The timing was a little too perfect. The Georgetown University Hong Kong Student Association hosted Robert Delaney, U.S. bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based English language news outlet South China Morning Post on campus, to talk about journalism in Hong Kong. This event, of course, coincided with the violent standoff between protesters and police at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University earlier that day. Before the event started, Delaney asked me if I was surprised at how long the protests were going on. I said I was as many people assumed that, once the school year started, the protests would die down. However, as I began classes and stressed about papers and midterms, protests not only continued, but escalated in my hometown.
Every daily briefing I received from The New York Times this week included a headline about Hong Kong. The clashes between protesters and police had reached university campuses, with both sides escalating in violence with their weapons of choice — Molotov cocktails, petrol bombs and arrows for the protesters and live rounds and tear gas for the police. Western news media and social media posts that circulate in my feed tend to portray an anti-police and therefore anti-China revolution. Chinese media portrays the pro-democracy camp as rioters and “thugs” in a campaign of disinformation. These opposing narratives make it increasingly difficult to know what is the truth, especially for someone like me, who is removed from the situation.
The uncomfortable reality for many is that this situation is a vicious cycle of provocations from both sides — the police have been accused of brutality just as the protesters have been accused of harming the police. Yet this dichotomous portrayal fails to acknowledge the nuance of the situation. There are peaceful protesters who advocate for the same cause but do not resort to guerrilla tactics. There are police who can only keep their politics to themselves. There are also people like me who just want to see an end to the violence, no matter what the future of Hong Kong will look like.
Being 8,000 miles away, I do not have a full understanding of what the scene on the ground in Hong Kong is truly like. All I know is that the city was essentially shut down due to the escalation at PolyU — my own siblings who are 6 and 9 years old did not go to school for a week, and I fear for their safety. It hurts to see the city I grew up in reach this level of social division and physical destruction. For the first time since the protests began, I felt a deep sense of hopelessness.
I had wanted to return to Hong Kong post-graduation, but now I doubt the feasibility of such an option. The situation in Hong Kong has reached a fever point, and Hong Kong’s institutions can never return to their previous state of rule. I previously held the opinion that Hong Kong could possibly negotiate for a continuation of “one country, two systems” after the original agreement expires in 2047. Given how the protests have progressed to extreme violence, Beijing would not allow for this option, much less full democracy. And this is more than just a story of “I wanted to find a job in Hong Kong and now I probably can’t” — this is me and many of my fellow Hong Kong students watching the loss of their childhood home to chaos and destruction.
In this attempt to seek a future for Hong Kong, I feel more uncertain about my own future. As many of my peers begin searching for their summer internships or looking for that return offer, I ask myself, “Where would I go?” It would be very difficult for me to return home not only for safety or job-related concerns, but also for the knowledge that I am returning to a tired and broken society with little hope for a sense of normalcy.
I remember seeing the powerful photos of the millions of protesters taking to the streets at the beginning of the summer, a scene in complete contrast to the blood splatters on the streets. Hong Kongers, whether they are in the city or watching from abroad, are deeply affected by the protests regardless of which side they support. As discussions about Hong Kong become increasingly politicized, people should be aware of the personal connections, emotions and experiences of Hong Kong students surrounding the protests happening on the ground.
Valerie Ma is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.