An international student’s open letter to Hong Kong

My name is Hiu M Chan. I am undertaking PhD research in cross-cultural theory at Cardiff University. I am a Hong Kong citizen who has been living, studying and working in the United Kingdom since I was 17. As the tension rises in Hong Kong between the Umbrella Movement – Occupy Central – and the government, I feel it is time for writing.

Having the experiences of growing up in Mainland China, Hong Kong and the UK, I have never been fully recognised by any of them.

I am not a Mainlander, as I hold Hong Kong citizenship. I am not a proper Hong Konger either as I had experience growing up on the Mainland, and to many that means I am to some degree brainwashed. I am not British, even though I have lived in this country for nearly 10 years and can speak English fluently.

Fundamentally I will always be seen as an outsider, at least for a long, long while.

But as an outsider, perhaps I can see the big picture in a more objective way. I am not brainwashed by any ‘-ism’, as I do not believe there is only one ultimate ‘-ism’ that is suitable to all human civilisation.

So who am I representing here? I am representing myself, a Hong Kong citizen with a rather hybrid life experience. I am not choosing any side. What I believe and what I hope for is movement towards the democracy that we all hope for. What I believe in is not who will ‘win’ this battle at the end, but rather, how we can move things forward.

However, if you think what you believe in at the moment is the absolute truth and right, then you may stop reading this letter (perhaps you have already done so). An absolute answer in one’s mind is already the determination of one’s action.

Below are some rather naïve suggestions to each party of the event.

Although I have not changed my Facebook picture to a yellow ribbon or an umbrella, I have been watching the protest progress every day, and my heart beats with my home – regardless of whether people at home recognise this heartbeat.

To the students

For the past few days, the most shouted slogans by you include: ‘democracy’, ‘real general election’, ‘universal standard’, ‘step down CY Leung’ and many more.

Since the government has not responded to any of those slogans, instead of sitting on the street as an expression, you could continue the protest in other creative, critical and effective ways.

I do not mean that you have not been creative. The amount and standard of creativities that came out from this protest is fascinating: poster designing, comic drawing, video filming, banner-writing, trendy and stylish gearing up and much more.

All of these images, captured by the world, affected many around the globe. For no doubt, Hong Kongers deserve the award for ‘Most civilised protesters in the world’.

We have seen a lot of images and videos, but it seems that there is one thing missing from these protesters: writing! Images and videos can capture the world’s attention for only a short period of time, they come and go. However, writing – the theorising of your thoughts in a critical way – will linger longer, and provoke others philosophically.

Students, why have you not written? The questions that you have all brought up, they not only mean something to Hong Kong but to the whole of humanity.

To prove your boycott is worth doing, start writing critical essays to demonstrate your beliefs, to defend your arguments, and show the world how real democracy can be started by gathering thousands of students to write and discuss the same topics.

What will the essay topics be? We can start from your slogans. For example, ‘What is democracy?’ ‘What is universal standard?’ ‘What is a general election?’ ‘Why should CY Leung step down”

I propose that your essays be written in both languages, Chinese and English, so that your thoughts can be circulated both universally and domestically. Words are powerful; do not forget their power. They are the bridge for thoughts to be articulated and a civilised tunnel for conversations.

What can we do with the essays? Share them the same way you have circulated images, videos and hash tags on social media. Submit them to newspapers and magazines; encourage more people to join the discussion. Let Hong Kong inspire and lead an international scholarly discussion on democracy.

Joshua Wong, you have my deepest respect. When I was 17, I also liked skipping school. Unlike you and your followers, most of the time I went to Lan Kwai Fong for live music, other times watched movies and attended musicals. Your enthusiasm has put my teenagehood to shame.

It seems to me that the Hong Kong government is stupid enough not to know what ‘universal standard’ and ‘real general election’ means. It is a time for you, the star of Hong Kong, the future of Hong Kong, to write a detailed demonstrative essay and proposal.

If the government does not listen, you should start other strategies – not by shouting, but by writing. Any kind of reform requires a detailed proposal: how do we take steps and achieve objectives? Please show the world that a 17-year-old can write a political reform proposal better than those sitting in the government.

You are now a star; publish your writings and I am sure many will read your thoughts. I am excited, and I am sure the world is too. But I am not clever enough to give you suggestions, as most of the time I learn from my students more than I teach them.

Students, every student movement includes some serious and thought-provoking writing, some of which still benefits us and helps us think about the world today.

As Hong Kong students, don’t waste all the passion you have generated. Continue the protest in an alternative and intellectual way – start in both Chinese and in English, by turning your slogans into questions. Publish articles, let the world see, and let the world hear.

To universities and schools

If universities and schools support the student boycott, then perhaps there can be flexibility over their exams this year. If students start writing essays, this would be the best way to judge their desire to learn, to discover and to think.

