Humans of Hong Kong

Humans of Hong Kong

Translated version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News. 立場新聞專題、人訪的英文版本。

2019/11/17 - 21:51

Hong Kong Belongs to Everyone Who Shares Its Pain: the Vision of July 1st’s Only Unmasked Protester

Humans of Hong Kong 為《立場新聞》新欄目,刊出由特約作者翻譯、英文版本的立場專題、人物專訪,方便國際讀者閱讀。

"Humans of Hong Kong" is a brand new column highlighting the English version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News.

In mid-June, Brian Leung Kai-ping (梁繼平) was in the United States when he received his professor’s feedback on his master thesis: This is one of the best master theses I’ve come across in my teaching career.

For an aspiring academic, this is a remarkable achievement. But it didn’t cheer Brian up. Although his field of study is civil society, resistance movements, and democratic transition, much of his days were spent staring at the computer screen, crunching numbers. As he prepared to defend his thesis, he couldn’t help but switch to online live-stream videos, which showed young people being beaten and rounded up by the police back in Hong Kong. Besides tears rolling down his face, he could feel no other emotions.

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“I was very anxious to go home, to be with my friends, and the protesters on the streets.”

After returning to Hong Kong, Brain found his most comfortable position in the multitude of faceless protesters  – grabbing a face mask, camping out on Lung Wo Road, and sieging the police headquarters. But this was before the third Hongkonger fell to her death on June 30. In the Legislative Council’s chamber , where the people’s will has been trampled upon, Brian removed his face-mask and declared: “If we want to win, we must keep winning together.” What followed was a proclamation which transformed the anti-extradition movement into a movement for democracy.

A highflyer from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), a PhD student at a prestigious American university, the only A+ student in 29 years… After July 1, the so-called “rioters” in some news reports were revealed to include the highflyers most looked upon by Hong Kong’s mainstream society. After learning of his stellar academic credentials, many feel sorry to see his great future sacrificed for the movement.  

Until now, Brian has put off watching a video clip of his speech that day, but he has no regrets for what he did. 

In a faceless movement, nothing is predictable, but none of it is incidental either.

71佔領立法會

71佔領立法會

Elite

Brian doesn’t like the word “elite”. 

He comes from a grass-root background, living in public housing. His father worked hard to make ends meet. As for Brian, though he spent all his time on video games in primary school, he was lucky enough to go to a school that uses English as a medium of instruction, where he was too involved in student politics to take his studies seriously before Year 10. Yet, he still managed to get into HKU.

Studying dual-degree in Government and Laws is like going in and out of a parallel universe for Brian. At a school-uniform party at HKU, he realised that all of his classmates came from prestigious schools. He was the odd one out, which was awkward. When he went back to the public housing where he lives, carrying a pile of English law books in his arms, Brian would see his primary school friends loitering around with a cigarette, who had tattoos and their hair was dyed blonde like a typical juvenile delinquent.

“People from my primary schools have drastically different lives. You gotta ask: Why?”

Brian knows he is fortunate, but he is never cocky. HKU is a cradle for high-ranking bureaucrats and bankers, but that’s not where his heart lies. Growing up in the most politically charged climate in Hong Kong’s history, Brian applied to join Scholarism (led by Joshua Wong), became the chief editor of HKUSU’s magazine, “The Undergrad,” and once envisaged himself as a lawmaker. He doesn’t enjoy being in the limelight, but he is in his element when debating. That excitement and thrill are as close as it gets to catharsis.

Meanwhile, he had also discovered his academic gifts. Skipping class every day during the Umbrella Movement, he still scored a GPA of 3.9. Brian isn’t an offensive type – the most he would do is hold a shield – but he sympathises with the valiant protesters, and is aggrieved by people who are apathetic to the despair felt by those who became valiant protesters. For years, factional squabbles overtook the resistance movement . Amid the raucous hubbub he contemplates: How can the civil society put their growth in perspective, and not experience the pangs of fragmentation again? 

