On April 9, nine leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 “Occupy Central” pro-democracy movement were convicted on various counts of conspiracy and “public nuisance.” One of the arrested, Chinese University of Hong Kong sociology professor Chan Kin-man GRD ’95, is an alumnus of Yale University.
The court issued unusual charges under old British common law as a means of enhancing sentencing time. They came as a response to the Hong Kong Nine’s role in organizing a peaceful 79-day sit-in five years prior, and the line they drew was clear: Dissenting against Beijing’s supreme authority will not be tolerated.
In more chilling words, Hong Kong’s democracy, the freedoms of expression and assembly enshrined in our constitution, are facing an almost certain death.
In the 22 years since Hong Kong was returned to mainland China, any faith in the full implementation of Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” model have proven hollow.
According to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, post-handover Hong Kong was to have “a high degree of autonomy” with Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong under a Basic Law promised in the agreement. The two international human right covenants were to fully apply. The Basic Law also promised the ultimate aim of “universal suffrage”: “One person, one vote” was to be the operating principle when electing Hong Kong’s chief executive and its legislature. But the promised democracy has not been delivered, and the rule of law and human rights have been put at risk by Beijing’s increasing interference, each transgression a little more aggressive than the last.
The rollback of Hong Kong’s autonomy has not come without resistance. In 2003, lawyers and legal scholars across the city, one of whom is my father, spearheaded the Article 23 Concern Group in response to the government’s proposed anti-subversion laws. Five hundred thousand people marched in support. In 2012, over 100,000 people protested Beijing’s attempt to impose mandatory national education into school curricula. Hong Kong’s youth mobilized again, shutting down the attempted brainwashing. In 2014, a desire for universal suffrage in the upcoming elections turned into the “Umbrella Movement” when riot police fired teargas at the peaceful protestors protected only by their umbrellas.
A city of repeated protests is all I’ve ever known. Each year, I’ve walked with my parents, small amid tens of thousands of others, in the massive handover anniversary demonstration. Every June 4, I cupped a glowing candle in my hand to commemorate the violent loss of life that occurred at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Each year, I’ve stood with my city — even as the specter of authoritarianism looms more threatening every day.
Four years ago, I sat with my classmates in a circle on Hong Kong Island’s main thoroughfare while thousands of others sat around us. Bottles of water and containers of food passed from my fingers to the group next to us. A stranger with kind eyes thanked me. Around us, students who had moved into tents on the highway did their homework. Another nearby protestor swept the concrete clean.
The police had cracked down nights before, and now they, along with everyone else, had to simply stand aside and wait. We had the unique privilege of making the street ours — legally, we were unstoppable.
Last week, I marched down the streets of New Haven with hundreds of my classmates and members of the New Haven community. As a half-Chinese, white-passing Yale student, my privilege is my birthright but also something that I could not let sit idle. Red and blue lights illuminated the night sky as we made our way, single file, through a barricade of police cars, unscathed and untouched. Pizzas and bottles of cold water passed from hand to hand. A sense of togetherness hung in the air.
We, the students of Yale, take pride in our ability to mobilize: to fight for our majors, to push back on the Student Income Contribution, to march against police brutality. The past few weeks have unequivocally proven this fact. But as Friday’s protest in Hamden showed, we must not limit our fight to the confines of our campus. When we look beyond our gated, tulip-filled courtyards, we find a world needing our help. When freedom and humanity are at stake, we cannot care only when it is “trendy” or convenient for us to do so.
When I walk bleary-eyed into my 9 a.m. seminar on Wednesday, Chan and his colleagues will have been sentenced to a maximum of seven years in prison. Their only crime was their fight for democracy. While Hong Kong fails her children, everything will be “business as usual” on our side of the world. We will be late to our lectures, spend late nights in Sterling cramming for our finals, feel every acute end-of-year emotion. It will be easy to forget the struggles of the “outside” world, to imagine that everyone has put their lives on hold so that we can ace our exams. I am certainly guilty of this amnesia.
As this campus stands still, however, the rest of the world will keep right on going. The blow to democracy in Hong Kong reminds us of this. The movement two oceans away from our campus reinforces the importance of protesting, reminding us with each march and sit-in that we cannot passively stand by while injustice is committed, wherever it may be. To protest is to empower, to grab a hold of our humanity and make ourselves heard. As fights for democracy break out across the world, the arrested in Hong Kong shoulder a burden larger than themselves. The human rights we all demand are a battle that cannot be forgotten.
Hana Davis is a junior in Morse College and a Weekend editor for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .