Becoming Aware & Opening Dialogues: My Unintentional Involvement in the Hong Kong Protests

September 28th – I’m sitting in my dorm room attempting to do homework, but to no avail. In one tab, I had opened the Hong Kong Protest live stream available on YouTube. In other tabs, various social media and news websites were open so I could follow incoming news and monitor the articles shared and comments made by my peers. The printed handout I had to read for class the next day sat on my lap unmarked, my eyes re-reading the same lines over and over. There was no way I could focus.

Through email and Facebook, I contacted a friend from Hong Kong who was actively organizing an awareness campaign on campus. I offered to help cut yellow ribbons they were planning to hand out on Wednesday, October 1st, the day of the full street protest and the first day of the National Golden Week holiday in Mainland China.

As a Chinese-American who grew up in China, it was hard to put into words how I felt about the whole situation. I understood that this didn’t emerge out of nothing. It had been going on at the very least since summer, since Occupy Central, and had been festering over the years as well. But what could I do? What could I do that would support my Hong Kong friends while not enraging or discomforting my Mainland friends? I felt caught in limbo without the right to make a stand. There was no way to take any position without being questioned. You aren’t from Hong Kong. Why do you care? And so I chose to cut yellow ribbons. I could help them in preparing and that would be the limit to my input. Nothing too visible, nothing that would make known my involvement in the campus campaign.

September 29th & 30th – Somehow through the messaging and emailing, I found myself taking on a more and more active role without meaning to. A professor panel was being planned and I helped email professors, asking if they would like to discuss the current situation in Hong Kong. I didn’t just cut yellow ribbons. I helped make signs. I invited friends to the Facebook event, and struggled to figure out which people to invite because I didn’t want to make the Mainland students upset with me. As careful as I was, some of those who I invited still happened to be uncomfortable with the campaign. One of my best friends texted me, “why did you invite me to the FB event? Un-invite me now!” I responded, “I’m sorry, I can’t un-invite people, but you can delete the invite and you’ll never have to see it again.” Still, my friend fumed and told me how someone else who I had invited to the event contacted her first, asking why I invited her.

I was shocked. I understood that this was a sensitive issue for many of them, but by not even bothering to attempt to understand what we were trying to do on campus, they were already labeling the situation as a “Hong Kong vs. Mainland China” one. But what does “China” even mean? The Beijing government? The people? Every aspect of China’s history, culture, and politics? A few Mainland students took it as a personal offense when the dialogue began, being unaware that criticism about the way the situation was being handled was not an attack against them or China as a whole. As a matter of fact, after living in China for ten years, I love the country and find it obnoxious when outsiders latch on to every small issue to berate China. But praise and criticism must only be given when each is due.

While I may have joined the event at the spur of the moment without being certain of what I was protesting, wanting to help but feeling fear and shame at the same time, I realized then that I was not just protesting for the Hong Kong students’ right to expression. I was protesting against the silence and unwillingness to talk about these kinds of issues. The fact that one is not from Hong Kong does not mean that one should not be concerned with such events. And I was protesting against the lack of dialogue, the fear of dialogue, and the protests against dialogue. One doesn’t have to show support for or against the Hong Kong protests, but it is important to be informed.

October 1st – That same friend who texted me told me that she would not recognize me as a friend for the next 24 hours. Some first year students changed their social media profile pictures to the Chinese national flag, displaying messages of loving China above all. The various signs of passive-aggressiveness on social media caused me to feel more nauseous about what I was doing. Did I have the right to be an ally? Was I being an ally? What in the world was I doing?

That day, I was positioned with a few others in key locations, handing out yellow ribbons to be pinned onto bags and clothes, while talking to those willing to hear more about the situation. A few mainland students timidly approached one of the Hong Kong exchange students active in this campaign to ask her if it was anti-China. She explained that we are a very moderate awareness campaign, aiming to only educate the public on the events happening and to allow willing supporters to show solidarity. A student’s mother asked her daughter not to have her photo taken with any protest signs or have her name used in any interviews, for fear that any of these might be dug up and used against her in the future. For such a small campaign that started at the last minute, there was a lot of stress and tension hanging in the air around us.

At night, there was also a mass memorial and protest campaign happening in Boston Commons, but I was already wading in the work that I had ignored in the past few days while helping in the campaign. I didn’t go, but was content to know that I had helped on campus where one extra person’s participation could have a larger impact.

October 7th – A week after the awareness campaign, the talkback panel with professors was officially organized, and even students who were against the campaign attended, leaving with a somewhat greater sense of understanding. It may be pushing the line to say they now accepted our campaign fully, but grudging tolerance seemed present at least. Others came up and thanked us for organizing the event because it provided an opportunity to discuss the matters. After all, the point of the campaign was not to convert everyone to holding the same, uniform opinion, but to open up a space for discussion. Talking about the Hong Kong events was a protest in itself, a protest against silence.

That week was one of the most mentally and emotionally exhausting weeks of my life. Never have I felt the need to try and please all sides as acutely as I did then, while realizing how utterly impossible and ridiculous that notion was. What I want to say is this: It’s okay to be afraid to take a stance if you feel that you don’t have enough information. It’s okay to take a stance as long as you have the evidence to back up your position. But it’s not okay to blindly assume that you know what is happening and make judgments based on this.

As an International Relations student, I am aware of the different histories and contexts that constitute a given situation, and that nothing can be treated as black and white. It is precisely because of this need for understanding that diplomacy, negotiation, and indeed, dialogues are important. Media reports can become sensational and alarmist while official reports may be distorted and halfhearted. If topics are always perceived as too sensitive and taboo to discuss, how can we come to learn from them and each other?

Speak up. Listen. Learn. Discuss. Break the silence.

Protest.

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Victoria is addicted to tea, chocolate, incense, books, and wanderlust. One day, she hopes to be a diplomat or author – or both.