What I Learned in Hong Kong

I spent the last few months interning at Shell Street Labs in Hong Kong (September-December 2019), and this opened my eyes to the mess that is media, propaganda, and group identity.

Media Bullshit

I made it a point to follow some Hong Kong, Western, and CCP news sources on twitter. The news was divided over if the police or the protesters caused of most of the violence, but it was all sensationalist. The one thing they were in agreement about was that Hong Kong and the protests were dangerous, but this was the only thing that wasn’t true.

I expected the protests to be filled with violent people ready for war, like what was shown in the news. The reality was totally different, it was mostly innocent innocent, skinny university age kids, with a few elderly people and children. There were so many couples holding hands walking through the protests, I couldn’t believe what was going on. This didn’t look like they were capable of anything like I’d seen in the news. Most people ran from tear gas, not towards it.

The violence and destruction shown on the news did happen, but it was a small groups of people at the end of a sea of protesters. On the news the most extreme events are repeated over and over until another crazy thing happens, that can replaces. At the end of the day Hong Kong is still much less dangerous than a place like Detroit, no matter how much more media coverage it gets.

Both the protesters and the CCP media were promoting bullshit. I expected more from the CCP, but really both sides continually distort reality to convince you of their side of the story. The desire to maximise views can be as misleading as intentional government propaganda. Now I have less trust in anything I see. I always questioned things for accuracy, but now I the focus is more on how the truth is distorted rather than outright fake news.

Nothing brings people together more than a common enemy

At first I couldn’t understand why so many people would be willing to protest week after week, wasting their weekends in the streets? There was something more to this, and it wasn’t until I actually saw the protest that I understood.

Even as an outsider looking in seeing these protests gives you a strange feeling. All these masked people who barely knew each other had a connection I’ve never seen before, it felt like this was the most united I’ve ever seen a group of people. Having an enemy unites people like nothing else, and I’ve noticed more and more this is the backbone of propaganda across the world.

How much does having a clear enemy explain the recent success of China and the current dysfunction in the west? Would there be so much partisan bullshit if we feared China as much as they fear us? Would there be so much pressure to attack each other over pronouns and definitions of feminism if we had some real danger? I don’t know the answer, but realising that something so horrible is what unites us best wasn’t a good feeling.

I think there’s another reason protesting became popular, and that’s that it became cool. Protesting is a high status activity for young people, and social media makes it possible for everyone to know you’re protesting, so you’re more than another masked person in a crowd. There’s protest art all over social media, and even plenty of Tinder profiles saying “No cops” or “香港人加油”.

Division

Why is it that people who agree on 99% of things and are good friends would be willing to kill each other for some abstract idea like nationalism or freedom? I met multiple people who had their relationships with coworkers and family change when this religious disagreement was brought into the forefront. I knew in abstract that this could happen, but seeing this in reality was very uncomfortable.

It seemed especially strange for mainland Chinese people, who after living in Hong Kong for many years and even learning the Cantonese language to considered the outsider or even the enemy - someone who was brought here by the CCP to help conquer Hong Kong. Are they only immigrants, or are they settlers like the British were, bringing their own culture and their own language on behalf of the CCP? Modern day colonialists forcing a single definition of what it means to be Chinese? Why must the Mainland Chinese impose their will on the Hong Kong people?

Or are the protestors the problem, being childish and demanding their own special treatment from China? Or even traitors for preferring Western style governance after all the success of China? Even supporting violence against innocent people to achieve these pointless goals?

Everyone accuses the other side of being brainwashed. The Hong Kong people are being brainwashed by not having a good nationalist education, and the mainland Chinese people are because of it. But why is it so hard to see the other side?

I think we’re designed to not be open minded. Why do Chinese people will reflexively mention how much better Shenzhen is than Hong Kong whenever Shenzhen is brought up? Or if you mentioned Cantonese is a different language then Mandarin, you’re quickly corrected that it’s a dialect, not a language. How do they come up with this strangely pedantic statement so consistently?

At first I thought there was something special about their government’s propaganda, that they will not only make someone believe something, but also to consistently be vocal about it. But this isn’t right, this is something that happens to us all.

I think we have a natural defence mechanism to preserve our religion, so whenever we notice a threat (consciously or unconsciously), we attack it. It is similar to why people are so quick to insult Trump, or anything that reminds them people have different opinions. Chinese people on some level know that a preference for Hong Kong over carefully designed Shenzhen in spite of all its problems is an attack on their government, the same way the fact the existence of Trump as president is a constant attack on progressive views.

Hope?

I can’t help but feel bad for everyone stuck in this situation, it seems like the people of Hong Kong are just pawns for more powerful people. Foreigners use it as their capitalist paradise, either wanting protesters killed for disrupting their way to work / LKF, or siding with protesters but unwilling to do anything to hinder their chance of work in mainland China. The mainland Chinese view it as something to be conquered to preserve the harmony of their great country. The CIA sees this as way to divide China. The Hong Kong government only cares about the richest people and the CCP, resulting in the housing crisis and continued protests.

Is there a solution? My guess is no, unless the people of Hong Kong embrace Chinese nationalism they will be left for a slow decline by the CCP. This is unlikely, because there has been a decline in Hong Kong people identifying as Chinese since 2008, which is around the time China increased its nationalism, deciding that there was a single way to be Chinese which was not going to include the current culture of Hong Kong.

By creating Shenzhen, the CCP has shown that the China can be superior economically to the West, and after seeing this the people of Hong Kong were supposed to see the glory of China. But so many people in Hong Kong are unwilling to give up their values of self determination and freedom, which are totally unacceptable for China. The best way forward for the CCP is to encourage incompetent governments like Carrie Lam that are slowly destroying Hong Kong. Chinese news sources will continue to show the disaster this has caused, both economically and for social harmony, strengthening the resolve of Chinese people that their form of government is best.

Rene Bidart
Rene Bidart
PhD Candidate

PhD candidate at University of Waterloo - Deep Learning