Fire and tear gas fill the air at Hong Kong Polytechnic University as protesters and police clash. Through the smoke and scattered seas of broken umbrellas, adults and students — our age and younger — attempt to escape from the campus as police try to trap them.
It’s not an unfamiliar sight. The history of protests traces back long before us to the times of our parents and ancestors. My father participated in the Gwangju uprising in South Korea as a teenager. Hundreds of thousands of students and civilians took to the streets to protest in support of pro-democratization reforms and against martial law; by the end of the demonstrations, less than two weeks later, upwards of 2,000 people were reportedly killed. One of them was my father’s friend, shot by police.
In contrast, on the other side of the world, we Yale students attend classes, meet up with friends and go about our nightly routine of tagging friends in memes and finishing essays and problem sets. We live resolutely in the Yale bubble, embodying privilege in the fullest sense. We care selectively, showing momentary outrage when the topic of Hong Kong arises, then shoving it out of our minds until we are reminded of it once more. It’s convenient activism: all show and no bite.
Of course, engagement with issues outside of our immediate lives is difficult to maintain, and, given our busy schedules, it’s even more understandable. But there is a difference between unacceptable and acceptable. Our focus on “me” — my grades, my social life, my career — justifies this individualistic perspective. What is the purpose of our liberal arts education, our ideals of civic virtue and goals of improving the world when we look outside of ourselves but don’t act to help? At Yale, we worry about summer internships and The Game; in Hong Kong, students fight for democracy and justice against an oppressive force.
What’s happening in Hong Kong right now is not an isolated incident, either. Citizens in Bolivia, Chile, France, Lebanon and Iraq have all taken to the streets to challenge their governments: 2019 has been a year of uprisings. Though geographically distant from the United States, their movements are closer to us than we may realize. They serve as reminders of the stake that all of us at Yale have in this matter.
Like me, many of you likely know a family member or someone else who lived through political upheaval or revolution. Vietnam, counterculture, academic freedom, racism — the threads of activism that sprouted decades and centuries before us continue to flourish today. The world is becoming increasingly globalized, and the range of people we meet is constantly broadening. Movements like these matter for you, your family, history’s legacy and if that is not enough already, your best friend.
But what can we really do to affect a movement happening across the world? More than we think. There is so much that we can and should do.
The most basic contribution we can make is through expanding general awareness. We should galvanize discussion through reading and discussion. The people of Hong Kong want their voices to be heard. They want the Chinese government’s misconduct to be noticed. Simply knowing about what’s going on and sharing new details with others can go a long way. Maintaining discussion ensures that we don’t succumb to our short attention spans and that we branch out. Our lives can be centered at Yale, but they don’t have to be limited to Yale.
Beyond this, many more avenues of action exist: One can donate to independent press organizations in Hong Kong; call representatives and urge them to support the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act; donate to groups that support protestors on the ground; circulate stories and opinions online; and, more important than many recognize, people can sign petitions.
Not only do petitions pressure the government, but they serve as educational devices that spread awareness of issues, forcing lawmakers to address topics their constituency regards as important. And by recording the responses of citizens, they fuel positive reinforcement to the other actions in that list. Go online and see for yourself how many people have signed petitions supporting investigations into excessive use of force by police. Not only does the large, growing number of signatures make us more compelled to take action, but seeing the names of those who sign serves as a critical reminder that people around the world are getting involved.
Yale has a wonderful motto, “Lux et Veritas,” but it is impossible to embody light and truth when we only engage with issues when convenient. We may only be college students, but there are people across the world younger than us who are occupied with the state of their rights and the future of their nation. The people of Hong Kong are human. We are human. We owe them more than the occasional thought.
We can’t let news like the protests in Hong Kong fade once it’s out of mainstream coverage. We can’t elect to be global citizens for five minutes or only when it is timely. We can’t let our academic work justify not caring. We can be more, and we must live up to being more. We are the bearers of the future.
EDWARD SEOL is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org