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A Letter From Hong Kong

The normal coexists with the brutal. Last Saturday, in Hong Kong, carefree expat children walk by my apartment building, holding party balloons as Puma police helicopters buzz overhead. Less than a mile away people are fired on with tear gas and water cannon spewing blue dye. I imagine that this is what it felt like in the last days of the Shah.

My days are not usually surreal. I am a teacher at Lingnan University, a liberal arts college and the smallest of eight public universities in Hong Kong. I have lived and worked in Hong Kong for twenty years; my wife and I raised our two children here. We are foreigners, but with a deep attachment to this city and its people. The causes of the current turmoil will take years of research to understand properly. Historians will find these causes in the Chinese family, in the class structure, in demography, in generational change, in new forms of communication, in political society and in several other factors still opaque to us. But where are we in Hong Kong now? And what is the situation of the students I teach? A personal snapshot must suffice.

I want to say that this feels like a pre-revolutionary situation, except that there is no state to topple and no alternative to it. Rather there is a local government—Carrie Lam’s administration—that has stopped governing and that is now little more than a reed of Beijing. In that sense, the Communist Party has already taken over Hong Kong and is watching it descend into chaos. Perhaps the logic is that the worse it gets here, the greater the rationale is for stepping in and ‘saving’ Hong Kong from itself.

Or Beijing may demand that Carrie Lam ramp up the repression, invoking emergency measures to enable untrammelled censorship, search of residence, seizure of property, deportation, arrest, indefinite detention, and so forth. Emergency Powers were last employed here in 1967 when the British colonial government cracked-down on the ‘Leftist riots,’ a movement with some local support but basically an off-shoot of the Cultural Revolution. However, a colonial government was accountable to the British parliament and could be relied on, in time, to restore the status quo ante. This time, there would be no restoration. The ‘One Nation, Two Systems’ regime crafted for Hong Kong by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping would be dead. It may well be dead already.

Much looks different. The myths of the obedient Hong Kong child, of the disciplined dronelike worker, of the person who puts money above everything else, are shattered for ever. But can Hong Kong people triumph over the Communist Party? Surely not and they know it. What, then, is the point of their fighting on? Dignity and self-respect. Bystanders are responsible for what they don’t do—in this case push back on a growing tyranny. Years from now, historians will recall that at a time when the West had descended into identity solipsism, there was a place on earth where people cared more for liberty and their city than their lives. They will marvel at what an unsated people can and will do.

Today, the most visible aspect of repression in Hong Kong is the police. Its members feel abandoned by their government and by large sections of Hong Kong people. Increasingly isolated from their neighbours, their children insulted and bullied at school, harangued by residents when they enter districts—Sha Tin, Mong Kok, Tin Shui Wai, Tung Chung—in pursuit of protesters, the police are turning inwards and developing a siege mentality. In the wings, they are cheered on by the mainland Communists as true defenders of the motherland.

Against them stand the shock-troops of the protest movement—the ones doing the front-line fighting. They are young men and some women chiefly from the working classes of Hong Kong, youth with nothing material to lose, angry and embittered. Their philosophy is: freedom, respect and opportunity for all, or together we burn. Behind this phalanx, literally and figuratively, are more middle-class youth. One tells me that she feels guilty to let her working-class comrades take the brunt of police violence; and more of her friends are now taking part in the melee. Several have been tear-gassed. They are in no mood to compromise. She adds: “Soon, people will die. And if you ask me: ‘Would you die for Hong Kong?’ I say to you ‘yes.’” She is 21.

Term begins with a two-week student boycott. Students have told me that the word ‘boycott’ is misleading; it will be more like disruption, with students occupying lecture theatres and administrative buildings. The student demands (there are five of them) will not be granted by the government; and one can anticipate a growing frustration and radicalization on campus. I am guessing that the epicenter of the protest movement will shift from the streets to the universities. And here lies a big danger—for the students.

As Hong Kong approximates ever more closely a police state, the university campus will be one of the few sites left for safe student protest. Outside of it, several of its leaders are being rounded up. It is not unheard of for police to enter the university gates, but that may be one of the last remaining taboos to be generally observed. For now. But if the students, frustrated by an intransigent government, radicalize further, they may destroy the base of their protest. Social movements have their own élan. They are not governed by the norm of maximum utility. They do not seek advice from others or take much notice when it is given. But if this one did, I would plead: do not para-militarize the campus. Do not wear your black shirts or don your goggles and your masks in the classroom. The professors and the staff are not your enemies. They cannot harm you and some of them will willingly help you come what may.

