Allowing the privileged few to flee Hong Kong isn't liberation


The national security law imposed by Beijing over Hong Kong went into effect on 30 June. By writing this piece, I may be in violation of it.

On the evening the law came into effect, I lay wide awake at my apartment in Chicago, my eyes glued to the screen for the latest developments. The bill had been swiftly drafted, passed and signed by the central government before its content was revealed, the process foreshadowing its draconian measures. The legislation marks an end to Hong Kong’s judicial independence and the beginning of a new police state. It also assumes extraterritorial powers for the Chinese government that may subject a person from anywhere in the world to punishment for breaches of speech against its national security.

I stayed up as late as I could, hoping to bear secondhand witness to a fleeting freedom the city and its people had fought so hard to preserve. I fell asleep with my phone in hand, my heart racing, pumping blood and oxygen to a fervent dream, where millions of Hong Kong residents would once again flood the streets, as they did a summer ago, nullifying the law with united disobedience.

I woke up to a shattering reality. Hundreds of protesters had been arrested, some under the new legislation. Prominent activists stepped down from leadership positions. Pro-democracy posters disappeared from public spaces. Once-active social media accounts went silent. I felt ashamed for the fantasy I had clung to the night before. In my relative security from an ocean away, I had selfishly projected an impossible burden on a people.

Eleven years ago when I left mainland China for graduate school in the US, I proudly declared that I was going to live in a free country. “Freedom cannot be eaten like rice,” my mother said, quick to puncture my naivety. I argued that liberty and prosperity are not mutually exclusive. I was not wrong. Neither was my mother. But only one of us had endured starvation as a child. Only one of us had to feed a family under authoritarian rule.

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“Do you think the Chinese people will one day rise up?” I have often encountered this question from well-meaning Americans, who read my writings critical of the Chinese government and loudly wonder if my country has more people who are “courageous” like me. To them, political oppression exists only in the abstract, afflicting an alien people on a distant land. Similarly vague is their notion of “rising up”, as if martyrdom is the only valid response, and whoever fails to do so must deserve servitude. They regard themselves as freedom-loving without contemplating its meaning. They cheer rebels from faraway places without shouldering the cost. An honest reflection would complicate this worldview.

I am not free, despite living in an ostensible liberal democracy. A free person must be able to return to her birthplace at any time without risking persecution; I cannot. A free person must be able to exist with nothing to prove and live without fear; I cannot. I am neither brave nor exceptional. I am fortunate to have options afforded by the luxury of my degrees. I made a calculation and traded one set of freedoms for another, knowing that both are incomplete and I will forever be grieving for what I have lost.


‘My civil right’: Hong Kong citizens vote in unofficial pro-democracy poll – video

It is from this personal experience that I am troubled by much of the language from politicians and governments around the world promoting resettlement policies for Hong Kong residents. Boris Johnson announced that Hong Kongers with a British national overseas passport would be able to live and work in the UK. The Australian government is extending skilled visas to attract “the best and the brightest” from the city as well as its businesses. The US Congress introduced a bipartisan bill to grant refugee status to Hong Kong protesters.

Migration is a human right. Every state has an ethical and moral obligation to open its doors to people in search of safety or better opportunities. However, the dominant rhetoric from western countries goes beyond the humanitarian principle to emphasise economic self-interest. Relocating the concept of Asia’s World City to its isles has occupied a corner of the British imagination for decades, the idea revitalised in light of the new national security law. Hong Kong citizens are described as “enterprising” and “highly educated”, who would “enrich” their new host nation and boost its “competitiveness”.

The glistening phrases are not compliments. They are dehumanising. They paint a caricature of a population where Hong Kong’s poor and disenfranchised are never part of the picture, where a life’s worth is defined by its productivity. For those of us who have faced the menace of a border, the price of crossing means turning a part of ourselves into currency: our savings, our diplomas, our labour, our despair as well as our pain. Unconditional gratitude is demanded of us in exchange for a probationary dwelling. Our resilience becomes justification for continued exploitation.

A person may go through multiple countries of residence, but can only have one true homeland, where no matter how much time has passed, the itinerant may touch the ground with her feet and in that instance become whole. Those who do not know the open wound of exile can callously suggest uprooting a people and congratulate themselves for being generous and clever. The thoughtless self-righteousness stems from an age-old superiority complex, a colonial mindset that insists people from “lesser” parts of the world must prefer life in the “civilised” west, if given the chance.

In a recent survey of Hong Kong citizens, Taiwan topped the chart as their first choice for relocation, while Britain and the US ranked below mainland China. The result is not surprising, as most people favour geographical, cultural and linguistic proximity to their place of origin. What the residents of Hong Kong want is of little concern to the politicians and pundits who appropriate their plight. By portraying Hong Kongers as the “right” kind of immigrant, distinct from migrants at the US-Mexico border or refugees across the Mediterranean, western lawmakers see the Asian city as their own political theatre. They claim the mantle of human rights defenders by feigning solidarity, while espousing racist and xenophobic policies at home.

The heartbreaking reality of Hong Kong is a continuation of its fate as a chess piece in great power politics. Sandwiched between empires, the financial hub derives its status from its usefulness to global capital; the interest of its people has always been secondary. With the new law, Beijing has called the world’s bluff, exposing both the Communist party’s ruthlessness and the west’s hypocrisy.

I do not know what shape or how long the path to liberation might take for Hong Kong and the rest of China. What I do know is that it must start by focusing on the most marginalised, the people whose work is considered “low-skill”, whose bodies are deemed sacrificial. The edge of our struggle is not its limit but a new beginning. The road that will lead me home can only be forged through radical imagination and collective effort. The kind of freedom that is upheld by national borders is always fragmented and fragile. Emancipation cannot be achieved through flight for the privileged few. No one is free until everyone is free.

Yangyang Cheng is a particle physicist and a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University





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