After the Umbrella Movement, Brian believed firmly that his greatest possible contribution to Hong Kong lay in academia. He wanted to go to the U.S. for a doctorate, then return to Hong Kong to teach; he dreamt about enlightening a whole new generation of students, hosting writing salons at the weekends, debating perennially with liberals…But after consulting his professors, he was told, “There is no snowball's chance in hell that you can come back to teach in Hong Kong.”

That was after a book titled “Hong Kong Nationalism,” published, edited and contributed by Brian and other students was picked on by CY Leung for allegedly advocating Hong Kong Independence. 

“If I don’t become the best PhD student, nobody in Hong Kong will hire me.”

He decided to give it all he had. For two years, Brian studied every day for over a dozen hours without fail, with the goal that he would achieve a curriculum vitae so immaculate that universities in Hong Kong would have no excuse not to employ him except for political reasons. “I cannot afford to fail. My grades will decide if I can come home.”

Winter nights in Seattle feel particularly long. His daily routine was monotonous. He always thought of his classmate at HKU, Edward Leung, who’s in prison. He would imagine the pain he was bearing, and ask himself: What on earth am I doing here? Being physically divorced from Hong Kong and its politics, he was gripped by a feeling of estrangement, as if he was staring into the abyss. 

If he grits his teeth against the solitude and does well in his degree, he can almost see a ray of hope for realising his dream...

Had he thought about any of this for a second on that fateful day in July – had he so much as think of his own interests – perhaps Brian wouldn’t have stood up to make that speech.

Afterwards, he admitted embarrassingly that it was indeed an “impulsive” move. It might be so, but it was also inevitable. 

梁繼平

梁繼平

Oratory

In a live-streamed video, a young man took off his mask and shouted: “Hongkongers have nothing more to lose.” This scene reverberated across Hong Kong. But to those who know him, this was perhaps what was meant to be, sooner or later.

Brian’s girlfriend wasn’t at the scene. All of a sudden, her phone was buzzing, and before she could figure out what had happened, some of his relatives rang her up and pleaded to her tearfully to stop Brian. 

“They said only I could talk him out of this. But I didn't think I could.” She replied on the phone: Brian has made up his mind. We got to trust him. 

Making a life-changing decision is a matter of seconds.

That night, Brian followed the crowd into the Legislative Council. He felt excited about regaining the people’s legislature. But when he got to the main chamber, he saw the people roaming around. 

“People didn’t know what they were doing, there was no purpose, no agenda. The energy was drifting around, but it wasn’t converging,” Brian recounted. 

“The violence created a profound moral vacuum and a strong sense of meaninglessness – after all, what is this siege for?”

He thought to himself: It cannot end like this. He could almost hear the “peaceful, rational, non-violent” (PRN [1]) and valiant protesters’ finger-pointing, infighting, then everything would fall apart just like it did in the Umbrella Movement…

That moment, his mind was free of any thoughts of the risk of rioting charges, ruining his academic career, lawsuits, going into exile… All he knew was that if that night’s actions ended in a scene of violent venting of blind anger, then not only would the resistance movement be screwed, but the whole civil society would go down too. 

It cannot end this way. 

“The momentum of history was slipping away…I felt a great burden and a very powerful calling.”

He told his friend next to him that he wanted to say a few words. His friend didn’t say much other than: Go ahead, do it. 

After a short prayer, Brian stood on the table, took off his face mask, and raised his hands to quiet down the protesters. He began to speak. Camera lights kept flashing below. 

“Hey, fellow, wear your mask! The cameras are on!”

Protesters went up to stop him. Brian put the mask back on, but removed it again after a few seconds. It is difficult to speak with a mask on – especially for someone who loves public-speaking so much. 

His heart didn’t skip a beat. There was no adrenaline rush. He was calm and composed.

“Out of two million protesters, 1.9 million didn’t support the break-in. They thought it’d kill the movement…I wanted to morally appeal to them. It was the movement that summoned me at that very moment: someone had to reconcile the irreconcilable.”

