Until three months ago, I did not believe in democracy.
Being from Hong Kong, I always appreciated the efficiency and perks of a large civil service and government unencumbered by all the fuss associated with the election cycle. I held a large degree of respect for the Hong Kong government’s ability to provide cheap, modern health care, subsidized public housing, and excellent public transportation. I held the same mentality that many people from my city still do—that the democratic movement in Hong Kong was unnecessary because our city functioned perfectly well without it. When I first came to Harvard, I would scoff in my Gov. 20 section at idealistic students who wholeheartedly embraced democratization and laugh when my friends from the U.S. discussed government shutdowns and congressional gridlock. I genuinely believed that democracy was not for everyone, and it was certainly not needed in my hometown.
Despite disturbing trends, I firmly clung onto this belief. My earliest memory was watching the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese government on the television in 1997. I could not fully comprehend the significance of the event, but I remember feeling hopeful about the future of our city. I also remember feeling angry about Article 23, a proposed national security law that would have restricted freedom of speech and imposed maximum life sentences for sedition against the Chinese government, an anger shared by the hundreds of thousands of protestors who took to the streets in 2003. And I remember thinking that the People’s Congress 2007 vote to rule out the possibility of democratic elections in Hong Kong until 2017 was condescending to the Hong Kong people.
Nonetheless, I toed the traditional line that we did not need democracy to be a successful city. I was aware that the Hong Kong government was neither perfect nor responsive to Hong Kong’s poor. But the “one country, two systems” framework and the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution drawn up by the Chinese and the British) provided the means for Hong Kong residents to enjoy freedom of speech and political participation without wading into the murkiness of democratic elections.
But my views have radically shifted in the past three months. In June, I was outraged when the Chinese government released a white paper asserting its “comprehensive authority” over Hong Kong and our city’s judicial system, which stood at clear tension with the Basic Law. I was infuriated when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee ruled that although every Hong Kong resident could vote in the chief executive election, candidates had to be chosen by a selection committee, guaranteeing that only pro-Beijing candidates will be nominated—ergo, our election process would be akin to that of Iran’s approval of presidential candidates by a theocratic Guardian Council. This prompted me to completely reevaluate my faith in our government and to finally understand why Hong Kong not only deserved, but needed democracy.
In protest against Beijing’s decision, thousands of university and high school students went on strike last week. After being on the receiving end of heavy-handed treatment by the police, the students were joined by the larger, pro-democracy Occupy Central movement on Sunday. In response to an entirely peaceful demonstration, the police attacked protesters with pepper spray and tear gas. This only caused the protest to swell, not dwindle, and over 50,000 protestors donned goggles, cling film, and rain coats and used umbrellas to deflect the worst of the gas and the spray. I am so proud of all the protesters who demonstrated such remarkable tenacity in the face of police brutality. Two of my pre-med friends refused to leave first-aid tents for 12 hours to provide medical help to injured protesters. Meanwhile, the very active Hong Kongers studying abroad have helped mobilize events at their colleges worldwide to raise awareness and focus international scrutiny on Hong Kong and pressure the government to cease its unjustified crackdown on a peaceful protest.
So why should you care about Hong Kong? First, our city’s turbulent history and recent events are a strong lesson in why you cannot take free elections and democracy for granted. Hong Kongers are willing to take pepper spray in the face from riot police to take a stand on democracy. Photos of the battleground that Hong Kong has turned into should prompt you to contemplate what you would do to defend your freedom. Second, the Hong Kong people have set an example for all that you can and should stand up for your freedom in the face of a powerful, authoritarian government which could put its foot down at the drop of a hat. This dedication and bravery should be cherished and celebrated. And third, you should care because no one will help Hong Kong. The United Kingdom would be the country with the most legitimacy to step in and intervene on our behalf, since China’s actions violate the principles of the 1997 Sino-British Declaration. But judging by the U.K.’s silence on the issue so far, it is clear that international awareness is the only tool we have to pressure the Hong Kong government into taking a stand on behalf of the Hong Kong people for once and not merely kowtow to the wishes of the Communist Party of China.
In a 1984 speech, Deng Xiaoping said, “We are convinced that the people of Hong Kong are capable of running the affairs of Hong Kong well, and we want to see an end to foreign rule. The people of Hong Kong themselves will agree to nothing less.” After a century of colonial rule, the people of Hong Kong deserve better than the farce proposed by Beijing.
Heather L. Pickerell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Mather House.
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