The Brain Drain

published 01.12.20 - read our introductory piece here

Featuring a series of essays, written by students from across the world. Each essay tackles the phenomenon known as 'brain drain' from a unique perspective, the author analysing and reflecting on it from within their own geographic context.

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Hong Kong: Between Yellow and Blue Lies our Torn City

The 2019 Hong Kong protests were sparked by the introduction of a bill in April which would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances. Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 and protests have routinely erupted in response to mainland intervention, in the run up to the expiration in 2047 of the Basic Law. Currently this provides Hong Kong with its own judiciary and a separate legal system from mainland China - affording rights which include freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, rights which many are reluctant to lose. The writer is in their final year of college in the U.S., majoring in anthropology.

7:30.

I wake up to the sound of the morning news. Like yesterday, my father sits on the couch, eyes glued to our TV, serviced by TVB, Hong Kong’s dominant news broadcaster. He turns up the volume and offers to make coffee. Over the grinding of coffee beans, the news anchor utters the words ‘disrupting peace.’ My father chimes in bitterly, ‘Those rioters have lost their minds!’ Absentmindedly, I check my WhatsApp. My mother, halfway across the world, has forwarded a graphic clip of students being detained by the Hong Kong police. She sends yellow hearts and prayer hands. My father looks over my shoulder. I quickly switch off my phone. That my mother is a ‘yellow’ advocate for the protests and my father is a ‘blue’ critic has worsened their already-strained relationship. He hugs me goodbye and leaves for work. The fifteen-minute news segment begins again.

10:00.

Preparing to head to the art studio, I pull on a grey tank top. The days I could wear yellow, blue, or black (the signature dress-code of the protestors) without fear of being labelled ‘Pro-HK’ or ‘Pro-China’ feels like a lifetime ago.

12:30.

Five of us sit around a table for a snack break. One lady, in her sixties, smiles and pulls out a bag of butter cookies, fresh from her neighbourhood bakery: ‘They were my favourite cookies as a kid.’ She shakes her head, ‘You won’t know if they’ll be around next week.’

Another lady turns to me, ‘Your uncle and I are heading to the protests. Leave the fighting to us. We’ll die soon anyway.’ She laughs. ‘If your mum were home, she’d be there too.’ Her eyes gleam with sorrow and a youthful defiance.

15:00.

My best friend and I peer through the glass window of a café. There is a building-sized banner reading ‘National Security Law: Preserve One Country, Two Systems. Restore Stability.’ We share a glance. Even after seeing the banner everywhere, it’s still unsettling. ‘When I’m in London and you’re in New York, we’ll visit each other every month!’ she says quietly. We can’t see our futures here like we used to.

18:00.

We’re in her father’s car on our way home. Red light. Four police officers cross the street. ‘They’re like the Beatles, except nobody likes them,’ I joke. My friend hands me her camera, snickering. Snap. Her father scolds us, ‘They can put you in jail!’ We arrive at a fruit market. This is the market her ‘yellow’ grandmother frequents after long poker nights before morning sales; her ‘blue’ mother, now entering the car, also comes here regularly after work. Her father eyes us through the rear-view mirror. We don’t talk politics anymore.

19:30.

My brother and I munch to the sound of the nightly news and my father’s commentary on a post shared on his very blue WhatsApp friend group. Today, they exposed an American catfish behind a viral Hong Kong pro-independence persona. ‘The U.S. is behind this! Isn’t destroying their own country enough?’ His words fade into the steam rising from my pork bone soup. The fifteen-minute news segment begins again.


Every day, I’m reminded that between the four walls of my home lies a torn city.

Tsuen Wan March, 2019

In our 150 years of history, our lands were ornaments traded between the British and the Chinese as outcomes of war; our prided titles as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and the ‘Freest Market Economy’ were never ones we constructed, but labels attributed to us by greater powers. It wasn’t until 2014 that the word ‘Hongkonger’ was included in dictionaries. [1] Now, with 2047, the year of our ‘return’ to China looming, citizens have taken it into their own hands to navigate their futures. For some, this manifests in a desperate, invigorated cry for democratic freedom. For others, it is the acceptance of a legitimised autocracy through gritted teeth.


