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Occupy Central from an Expat’s Perspective

By: Brooke Chenoweth

I’ve always had a tricky relationship with Hong Kong. Being an expat has meant that it’s taken me a long time to feel at home here. But I’m rapidly approaching the seven-year mark, which means that I’m now eligible for permanent residency in Hong Kong. No more visa renewal, no more sitting on the sidelines as a transient visitor. I’ll never be granted citizenship, but as a permanent resident I can now vote. Given that I’ve lost the right to vote in my native country, this is a pretty big deal to me.

After the events of last week, it’s suddenly huge – Occupy Central has been a game-changer. For months there’s been speculation on Occupy Central and many, our government included, have tried to garner support by talking up the negative impact that this movement will have on stock markets, and housing prices and tourism. Hong Kong is nothing, if not resilient, and it has survived much worse. But one thing is for certain, however these protests end, the ramifications will change the course of the city’s future.

Against all odds, and despite facing rubber bullets, tear gas and angry, violent mobs, the students and protestors have remained resolutely calm and peaceful, and I’m filled with immense pride as I watch it all unfold. Medical school students are positioned to assist those who are injured, there is a team responsible for clearing away garbage left by protesters – they’re even sorting recyclables. The overwhelming number of images of what’s been labelled “the most polite protest in the world” shows the sort of civil disobedience you would expect from a nation as law abiding as Hong Kong. No stores have been looted, no cars overturned, and until the anti-Occupy mob turned on protestors on Friday, no one had rioted.

The protestors have shown nothing but respect and compassion for their city and fellow citizens, which I never expected to see. In a city of seven million people, it’s very easy to adopt an “every man for himself” mentality. But this movement, this coming together of so many locals, from so many walks of life, shows that this just isn’t the case here at all. There’s a belief in Hong Kong as an independent nation, capable of deciding on its own future, and with such pride in its own unique culture that its citizens have risked unknown ramifications to fight for it.

The Occupy Central movement has reminded the world just how impassioned people can be when it comes to democracy, and how dangerous it can be when you stand up to those who oppose it. The unprovoked and unexpected clashes this weekend at protest sites around the city were a sign that people have begun to grow tired of the inconvenience and disruption to their daily lives, and that many disagree with what the protestors are trying to achieve. With tensions running so high, there is always the risk that Occupy Central will end in bloodshed, but there’s an even greater risk that it will all come to nothing in the end. The people of Hong Kong are standing their ground for now, but I have to wonder whether or not they will politely pack up and go home when more serious interventions are brought in to remove them.

Joyce Man wrote a piece in the SCMP about leaving Hong Kong earlier this month where she talked about leaving, and the ability to do so, as an “insurance policy.” As expats we always have that insurance policy – we’re free to leave whenever we wish. But her sentiment, that she might one day choose to leave because she can’t bear to see the city that she loves “slip away”, really resonated with me. If China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, which now seems almost inevitable, Hong Kong, as we know it will slip away.

I’ve come to love this city too, and for my children, who were both born here, it is the only home they’ve ever known. But it’s a very different city to the one we moved to seven years ago, and the difficulties of life here that Joyce Man mentions are the same aspects that have come to frustrate us over time, but I honestly had not given much thought to local politics until recently. I preferred not to get involved, believing it didn’t really affect me – my expat status affording me the right to live in quiet ignorance of the unrest and disharmony slowly building momentum. And then I realised that if we are to have a future here, to really prove that this is our home now, we need to stand up and own that disharmony.

I’ve been heartened by the number of expats supporting this movement, including those we know who once lived here but have moved away. At the end of the day, it isn’t our fight, but if we care at all for our neighbours, our colleagues and friends, we have a responsibility to support those fighting for change and to make sure their voices are heard. We support the students and protestors, not because we’re pro-democracy, but because we’re pro-Hong Kong, and the outcome of this movement affects us, and our way of life too, now. When I vote for the first time in 2017, I want to know I’m voting for a representative chosen by the people of Hong Kong.

We may not have been born here, and many of us won’t die here, but I know we will always have a connection to Hong Kong, whether we live here or not. And I will make sure that my boys know that they came from a place where tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2014 to stand up for their right to decide the future of their country. I truly hope that these will be stories I can tell them with pride one day, and not with sadness.

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