a controversial extradition bill. According to Kwok, the feelings behind the protests are about more than just the bill: “Deep inside … it’s about the whole Chinese system, how the whole Chinese government operates … It’s about the life of Hong Kong people.”
When protests began early this summer, Kwok did not participate even though he agreed with the cause. The protests took on new strength, however, after protesters became the targets of violence in late July. Kwok then felt the need to get involved.
“People got arrested, shot. I’m seeing people suffering,” Kwok says. “How can you not go out and say something?”
Kwok convinced his family to join him in the protests on July 28, 2019, and describes his experience:
“When you first come out of the metro … you can see all these people, they’re just so peaceful. It’s not like anything you see on the TV. People are sitting down on the ground. People are going up to a stage and sharing their experience. …There’s people sending out water, sending out masks for tear gas. They are supporting each other. And that’s the most striking thing, the most dramatic change I can see. It has kind of renewed the experience…of being a Hong Kong person. Living in an apartment for 18 years, sometimes you don’t know who your neighbor is … but this movement connects everyone from different classes together. …The best of humanity has just come out.”
The people of Hong Kong have been staging these protests continually for over five months. The ongoing event made headlines in the U.S. when it passed the city’s 2014 Umbrella Protests in duration, and again when protests turned violent in late July.
Kwok has come close to violent encounters between protesters and police, which often happen at night, but he has not experienced them firsthand. However, he has met those who regularly encounter tear gas, rubber bullets and riot equipment, and says these people have a unique name: the frontliners.
Protests take place when Hong Kong citizens request permission from police to stage a peaceful rally, which marches from one location in the city to another along a specific route. Conflict arises when frontliners, according to Kwok, block streets not included on this route and refuse to back down after the rally is finished.
“I saw frontliners, and they are not violent people,” Kwok says. “People don’t want to be violent, no one wants … to bleed. They’re just desperate.”
Where past protests in Hong Kong were organized and carried out by specific political parties, Kwok says these rallies are started by “anyone who wants to be heard … genuine, normal Hong Kong people.” Organizers rely on social media and messaging applications like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to notify citizens of locations and times.
Although these protests are not organized by a specific group, Berry College Professor of Government Dr. John Hickman says they are being carried out with great skill. According to Hickman, a successful protest requires limited goals and should aim to raise awareness among a specific group of people. The protesters in Hong Kong have asked their government for only a handful of reforms, beginning with the cancellation of the extradition bill.
Hickman emphasises that the scale and precision of these protests show how “ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances can rise to the occasion.”
Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, and tensions in the city have been rising ever since. Kwok says that Hong Kongers first became upset when the Chinese government started giving unfair benefits to Chinese immigrants in the city, growing worse until “there were not enough beds in Hong Kong hospitals for Hong Kong people.”
Tensions escalated severely when Chinese-appointed officials accused Hong Kong students of sedition, denied Hong Kong universal suffrage which had been promised to them and recently, when they proposed the extradition bill. These events, among others, led Kwok and those around him to discuss the city’s political issues more seriously.
Still, Kwok remained uninvolved in the protests, until they reached a “different level” after the July 21 attack at Yuen Long station. Late that night after a day of protest, counter-protesters wearing white attacked both protesters and bystanders in the station without discrimination. “Yuen Long is kind of [what] brought all Hong Kong together. Now there is no defining line between protesters and Hong Kong people.”
Seven days later, Kwok, along with his brother and mother, took his first steps out into a rally. He recalls frontliners who handed them protective masks. “They are concerned for other people,” he says, “they want other people to be safe.”
Safety is a concern for Kwok even when he is at Berry, far away from the protests. He has expressed that he is afraid of “draw[ing] any attention. Some people’s minds are very narrow, very radical, and I don’t want them to … bother me or the campus.”
Despite his reservations, Kwok feels the “need to spread the message” of these protests. “Even just letting people know what it’s really like to be in the protests … it’s the [least] I can do.”
Hickman says raising awareness is a primary goal of any protest. Short of that, there is very little U.S. citizens can do to get involved. There is “one substantive thing” in U.S. legislation that will aid protesters, however: a recently proposed bill that would allow some Hong Kongers easy access to the U.S. if they decide to flee their own country. Even that, he says, would still be mostly symbolic.
Residents of the U.S. should pay attention to the protests due to their global implications, according to Hickman. He says the situation in Hong Kong helps us “see that democracy is a little more fragile in places than we anticipated,” but that these protests are “a reason for hope that maybe more is possible in the face of authoritarian rule.”
Kwok says government involvement in the Yuen Long attacks, along with police brutality against protesters, has shown how “the Chinese government wants to use terror to make people silent. Now people see how ugly a government can be.”
In response to that ugliness, Hong Kong has staged these protests. For Kwok, “they make [him] so proud to call [him]self one of Hong Kong’s people.”