The media, too, has taken our livelihood into its hands. In circulating yellow and blue narratives, both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ media platforms have superimposed their truths without considering their responsibilities or the consequences on our city. While Western media vilifies the autocratic ‘East’ (PRC), Eastern media condemns the liberal West. In demonising the ‘other’, the media has staged our present as an epic centralised on a protagonist and antagonist, pushing Hong Kong citizens offstage.


Forgotten in these plots are our city and citizens’ deeply nuanced backstories.

In the century under British rule, Hong Kong was given a taste of democracy. Our economy flourished, paving the way for social mobility. Some, like my father, were able to beat the odds and boast ‘rags to riches’ stories; others were unable to turn the tables on fate. This deepening economic inequality shaped the myriad of responses to today’s protests.

Every day, I’m reminded that between the four walls of my home lies a torn city.

During the Handover in 1997, Hong Kong was placed under the ‘One Government Two Systems’ constitutional principle. For the next fifty years, Hong Kong would be ‘highly autonomous’, with an independent judiciary and a politically distinct economy ensuring citizens could continue their socioeconomic lives under the Western model of governance.


However, in recent years, our city’s leadership has already begun preparing us for Chinese unification, rendering this principle inoperable. The electoral reforms proposed in 2014 sparked the Umbrella Revolution, while the proposed amendment of the extradition bill in 2019 sparked today’s ongoing protests. These protests reflect the growing public distrust in both Hong Kong and the PRC’s rhetoric.

While the ‘Western’ values and way of life are preferred by the majority, societal rifts continue to widen because of generational and socioeconomic differences that determine who can maintain these freedoms and how they can be maintained.


For many elders who took refuge in British-ruled Hong Kong when fleeing Mao’s Communist regime, their lives began with, and their ideals were formed around, freedom from the PRC. Harbouring bitter hatred for the mainland and fear for our generation’s future, they fight for us to finish what they started.


Yet, their children, the rags to riches middle-aged generation, oppose the protests because they fear instability. Raised under British rule and at the cusp of China’s economic reform, they were the ‘makers’ of metropolitan Hong Kong. To them, the protests are destroying the fruits of their labour, collapsing the stability that they have shed blood, sweat, and tears to build. To them, personal freedoms come second to economic stability, ensured under Chinese governance. Moreover, the elite would maintain their personal freedoms and ways of life with nepotism and status. Hence, they justify their anti-protest sentiment by clinging to the ‘legal’ conditions of our return. This generation criticises ‘Western’ media for conflating democratic freedom with independence, threatening our stability. With developing economies like Shenzhen and Shanghai, we are disposable to the PRC, no longer able to leverage our ‘free’ market status for the right to live autonomously. Their hysteria has been heightened with the HK and Chinese media labelling the protests ‘separatist’ and ‘terrorist’ riots. Furthermore, this generation doubts Western sympathy for our citizens’ democratic aspirations, easily shaken by ulterior motives of trade with the PRC. ‘Their words and actions influence our domestic politics, yet we suffer the consequences.’

Instead, the media should help spread our truth, which is not yellow or blue.

Our generation, at the heart of the protests, sees things differently. To be a ‘Hongkonger’ of this generation is to write our own story from jarred pieces of history. Some, with no choice to leave, fight to better the conditions of our return. Others fight for emancipation because their lifestyles seem incompatible with China’s governance. Most fight because they’ve learned ‘Western’ democratic freedoms are ours to claim as well. There is growing fury, especially with the national security law and imprisonment of pro-democracy activists. Still, there are those of us left tongue-tied, not knowing what we are fighting for anymore, or if how we are fighting is the best way to get what we want.

The media only exacerbates the problem, with its divisive portrayal of Hong Kong as ‘yellow’, or ‘blue’, as ‘for’ or ‘against’ our city, completely distorting our narratives. After all, it is because we are all ‘for’ our city that we are divided over what our ‘best’ future looks like. These polarising narratives make our citizens less concerned with bettering our collective future than condemning an enemy. There is no us, only them, and everyone for themselves.


Instead, the media should help spread our truth, which is not yellow or blue. The truth is that we’re torn, and we can’t be rebuilt without dialogue. As Hong Kong citizens, we do not have the power to demand this conversation with our leadership. We need the media to use its power to hoist us to centre stage, rather than spotlight their own narratives. It is not until we have a seat at the table that we can communicate and collectively envision rebuilding our torn city for a better future.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version, 2015


 

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