It didn’t matter if Brian’s decision was in fact a misjudgement. After a rousing speech, the protesters voted with their feet to leave, and no PRN protesters entered the chamber. Strategically, Brian was another fucking idiot whose suggestions were ignored. He witnessed the number of people in the chamber dwindling from 100 to 50, then to 10. Journalists finally outnumbered the protesters. He thought: Oh, I lost this bet, now I’m going to end up in the dustbin of history. 

At the end, it was a devil-may-care boldness that cemented the imminent cracks that would have fragmented the movement.

“To some extent, the movement was altered by my misjudgement. It was a beautiful mistake. Don’t you think that’s the irony of history?”

梁繼平 Brian Leung

梁繼平 Brian Leung

Anonymity

As the protest movement was leaderless, no one could expect someone else to salvage it. Except themselves. 

In the chamber, no one knew that Brian was the author of “Hong Kong Nationalism” or a top-notch PhD student – all these labels were meaningless. He was just one of the many valiant protesters, who felt the gashing pain of factionalism. 

“You’re part of the movement. You cannot dissociate yourself from its successes and failures, or simply say a certain leader cocked it up. The movement is collectively owned. We all have a share of responsibility.” 

Everyone has to carry the success or failure of the movement on their shoulders. For this reason, everybody has the freedom and right to express themselves and explore a new path, regardless of their identities or their participation in previous social movements. Every word and deed of an individual can influence the direction of the movement. 

It is precisely because all protesters are anonymous that individuals stand out. 

“The government’s draconian rule forced the movement to emerge as faceless and decentralised, but it also caused a huge explosion in protesters’ mobility.”

This led Brian to think: Is this the true form of democracy?

“How does democracy look like in practice?  To me, it’s more about an open-ended process that allows people to come up with initiatives, and self-correct if the outcome is not what they want.  So it's less about getting the right outcome all the time, but that we value and protect individual freedom and dignity.”

Had the movement’s nature been different, Brian might not have emerged as a notable face of it. 

Brian’s personality is similar to his father –  gentle and stoical. Coming from a working class background, his father didn’t like politics. Ever since the episode related to the controversy surrounding “The Undergrad,” Brian had stepped into the media limelight, and as a result, tensions with his father grew. Politics marred their erstwhile cordial relationship. As Brian prioritized civic participation above all else, he put his relationship with his father on the back burner.

After July 1, his father deplored his son’s “rioter” behaviour. The night before Brian left for the U.S., the only thing his father said was, “Why won’t you stay to face the consequences of what you did?

Speechless, Brain prostrated before his father and bowed to him twice.

Pain

Now that his hope of teaching at home is dashed, academia seems meaningless to Brian. He lost his drive to forge ahead with his studies after returning to the U.S. 

To leave or to stay wasn’t an easy decision. He has the choice of studying abroad (or is it going into exile?) whilst protesters are being charged with rioting and getting injured one after another.  

Being physically remote from the frontlines of resistance, Brian realised his only remaining connection with the movement is his imagination of the other protesters’ afflictions. “Only then did I realise what really connects Hongkongers, apart from our common language and values, is the pain we share.”

Brian has the habit of looking for inspiration and courage from books. Hannah Arendt said: “Wherever you go, you will be a polis.” A community isn’t bound by geography. Rather, it is created by the language and actions of a people. Human freedom resides in their ability to create, in producing what is unforeseen, which allow them to break the fatalistic cycle of history. But as the Bible says, a new creation has to go through the throes of a difficult childbirth. 

Hong Kong is nurturing a wholly new identity. “For the past five years, there’s been a ‘missing link’ between the peaceful and more valiant protesters. They can’t persuade each other by theories alone. This can only be done through a spasm of sharp pains and practice.”

Only by imagining others’ pains and being willing to face the same lot will a community be born. To sustain and participate in the community require tireless actions. 

“Feeling pain makes your life more truthful. This political subjectivity is a recognition of the Hongkongers’ dignity, which is the most seminal trait of the movement. This will characterize Hong Kong's future resistance.”