The essays will not reach one answer. It is not about the final answer, it is about the process of thinking, and for one to discover one’s own answer. This is such a good opportunity to have a new type of exam and essay question, so why not? If students can be so creative, universities and schools should follow.

To promote the democratic characteristics of Hong Kong universities, why don’t institutions collect and publish students’ essays in order to archive this historical moment. This valuable scholarship will not only benefit the next generation, but the whole world.

To the Hong Kong police

In 2005, I was one of the protesters among many Koreans and local people against the World Trade Organization, or WTO, meeting in Hong Kong. You were unprepared as always.

I overheard a conversation from the Korean protesters about how they planned to get away from the police, and so they did. A temporary hide-and-seek game took place in Wan Chai. The Koreans followed their plans and leaders. I was lost in the middle of Wan Chai, as they never told me (the outsider) what the plan was. I was sprayed by your famous pepper spray; it took me a while to have my eyes cleaned.

I understand that police are also human beings, just like us. They get scared and nervous when in an unfamiliar situation. In a peaceful place like Hong Kong, the police do not have to deal with a lot of bad situations like elsewhere in the world.

Although I was really angry after those 'hot and chilli peppers', through the 2005 WTO protest participation I also realised the lack of experience of the Hong Kong police. This is the result of having priceless peace in Hong Kong for so many years.

At the same time, we have to think of the students too. Hong Kong students also lack experience of big events. Are you not proud of your children? Their discipline, manners and civic consciousness? For such a massive gathering, I doubt we would see the peace we have been witnessing throughout the past few days anywhere else in the world.

How do we define ‘social disorder’? I guess the definition is different in different cultures and societies. The youngsters in Hong Kong have got slightly passionate and carried away sometimes, but most of the time they have managed to keep calm. The use of teargas was unnecessary, even though some students in the front tried to push the police barrier.

The police use of teargas makes society angry. Someone in the police force has to step down and apologise. In my opinion, the situation could have been handled differently, without the haunting result we all now remember.

To the Hong Kong government

Dear government, why are you not talking to the students? If students begin to write essays, you will not have an excuse to avoid a conversation. This is a suggestion. Take it or leave it.

In fact, the chair of the New People's Party, Regina Ip, has already suggested a discussion panel with an international live broadcast. Ip said: “As a political party [leader] as well as an Exco member, I have more freedom to reflect opinions to the chief executive. I hope this open discussion could help to remove barriers for the future talks.”

Although Ip’s proposal was one of the most productive and forward-thinking strategies of the past days, not many people responded.

I urge the government to set up this platform for conversation. It is time for you to face your people. Invite people from government and activists to have a peaceful discussion without any precondition. The open discussion should be internationally broadcast, with simultaneous translation. Let the world witness the most democratic discussion on earth.

Don’t fear, talk to your people. If this is no longer a protest hosted by Occupy Central, or Scholarism, then let all Hong Kong people who wish to speak out join in on stage. Everyone could be allowed to speak for 15 minutes. If slogans do not work anymore, we need to negotiate with logic, analysis, critical thinking, self-reflection, intelligence and wisdom.

As we all know, ‘occupy central’ happens every week anyway. Generous Hong Kong offers the whole of Central to South Asian workers over the weekends. Central and parts of Wan Chai have become their party base and gathering place.

Why don’t we mark the day of 28th September as the Occupy Central day, in order to remember this significant movement in Hong Kong history? On this day of each year, all people in Hong Kong are welcome to occupy Central, with peace and love.

To Hong Kong

I remember when I went to high school, there was a popular saying that almost all the kids and teens knew and still know about in Hong Kong – ‘O Shai Tzui Lo’, which means ‘one becomes so speechless that one’s mouth can turn into an “O” shape’.

Once one hears such slang, one can quickly identify that person as a ‘proper’ Hong Konger. I was never really into slang, but I could feel the pressure. I had to join the majority in order to keep my Hong Kong identity. It was painful. But your identity (Hong Konger or not) is determined not by yourself but by others around you.

Some scenes I have seen over the past few days made me worried and sad. There is a danger emerging. For those who also love Hong Kong, and who are also Hong Kongers, they perhaps too will experience the ‘O Shai Tsui’ moment.

They are forced to decide, to choose a side. If they do not join the Occupy Central movement, perhaps others will not recognise their Hong Kong identities. This is how we are sadly; this is how we behave according to others’ gazes and judgments, and how identity is formed.

My dearest Hong Kong, bravo on the movement, and the peace and love that you have been delivering to the whole world. But please do not let such passion confuse the real connection among people.

I am looking forward to an open discussion live broadcasting show regarding the most important political reform in Hong Kong, and also to the volumes of thought provoking student essays to published by the universities.

If all the above succeed, it will make Hong Kong the leading place to put democracy into real practice!

To the Chinese government

This is a good opportunity to show the world that China is no longer what the world used to think it was. Wisdom, wisdom!