Alumni experience Hong Kong riots as teachers

Whitney Winter, Staff Writer

Hong Kong is a special administrative region and one of the most densely populated places in the world with an estimated population of 7.4 million. This territory spans 426 square miles on the eastern, south side of China.

The transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong occurred July 1, 1997. The United Kingdom’s administration for the colony of Hong Kong ended and control returned to mainland China. This ended British colonial rule in Hong Kong after 156 years.

Hong Kong continues to maintain governing and economic systems separate from those of China. The “one country, two systems” policy preserved Hong Kong’s “civil service, independent courts, freewheeling press, open internet and other features that distinguish it from the Chinese mainland,” Mike Ives, New York Times writer, said. Hong Kong’s autonomy is guaranteed under a mini-constitution, Basic Law, which expires in 2047. Basic Law is being weakened by China’s ruling Communist Party.

China’s president Xi Jinping “is determined to see Hong Kong succeed under ‘one country, two systems’…,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Suggestions have risen that the Chinese government was using the civil unrest as an excuse to tighten control over the city.

According to the South China Morning Post, civil unrest was triggered in June 2019, by the withdrawal of the extradition bill which has evolved into an anti-government movement with a push for more democracy.

“The bill would allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland,” according to the New York Times. “Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has said the new law is urgently needed to prosecute a Hong Kong man who is wanted in Taiwan for the murder of his girlfriend.”

Linsey Costa, 2013 WSC alumna working in Hong Kong, said worried Hong Kongers believe that this would give China the chance to take anyone they wanted.

Costa majored in English Literature while at Wayne State. She works as an English kindergarten teacher in Hong Kong. She said she moved to the country because she wanted to teach overseas. Costa is Jennifer Show’s roommate and is a few months away from getting permanent residency.

Forty-three of the 70 seats in the Hong Kong legislature are held by pro-Beijing lawmakers. If the extradition bill would come to vote, the New York Times said the bill is likely to pass. The bill has been suspended due to protesters demands.

Protesters are seeking to ‘reclaim’ their city from authoritarianism. “When marchers first took to the streets in June, they had one goal: the withdrawal of a proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China,” according to TIME magazine. “The legislation was eventually scrapped, but the demands broadened amid growing fears that Beijing is eroding the unique freedoms – of press, assembly, speech – that differentiate this cosmopolitan hub of 7.5 million from the rest of China.”

Show says she is originally from Fremont, Nebraska, a town surrounded by agriculture, so moving halfway across the world to a ‘concrete jungle’ was definitely a shock. The subway system was intimidating at first but all the stops are in English and the lines are color coordinated. The people are very friendly towards foreigners and are willing to help if someone gets lost. “The general vibe is that of a big city—everyone is on the go,” Show said.

2014 WSC alumna, Show majored in English, Writing and Literature and minored in Editing and Publishing. She was the treasurer for the International Club during her freshman year. Show originally planned on being an editor before she learned about teaching overseas. Her roommate, Costa, had graduated a year before her and introduced her to the idea of teaching English in Hong Kong. After graduating Show obtained her certificate for Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Show said she holds a working visa but in three years she can apply for citizenship. She decided to move to Hong Kong because her mother’s family is originally from the country. “I saw this as a good opportunity to get in touch with this part of my roots,” Show said.

She works at a learning center, a facility where students can go to get extra practice in oral, writing and reading skills. She teaches kindergarten and elementary level students, the youngest is a two and a half years-old and her oldest is eight-years-old.

Show said the reasons why the protests have continued after Carrie Lam withdrew the extradition bill, back in October, deals with the protesters’ slogan “Five Demands, Not One Less”.

The protesters demand the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the government to retract the use of ‘riots’ when they describe the protests and an investigation into all of the police brutality cases that have come forward. Their other demands include protesters that have been arrested to be let go and all charges dropped and for Lam to step down from office.

“I do not blame the protesters, I blame the police,” Show said. “When the protests first started getting violent, I became worried.”

“There have been reports of police officers using excessive force on people who aren’t even a part of the protests; they just happened to walk into the wrong place,” Show said. “I am terrified of what could happen to me, should I be in an area where a protest is happening. My roommate has had to walk me home from the subway station because there was a protest happening in our neighborhood. We’re well aware of what could happen to me considering I am Asian and I can’t speak Cantonese.”

November 2019, came with more violence when police surrounded two university campuses where protesters had barricaded themselves with weapons. During protests, violent confrontations regularly unfold as crowds thin and families and older couples retreat from the streets. “Masked agitators coordinate anonymously via encrypted messaging apps,” according to TIME. “Dressed in black and donning Guy Fawkes masks, they smash streetlights, burn train stations and vandalize stores they deem pro-Beijing.”

Show said the protests do not break out spontaneously but the dates, times and meeting points are made public on different social media platforms, both in Cantonese and English. When protests are close to starting stores typically shut down early so their employees can leave safely. Most people will stay home because of how violent protests have gotten lately but Show said “a lot of foreigners like to be in the field of action.”

Instead of agreeing to political demands, Beijing has appointed a new director of the central government’s liaison office, in Hong Kong, to act as an enforcer. Since the beginning of these protests, June 2019, nearly 7,000 people have been arrested and more than 1,000 under the age of 18.

Show said she lives right on the main road where protesters march so when the movement began last year, she thought the sight of so many people coming together to stand up for their rights was ‘absolutely beautiful’. “The best way to describe what the protests look like is a colorful ocean of people,” Show said. “It’s a never-ending flow of people. It’s very powerful. You can feel their determination and their resilience.” She said now the protests end in violence.

The protests that happened over the new year ended in one big brawl between the protesters, police and reporters. Police have yielded to firing tear gas into the crowds of protesters and Show said the gas always ends up leaking into her apartment. “At one point the police were dragging off the subdued protesters into this attached ATM room,” Show said. “All of it is boarded up so no one could see what was happening. That’s scary because there have been a lot of videos of the police abusing their power and using excessive force. Anything could have happened to the protesters.”

Show said she thinks the protesters are “extremely courageous and brave” to continue fighting, knowing the violent outcomes.

“Their willingness to fight against an unjust system is inspiring,” Show said. “And I hope that some consensus can be reached and Hong Kong will be at peace.”

Show said she does not believe that the protests are going to end. “I believe there is too much bad blood between the protesters and riot police for things to ever go back to normal,” Show said.

“The police still haven’t answered for the Yuen Long Attack that happened back in July. They continue to break their own laws and nothing is being done about it.”
“…they are adding on the situation with the Wuhan virus as well,” Costa said.

Show said she is interested to see what happens next, whether the U.S. will get involved or if the UN will attempt to help the civilians of Hong Kong.