Actions can help overcome the abysmal sense of estrangement. In September, Brian flew to Washington to lobby for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.” As he eloquently explained the political situation in Hong Kong, he felt the joy of oration again. 

He realised it would be impossible for him to stay in the ivory tower. 

Lobbying has its own set of rules. When asked why he stormed the parliament and why the protests were turning more violent, Brian had to explain that it was done out of self-defence, that the violence was only targeted at inanimate objects, that protesters showed great restraint. 

“When you cannot justify violence, you can only try to exonerate it.”

Thinking back to July 1, did he manage to move those PRN protesters by a so-called “moral justification”? Perhaps his willingness to sacrifice his future was what earned their trust. 

So much for the violence directed at dead objects.

“If you have to use physical force to suppress, or to bring someone to heel…doing away with moral justification means you’ll never be able to persuade anyone, but only overpower them with sheer force,” Brian said. “That kind of violence is something the movement cannot withstand.”

Yet he remains confident. So long as the movement is still open-minded, then it can rectify itself. This potential for self-correction is unpredictable. A case in point is the storming of the legislature. Prior to it, no one could imagine the movement can still stay united after that. 

“What if things didn’t turn out that way on July 1? The movement might still not fall apart. Everybody could be as light as a feather or as heavy as a mountain – your presence doesn’t promise the movement’s success, but your absence will definitely guarantee its failure. Everyone’s contribution counts.” 

“Only if we all put aside our ego and personal interests, and don’t ask whether anyone will remember our efforts, will the power of the civil society reach its zenith.”

Actions

Having been away from Hong Kong for some time, Leung feels very distanced from the resistance movement and is unable to feel the pulse of the protesters’ sentiments.

But his impact was still being felt. One day, he saw his name in the news. His former classmate was so moved by the events of July 1 that he set his mind on running in the District Council election to challenge vested interests in local villages and triad society.

He wonders if the juvenile delinquents who went to the same primary school as he have been out “dreaming”[2]?

Academic highflyers and working-class blue-collars, new immigrants and ethnic South Asians; they’re all “fellows.” The true face behind the face mask isn’t an identity, but the most rudimentary qualities of being human – fragility, courage, selflessness, determination. Although they meet without knowing each other, protesters become one in their actions.

Only in actions are we truly liberated. The beauty of mankind is only expressed in the public sphere.

Brian’s sister bought a new phone for her dad, which has the Stand News and LIHKG apps installed. Only after reading other protesters’ respect for “Brother Leung” did Brian’s father began to change his views on the resistance movement. When he misses his son, he’ll send a “sticker” that has an oft-repeated slogan by protesters, “We advance and retreat as one.” (齊上齊落) Thousands of miles away, with the Pacific Ocean between them, the sticker lands in Brian’s phone.

Those few minutes when he stood up to speak in LegCo may seem like an uncanny mistake, yet it was also the aggregate of his whole life. “That was a moment of truth...25 years of knowledge, actions, experience, emotions all culminate in a moment’s decision.”

Sooner or later, every protester will have to make the decision. When that moment of reckoning comes, how will you act? 

“I am proud of myself that I seized the moment. I was born for it.”

71佔領立法會,圖片來源:HKFP,Todd R. Darling 攝

71佔領立法會,圖片來源:HKFP,Todd R. Darling 攝

 

Footnote:

[1]  The pro-democracy protesters can be broadly divided into two types: (1) “Peaceful, Rational and Non-Violent” (PRN) refers to those who eschew violent forms of political expressions. (2) “Valiant” (勇武) protesters are their more radical counterparts, who are more ready to use force. They gear up with respirator masks, goggles, and hardhats, whilst “PRN” protesters usually only wear a face mask.

[2]   “Dreaming” is a coded word for joining non-police-sanctioned protests widely used by netizens.

 

(Original version: 〈【專訪】屬於每一人的共同體 梁繼平:真正連結香港人的,是痛苦〉