It is not for the professor to take a political stand in class, to use the lecture theatre as a platform for propaganda. All students must feel welcome and assured that they will be treated fairly, whatever their views. Hong Kong students do not all think the same about the current protest. Mainland students also study at my university and some, perhaps the majority of them, oppose Hong Kong radicalism. But impartiality in the classroom does not require neutrality beyond it. The obvious can and should be said aloud. What is that?

Hong Kong students are right when they refuse to conflate ‘China,’ a great civilization, with the Communist Party, a brutal organization. They are right that the Communist Party threatens every political and civil value they cherish: free expression, free movement, free association, free voting, freedom of religion. The Party’s priority is total control. Its central demand is total loyalty. It has no love for the students. It will show them no mercy. And, essentially, the students are alone, save for the support of their own families, friends and communities. If the People’s Armed Police flood across the Shenzhen border, or if the PLA is unleashed from its garrison at Admiralty (the eastern part of the business district), the world will watch and condemn. Prime Ministers and Presidents will look severe and utter the usual platitudes of rebuke. But in time the West will make allowances and, in truth, there is little it can do. Macroeconomics will cauterize disapproval.

Nor, sadly, can Hong Kong youth expect solidarity from the most militant of Western university students and faculty. They lost their taste for freedom years ago. Israel is apparently a bigger offense to their sensibilities than Communist China (or Iran). In all significant respects, these Westerners are the opposite of the young people I know. While Hong Kong students detest Communism, many of their Western counterparts embrace Marxism. While Western post-colonialists deride Western civilization, Hong Kongers wish they could have more of it. When Hong Kong students talk of a safe-space they mean a shelter from tear-gas and rubber bullets, not a refuge from offensive words. A trigger warning is not a professor’s presage of a painting by Goya; it is the sound of a revolver shot discharged skywards in the Causeway Bay night.

In Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad describes pre-revolutionary Russia as ‘an oppressed society where the noblest aspirations of humanity, the desire of freedom, an ardent patriotism, the love of justice, the sense of pity, and even the fidelity of simple minds are prostituted to the lusts of hate and fear, the inseparable companions of an uneasy despotism.’ Today, these noble aspirations have moved eastwards. All rebellion produces hate and fear. It is an open question whether love of this city, a belief in justice and a sense of pity can prevail over baser passions.


Peter Baehr teaches in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His most recent book is The Unmasking Style in Social Theory.


  1. “They are right that the Communist Party threatens every political and civil value they cherish: free expression, free movement, free association, free voting, freedom of religion. The Party’s priority is total control.”

    “Nor, sadly, can Hong Kong youth expect solidarity from the most militant of Western university students and faculty. They lost their taste for freedom years ago. Israel is apparently a bigger offense to their sensibilities than Communist China (or Iran). In all significant respects, these Westerners are the opposite of the young people I know. While Hong Kong students detest Communism, many of their Western counterparts embrace Marxism. While Western post-colonialists deride Western civilization, Hong Kongers wish they could have more of it.”

    More proof that communism and socialism are best admired from afar. Excellent article but unfortunately I agree with the author and don’t see it ending well for Hong Kong.

  2. On behalf of the United States of America, I apologize for the behavior of leftist kids. We loathe them as much as you do.

    Thanks to the author for this brave letter.

  3. While I support the mostly students who are protestings, I have to wonder–is it worth it? Under the treaty, China will regain full control in 2047. Unless there’s a miracle, the same sclerotic communists will be in control. Instead, they younger ones should be making plans to emigrate so that their progeny may be born in a free country.

  4. I still remember from highschool the definition we were taught of of what a real greek tragedy is: a hero fighting his fight, knowing that he is going to loose, and MUST go down.

    We prefer the biblical David/Goliath story, and maybe half of all Hollywood movies deal on the theme: small and apparently weak (but fair and right) wins from the brute giant.
    How will the drama unfold?? We, in the West (and so long the global Goliath without serious adversaries) can only watch, pray and stand at the side.

  5. With that rationale they should just give up! All people should give up against China.

    I think I would want to fight.

