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Déjà Vu in Dissent: Being a Hong Konger in America

Amanda Li

July 1st, 2020


My name is Amanda, and I am not Chinese.

Yes, my family is from a city that is controlled by China. Yes, I am ethnically Han Chinese. But I, along with a large majority of people from Hong Kong, have our own distinct culture and identity — I am a Hong Konger.  I fear and hate the violence and racism against Chinese people across the world. But at the same time, my city and my people have had an inherent distinction from and dislike towards the mainland. The recent protests for the Five Demands have only furthered this separation.

The Five Demands stem from a need for better rights and a lack of oppression. These demands include the retraction of the now-removed extradition bill, removing the legal classification of peaceful protests as riots, freeing peaceful protesters that have been arrested for “rioting,” a commission of inquiry into police brutality, and giving Hong Kongers universal suffrage in electing both the legislative and executive branches of government.  The fact is, these demands are reasonable in American eyes: allowing people in Hong Kong to elect members of their government fully, freeing people from a system of police brutality and giving them rights Americans were guaranteed in the First Amendment, namely the right of assembly.

From day one, my parents stressed the dangers of the Communist Party of China (also known as the CCP): they told me, “Amanda, if you know what’s best for you, you will never step foot on Mainland Chinese soil.” When I was younger, I didn’t truly understand why. At the time, I knew the bare minimum of Hong Kong history. Every year when my family visited, I noticed that a large part of Hong Kong culture had to do with “resisting” the mainland. I knew we were a British colony, and that China was bad. But when I was eight, after the Umbrella movement, I learned about how China was trying to force Hong Kong to bow down to the CCP, removing the rights that we’d enjoyed for years. Then, I truly began to understand how oppression felt. Sometimes on the subway, I would see the elderly cringe and whisper when they heard a group speaking in Mandarin. Most members of my family pity mainlanders, blaming their “blind following of Beijing” on the lack of perspective, education, and resources China gives them. In a way, this is true. There is no opposition in the mainland like there is in Hong Kong because people don’t know that there could be an opposition. Media in the mainland criticise us, portraying us as traitors whose time as a British colony blinded us to the good that the CCP provides. It’s pretty obvious from my perspective, both in Hong Kong and New York, that the CCP is just lying to their people, out for themselves and their power and not caring who gets hurt in the process. But is it just the CCP that does this? Lately as I‘ve read more about my identity and the history of the places I call home, I’ve found that there was more to criticise in another one of my home cities.

My name is Amanda, and I am an American.

I was born and raised in NYC, living in Brooklyn for sixteen years. I live at the boundary of three neighbourhoods: Bensonhurst, Mapleton, and Gravesend. In my community, there’s a mix of people from diverse backgrounds living together in harmony. My block alone has so many people from different places; I have Burmese, Italian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Chinese, and mixed neighbors. It’s given me a taste of the diversity that we all surround ourselves with. But “diversity” in America is more than just background; it also manifests itself in government treatment. Specifically, I’m thinking about the anti-POC actions of the police force, and how the system in and of itself has historically been discriminatory against Black and Hispanic communities. At first, I didn’t understand the full history of the anti-Black sentiment fostered by American history -- not until learning the countless deaths of unarmed Black people did I truly grasp the magnitude of the racism that’s still prevalent in this country. I finally understood how we, as Americans, had to rise up against the inherently corrupt system that kept all of us from getting the equal treatment we deserved. When I saw people protesting the coronavirus quarantine, but denouncing Black Lives Matters protesters, I realised something important: We criticize other governments and how they suppress opinions of their people, pitying those who can’t see the truth. But really, aren’t we living in that same situation?

It seems like for Americans, these Black Lives Matter protests feel different from those in the past. We have had enough. There is a legitimate opportunity for change. When I think of the protests that are happening around the country, I feel a glimmer of hope. But when I picture the almost-year long protest movement back in Hong Kong, all I can feel is fear. Last year, my parents canceled our Hong Kong trip because of the protests — being American would put us in danger if we got arrested; being young made me a target. The police force there arrests everyone without hesitating to use force. They shoot crowds with rubber bullets and tear gas, sexually assault protesters, and pepper spray anyone who gets in their way.   Sound familiar? Of course. The Black Lives Matter protests across the country have seen similar confrontations. I’ve even seen Instagram posts informing American protesters of helpful defence tactics used by Hong Kong protesters— piling bricks as roadblocks, using water to neutralise tear gas, disabling Touch and Face ID to prevent the police entering phones. It makes me feel a bit bittersweet, but very angry.

