occupy central: confessional moment

Many of the English language news reports coming out of Hong Kong highlight the antagonism that the SAR’s Mainland residents feel about the protests. The articles draw attention to vapid consumers (usually women) distraught because barricades have made it inconvenient to go shopping and/or self-righteous colonizers (usually men) who are angry that by making students are making China look bad. The rhetorical point is straightforwardly simplistic; brainwashed Mainlanders don’t understand what everyone else in the world gets — oppressive Communist Party acts again, this time against unarmed students.

It’s easy to get hooked by this way of thinking because there are no false statements. There are Mainlanders upset because they can’t go shopping in Central. There are Mainlanders who think that Hong Kong students specifically and Hong Kong people in general should accept Mainland authority. And yes, the CCP is up to familiar tricks of the anti-democratic trade.

And yet.

The only one of these statements I would believe without asking for contextualization is that the CCP is up to its nasty, manipulative authoritarian ways and once again working with triads to achieve its ends. But even that idea eventually breaks down if examined too closely because there are factions within the Party and divisions within the government. (Unfortunately in Shenzhen I have seen that more often than not the nasty and manipulative overcome the resistance of their more progressive colleagues and steamroll society.)

I begin my thoughts on these stereotypes of discord with a confession; until the students’ protests and Occupy Central with Peace and Love’s demonstrated commitment to non-violence I didn’t like Hong Kong. I am a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen which has a temple and retreat center there. I have friends who live in Hong Kong, and some of them are from Hong Kong, and I have participated in academic art events there. But.

Over my twenty year sojourn in Shenzhen, I have repeatedly and consistently had to deal with Hong Kong contempt for Mainlanders in general and Shenzhen people in particular. This has ranged from academics asking me how I could possibly feel safe in Shenzhen to watching Hong Kong waitstaff and others in the service industry treat me (white American woman) very differently from how they treat one of my dearest friends (Beijing woman). I was once at an award ceremony for public service and one of the Hong Kong awardees took the time to lecture me (in precise UK inflected Engish) on why I should find another place to work and not waste my time and talents in Shenzhen. This ongoing prejudice coupled with the fact that Hong Kong men have set up second wives in Shenzhen, come over to pay for sex, and have often been the managers of sweat shops hasn’t made me love Hong Kong.

I offer this confession to highlight how my experience predisposed me not to take a Hong Kong protest seriously. When Mainland friends complain that Hong Kong people treat them with disdain, I believe them. When Mainland friends doubt that the SAR’s Tiananmen commemorative protests have become self-serving means of discrediting China, I don’t totally agree, but I do see their point. And when Mainland friends express concern that Beijing is influencing or will manipulate the Hong Kong students because they don’t understand the Mainland, I am sympathetic because I have engaged in similar arguments.

Here’s the point: the students’ non-violent, collective action has helped me reflect on my lazy habits of thinking about Hong Kong.

I was predisposed not to take the protests seriously because people in Shenzhen and throughout the Mainland have treated me with kindness. In contrast, although Hong Kong people have also treated me well, they have not always shown the same courtesy to my husband and friends. I took sides even before I knew anything about the situation. This point returns me to media insinuations of Mainlanders being brain-washed, and the rest of “us” seeing the situation clearly: we all participate in and collude with inaccurate and hurtful stereotyping because of conditions and experiences in our everyday lives. I suspect that many Mainlanders who might otherwise be predisposed to support the students made up their minds years ago in other situations, just as the Western reporters who continue to exacerbate Mainland-Hong Kong misunderstanding and resentment also made up their minds once upon a time in a faraway place.

It is my hope that the students’ courage not only touches the hearts of Westerners who have benefitted from Hong Kong people’s prejudices, but also softens the minds of Mainlanders who have been hurt and shamed by those prejudices. May we all see what is actually happening and not fall into mind traps and misunderstanding.