Both 2014’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement and this summer of discontent surprised many people in the international community. The clues, though, have been around for years: Each time the city’s rubber-stamp election committee selected a new chief executive citizens didn’t care for, the first time officials tried to introduce an unpopular security bill, or when booksellers were nabbed off the streets only to reappear behind bars in mainland China. Such indignities, compounded, were bound to come to a head. Another clue — a big one — is embodied by people like me.
In 1983, when my family left Hong Kong for the United States, almost 20,000 other people decided to do the same thing. The economy was in great shape. The city was one of Asia’s “tigers" and had just experienced a decade of near-double-digit gross domestic product growth. Gross national product per capita during those years was comparable to New Zealand’s or Ireland’s. We left a modern, well-run, cosmopolitan city that was one of the world’s top financial centers.
There was little economic reason to leave. Mainland China’s growth, powered by its manufacturing industry, was just about to take off, and people expected it to be a boon for the territory. Indeed, many of those who stayed profited. Yet by 1990 (the year following the Tiananmen Square crackdown), the annual number of people exiting hit 60,000. By the eve of the British handover of the colony to China in 1997, almost every Hongkonger knew someone who had decided to go.
Those of us who left — the hundreds of thousands who are now Americans, Canadians, Australians and others — amount to the biggest indictment of Beijing and its political model. No one wants to admit abandoning our homeland, but that’s what we did — or, if we were too young to do it ourselves, our parents did it because they didn’t trust the Communist Party. Surveys from the time showed half the city wanted to leave if given the chance, motivated by political uncertainty.
None of us who chose to uproot our lives knew with any certainty how we’d fare. For some years, it was perilously touch and go whether my family would achieve the American Dream. But moving to a foreign country, apparently, was less of a gamble for my risk-averse father than staying behind in Hong Kong.
I will speak only for myself, but watching young Hongkongers fighting for their future, and sensing the agony of usually orderly citizens driven to take increasingly extreme and violent measures to preserve the city’s rights — I suspect many of us have never felt worse seeing our difficult decision to leave validated. Our families had hoped for the best but prepared for the worst, recognizing the fundamentally irreconcilable pairing of a closed, authoritarian society with an open, liberal one.
It seems extraordinary that so many people left on the possibility that this day would come. How could my family, back in 1983, forecast 2019? Surely there were other considerations, and there were. But for us and many others, politics was the paramount reason. It is just very difficult to trust a government that unleashed the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and rolled tanks into Tiananmen. Our departures served as one of the indicators of Hong Kong’s fate.
Whatever this story’s outcome, it is difficult to imagine Chinese President Xi Jinping backing down, and so it feels as if it’s only a question now of how many protesters will die in the process. They know that, too.
Of the many slogans used, one frequently posted both online and on the streets, asks, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” When I read this and see the bravery of Hongkongers out there not only demanding government accountability but in many ways having found themselves on the front lines of a 21st-century global ideological battle against authoritarianism, I feel a special responsibility as a member of the Hong Kong diaspora to speak up. Many of those protesting right now never had the means to leave. So for those of us who did, let’s put pressure on the politicians and governments of the democracies we’re now citizens of, and demand they take a stand for Hong Kong and for human rights.