Since we were children, we’ve been taught that America is the land of the free — our system of representation has made our people happy and successful like no other country’s could. But really, are we truly that different from the CCP, the system of government that we all take for granted as oppressive? We claim to be the defender of democracy, but what about our relationship with Puerto Rico? We have treated Puerto Rico as a colony since the end of the Spanish-American War, giving them a local government, but not the right to vote for the President or members of Congress. Puerto Rico has been economically dependent on the United States for years. During Hurricane Maria, we didn’t do enough to help the island recover from the natural disaster. Somehow, in their time of need, we expected them to do alright despite being under our control, lacking independence for hundreds of years.

How is the situation in Puerto Rico any different from that in Hong Kong? Hong Kongers cannot vote for the Chief Executive, the head of Hong Kong’s local government. Beijing wields large power over the people of Hong Kong, passing laws against the will of the people. This is happening despite China agreeing to a one country, two systems policy, designed to protect Hong Kongers’ rights from Chinese interference until 2047. Hong Kongers aren’t being treated differently from China economically either: American sanctions affect Hong Kong just as much as the mainland. So where do we draw the line between freedom and oppression?

My name is Amanda, and I am a Hong Konger living in America.

It’s quite easy to see parallels running between the current protests across the country and the ongoing Hong Kong protest movement: problems rooted in years and years of differences and injustices that somehow lead to our rights being violated; cases of police brutality leading to anti-police protests, demands for justice and change that elected officials frustratingly don’t provide. There are stories of burning and looting, boycotting businesses that don’t help protesters; people getting tear gassed, arrested, sprayed with water cannons. So many people are reposting images and accounts on their social media platforms, signing petitions, and inspired to speak out about change that needs to happen. Awareness is spreading of the Black Lives Matters movement.

But remember the other side of the coin. The Hong Kong protests are still going on. In Summer 2019, there was increasing awareness of the issue— it seemed as if our decades-long search for political freedom would actually come to fruition. Yet we are still here, a year after the protests began, trying to protect Hong Kong from the effects of another Chinese law that undermines the one country-two systems principle, and nobody seems to care anymore. This law is taking away the rights of my family and my people in Hong Kong, just like how America’s systemic racism is taking the rights of my people here. It has been passed and enforced against the efforts of countless residents, people in need of the worldwide support and awareness that was there last summer, awareness that seems to have disappeared. What happened? Is this the fate of the Black Lives Matter movement? Is there really a distinction between my experience with protests as a Hong Konger and similar protests as an American?

Yes. And this distinction is one that we don’t notice every day, one that we have to shift perspective to notice.

My U.S. History teacher taught me that we should always look at other perspectives — whether those of other states, other social classes, or other countries. She told us to look at things from other views, to empathise and observe the patterns that exist outside of our experience. But there is a perspective not many people are considering. Americans are not alone. People from all over the world are supporting the movement toward racial justice. They are all going out and protesting for Black rights in America and globally. Here is the question I pose: for all of these countries, all these movements that supported Americans, where were we when they needed us? To all of us who are now posting pictures and signing petitions for Black Lives Matters, where were we when the Hong Kong protests broke out? Where were we when we learned about Xinjiang, Chile, France? The short answer? Not caring. And why didn’t we care? The same reason that we criticise others for not caring about this movement. Privilege.  We don’t have to care about issues in other countries because we don’t always experience those issues. In America, we don’t recognise the privileges each and every one of us theoretically have every day. Physically being in American territory gives us rights that other countries don’t guarantee: our First Amendment rights. We have the power to say whatever we want, to assemble, to have our own systems of beliefs. Every one of these rights are reinforced by the government; no power can legally deny us these rights. It is true that not all Americans get equality in practice— there are many marginalised groups that are treated much differently through loopholes in the system. Our lives are not fully peaceful, and we have our own issues with equality and opportunity. However, we have the means to express our opinions and to do what we can to enact change. We are pushing for progress, taking the offensive to make sure our injustices will someday be gone. Other countries are holding large-scale protests to support our cause. Yet we, as Americans, have not held solidarity protests for other countries like they have for us.

With all our talk about privilege — white privilege, class privilege — maybe it’s time to think about the privileges we get from being in a country. Every day, so many people dream and try to move to America and get the rights that we have every day. Maybe it’s time, as Americans, to practice what we preach. Look outside the border. Don’t limit your activism to issues facing America. Instead of waiting to learn about issues facing other countries, do research and initiate searches for places that need help. By helping those in other countries in their movements, all of us, as Americans, can use our privilege to help make the world -- not just our country -- a better place.

Contact contributing writer Amanda Li at to learn about the National Security Law and current protests in Hong Kong.

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