  6. That, Trapped, is the right reaction, and the theme of all tragedies: you have to fight because of the ideal and the courage, but you know that you have no chance to win. The end of all tragedies is the catharsis (the -eleos- and the -phobos- have to be dealt with), an outcome we, spoiled Westerners, lamentably no longer know how to live with , how to go through, to sense.

  7. And I wonder (am not a China specialist), whether there is something comparable to our tragedy culture in the world of Confucius and Lao Tse. Anybody who can tell me??
    Quite possible that the Chinese mainly think in a future of material things and money, and much less so in one of freedom (= chaos and uproar, to be avoided as much as possible, no good for the neighbourhood and the family).

    What I think: they are just waiting and letting it go, no need even to interfere, like in bushfire, it will die out on itself when you have patience (Confucius? Lao Tse ??).

  8. Carrie Lam’s recent announcement of the withdrawal of the offending legislation may be a glimmer of hope. She must have received approval from Beijing. Someone in Beijing must be listening, watching evaluating. Perhaps the attitudes of Emperor Xi are being challenged within the ruling structure.

  9. @Michael

    Yes I saw that recent development and viewed it as a positive sign. It could also put a dent in the protesters stamina. Beijing appears to have little to fear from the protesters, so making them martyrs would not be wise. Where or how far this apparent capitulation will lead remains to be seen. However for now I would have to say Advantage protesters. Thank you for your observation.

  10. 2047 is 28 years away. That’s an entire generation. If you were told that your home would become part of a tyranny, 28 yrs from now, would you leave or fight for freedom? You also miss the fact that the frontline troops are lower working class, and most cannot afford to emmigrate. There is also the hope that, in 28 years, the situation will become more advantageous.
    And lastly, you are talking about events in the future, which need to be addressed, but this moment needs to be addressed, first, or there is no hope in winning the later struggles to come.
    My heart and sympathies to the brave people of Hong Kong.

  11. Trappedindreams, I would hope I would fight also. These rebels remind me of the incredibly brave young people who tried to fight the Soviet Union in Budapest in 1956. A great many were slaughtered by the Soviets. The Soviet Union went down in 1989. They remind me of the incredibly brave young Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who fought an unwinnable battle in 1943. They were all killed except for a few who escaped. In 1945 the Nazis went down. It appears no one thinks anyone can beat back the Chinese communists today.
    I certainly do not want to see any of these incredibly brave freedom fighters be killed, but I must say it is impressive when a brave young Chinese person essentially says give me liberty or give me death.

  12. Indeed if people think having liberty isn’t worth fighting for and just left for somewhere else. How long until those bastions of liberty were underthreat?

  13. I am not so sure that it is the loud and aggressive fire throwing youths that have led to the change in regards to the legislation. I think maybe 2 million mums and dads and nannas on the street may have had more to do with it. The powers in Beijing May have also rethought what stupid idea it was to strangle the golden goose that is Hong Kong.

  14. The 5000 people I share a community with are howling and yelling slogans out of their homes all in unison like a pack of wolves as I write this. It is 10:00 pm here but the spirits are high. This has been a ritual since last week. I am divided over how the things have turned out to be so far. The protests, peaceful to the ugly have a meta-narrative that goes beyond freedoms, democracy, identity and defiance. It is equally about fear, anxiety and safety of a people who feel they are on their way to the gallows where their indomitable spirits are to be extinguished forever, the falsification of a hope they had harboured ever since 1997.
    Even though the struggle has been of a patient nature with the occasional outburst, what happened last week only portends that there is an inherent proclivity among masses to devolve into panic induced violence.

    A student I spoke to last week, woefully said -

    “We have got nothing to lose and We have got everything to lose.”

    I hope Hong Kong lives.

  15. Everybody in the West hopes so, Hash, the problem is: Hongkong lies very East, and East is East and West is West. I wonder what the bosses in Beijing think about riots and rebellious youths, what I remember from my (very Christian and Western) father, somewhere in my early youth, nothing positive about rebellion and demonstrations, at that time the golden rule was: law and order . But how is that now in China Mainland? And with the parents and shopkeepers in Hongkong? Do these youngsters think about their future after 2047? They are all on the black list already, poor kids!
    Are they thinking maybe to emigrate and come to our free West in a couple of years??

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