Occupy Hong Kong: A View from Shenzhen

This is a tale of two occupations–in Tin Sau Bazaar and Central, the former artistic and the later political, but both explicit calls for social justice.

On Saturday night, friends and I crossed the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border at Shenzhen Bay and took a local bus to the Tin Shui Wai (天水围) metro, where we jumped on the light rail to Tin Sau (天秀) and it’s underused bazaar.

The bazaar itself presented the symptoms of hyper planning. Isolated near the Chinese border, Tin Sau is home to low-income and chronically under employed Hong Kong residents. It is also inconveniently located with respect to the Tin Shui Wai town center. In short, visiting the market for anyone but local residents is a problem. Tin Sau hawkers and residents had set up an open and low-capital flee market in any empty lot. The flee market catered to the needs of its immediate community. However,the government decided to improve the situation by installing small stalls and kiosks that were too expensive for vendors to rent because the location only serves a low volume of local residents. Not unexpectedly the local response to hyper planning has been resentment and a lingering despair over the government’s failure not only to help the people of Tin Sau, but instead to have actively hurt them through ill considered policies.

This particular Saturday night culminated several months of community interventions with an Autumn Night’s Fair (天水秋凉祭) which had been organized by the Make a Difference program of the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture. MaD brings together young Hong Kongers aged 16-35 in order to provide fresh solutions to social problems. The Fair itself aimed to generate public interest in and support of local vendors. The Chinese name of the fair conveys the idea of autumn coolness, and indeed gentle breezes felt clean and fresh on bare arms and exposed faces. The tour of the bazaar, the art events, and karaoke area animated the area, bringing a sense of festivity to the area.

And yet. Although many people participated in the art events, fewer seemed to be shopping, which was the point of the Fair. It was clear that keeping the bazaar and this small community vibrant would require future interventions. Nevertheless, my Shenzhen friends were impressed by the social impulse behind the Fair, commenting that this was the work artists should be doing. They also expressed hope that such public benefit programs (公益) could be brought to Shenzhen in order to ameliorate injustice in the city.

Meanwhile in Central, tensions between unarmed student protestors and the police were escalating. The Occupy Central movement has embodied the social justice issue of Tin Sau–crudely, too much government high-handedness, not enough democracy–at a larger and more specifically political level. As I understand the protests, the justified complaint is that Beijing supervision of Hong Kong education and society will lead first to more restrictions on thought and action, and subsequently to a more complacent, less democratic populace.

Discussions I have seen on WeChat and Facebook indicate that Shenzheners who are talking about the issue sympathize with the students. They see a need for more openness and expressive freedom in Shenzhen. However, there have been no calls for support protests as in Taipei. Instead, the debate has reanimated questions from Tiananmen, namely: just how much opposition will the government allow before it takes punitive action? The terms of the conversation–allow, punitive action–chillingly illustrate how successful the Chinese state has been in creating fear and compliance even among people who do advocate artistic interventions like those in Tin Sau.

Indeed, my gut sense is that the vendors of Tin Sau share much in common with the Shenzhen middle class. These are people who have learned through visceral experiences that the government is no friend of ordinary citizens. I suspect this also partially explains why MaD’s efforts so moved my friends. This was hopeful action in the face of resignation to accumulated and embodied wrongs.

In contrast, the students’ actions seem more “international”, more distant from the Chinese juggernaut. These are the actions of people who do not yet act primarily out of fear, people who act in the belief that government officials will hear and respond to righteous calls. Moreover, the students’ actions remind contemporary Chinese of what was lost in 1989. These regrets permeate the Shenzhen voices I have heard. Here, there is anger that students haven’t left well enough alone and embarrassment that the students’ actions have revealed the violence of the Chinese state’s “One Government, Two Systems” policy. Clearly, if the Hong Kong police continue to harass and arrest unarmed, peaceful protestors, it is difficult to contend that the CCP can be trusted with democratic institutions and (future) protests in Taiwan. Importantly, I have also heard support for the students. The occasional voice that says, Yes! This what it means to be fully, ethically human!

All hope for the safe return of students to their families.

Below, pictures from the Tin Sau Autumn Night Fair.

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5 thoughts on “Occupy Hong Kong: A View from Shenzhen

  1. With utmost clarity…….what it means to be fully, ethically human indeed….a constant question each of us need hold on to tightly.

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