Talking to My Mother About Hong Kong

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Hong Kong Apostasy

 

Yangyang Cheng is a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, and a member of the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. Born and raised in China, Cheng gained a Bachelor degree in Science from the University of Science and Technology of China’s School for the Gifted Young and, in 2015, she completed a doctorate in Physics at the University of Chicago. Cheng writes a monthly Science and China column for SupChina and her work has also appeared in Foreign Policy and ChinaFile.

The following essay first appeared in SupChina on the 27th of November 2019. We are grateful both to Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor of SupChina, and to the author for permission to reprint Cheng’s work as part of ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, a series produced under the aegis of The Best China in China Heritage.

See also Yangyang Cheng, ‘Writing Home on China’s Seventieth Birthday’China Heritage, 1 October 2019.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
30 November 2019

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Note:

  • The typographical style of the original has been retained.

Yangyang Cheng in SupChina:

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I see in the people of Hong Kong a version of China that is still possible: a rejection of the false binary between prosperity and freedom, an assertion of national identity independent from the state, a breakup with the imperial fantasy, an imagination of justice and the willingness to demand it. I do not know how many from the mainland share a similar view, as expressing such an idea carries considerable risk. Each time I encounter one, in person, online, or through an anonymous post on social media, I feel a surge of kinship, like we are from a homeland that never existed — but one which, if we collect enough of each other, maybe will.

Yangyang Cheng


A schematic map showing the results of the 2019 Hong Kong District Council elections held on 24 November 2019  (red indicates victories for pro-Mainland China candidates)

***

Talking to My Mother About Hong Kong

Yangyang Cheng

 

My mother has been messaging me about the “riots” in Hong Kong.

A retired school teacher, she lives in our hometown in mainland China. I moved to the U.S. a decade ago for graduate school, where I continue to work as a physicist. With the time difference between us, I have been waking up to a flurry of emails from her every morning for the past few months.

Occasionally, her name would light up my inbox in the afternoon, so I would know it was another sleepless night for her.

Most of the time, my mother’s message will include a news article from Chinese state media, like Xinhua or the People’s Daily, that gives Beijing’s version of the latest developments in the former British colony. Sometimes it’ll be an opinion piece, published in the nationalistic tabloid Global Times, or posted by a well-known commentator on Chinese social media.

But the rhetoric, however plain or colorful, will always follows the official line: the black-clad protesters are violent criminals backed by foreign agitators trying to wreak havoc on the once-peaceful city; some young people in Hong Kong have been brainwashed by Western forces, and joined the fray out of passion and ignorance.

Ever the teacher, my mother would annotate the text, highlighting some of the original sentences with a bold font, and adding comments of her own in glaring red ink: “Look at what a mess Hong Kong has become.” “Why does the U.S. keep meddling in China’s internal affairs?” “How stupid are some of the young Hong Kongers, how gullible!”

My mother and I have never discussed politics. One of the first civics lessons I received from her as a young child was that the affairs of the state were taboo: too messy for ordinary minds, too perilous for anyone else. That my mother would write to me about the developments in Hong Kong, a city hundreds of miles south of where she lives, and with such frequency, was unusual.

I try to think of the possible reasons. My mother has more free time in her retirement. There are friends of hers whose children work or study in Hong Kong. Maybe my mother is genuinely intrigued by the happenings, and wants to share them with me.

But there’s another, darker possibility for her sudden interest in politics. Since I started writing for the public two years ago, often critical of the Chinese government, I have been asked countless times whether I fear for my family back in China, and if they have faced pressure from the authorities because of me. Sometimes the questions feel less like an inquiry than a friendly warning.

In a dark corner in my imagination, I see my mother seated in front of Chinese security officers, refusing to disown me for my seditious words, but promising to reeducate me, to rectify the ills of my childish mind: she sends me all the propaganda articles as part of her deal with the state, each delivery a check on her behavioral chart, an attempt at atonement for our shared sin.

Once or twice these scenes have crept into my dreams. When I wake up to her messages on my phone, I wonder for just a brief moment whether my nightmares have indeed become reality.

My rational self says that I am paranoid, as people who have grown up in authoritarian systems often are. Between the most innocuous and the most ominous lies the most probable scenario, that my mother, despite not knowing English and our estrangement, has been made aware of my political writings. Using the events in Hong Kong as a teachable moment, my mother is trying to correct my crimes of thought, and stop me on my dangerous path.

“We are all congratulating Teacher L, that her son had the foresight to move back to the mainland before the unrest started,” my mother writes at the beginning of a long message. Several of her friends’ children in Hong Kong are making similar plans, applying for jobs in Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen.

“China is not what it used to be,” my mother continues, describing the convenience of high-speed rails and the new wealth of my childhood friends. “You have been away for too long.”

Growing up in the provinces in the early 2000s, it appeared that the marker of personal success was to get as far away as possible: if not to a foreign country, preferably the U.S., Hong Kong would be the top choice. The distant locales offered a world-class education, better employment opportunities, and higher standards of living. But as China got richer and invested in its schools and infrastructure, was the promise of an outside world still worth leaving home?

***

Ten years ago, when I had just arrived in the U.S., my mother and I spoke on the phone one Sunday morning. Starting with mundane matters, the conversation quickly became heated. I was frustrated that my mother could not understand why I was so adamant about leaving China, that she was trivializing the purpose of my departure to the mere pursuit of a degree she did not believe I was capable of obtaining.

“He swam, swam to freedom!” I yelled through the receiver, tears streaming down my face. I was referring to the father of a Chinese-American friend who had spent hours in the cold, dark waters in the 1960s, making his way from the coast of Canton to Hong Kong. An estimated one million people fled Mao’s China for the British colony, many of whom were so-called “freedom swimmers.”

There was a long pause on the other end. My mother sighed, and changed the subject. Versions of the same conversation played out a few more times over the next couple of years, before my mother and I both recognized its futility. According to her, I was simply too young and naive: it would only take a few more years of life on a foreign land for me to recognize the empty promise of freedom.

In retrospect, I had romanticized the story of my friend’s father and his cohort. They escaped China under extreme circumstances. The freedom they sought was not necessarily civil liberties, but first and foremost the emancipation from dire poverty and political turmoil. Half a century after their crossing, the remaining community in Hong Kong find themselves split over their attitudes toward the mainland and the protesters’ demands: what more is there to ask, when one can finally enjoy social stability and material comfort?

“The purpose of living is not just to keep a full stomach,” I write to my mother, feeling like a hypocrite as someone who has never experienced starvation. “Didn’t you teach this to your students?”

“I know what you mean,” my mother responds. “You have always wanted freedom. But in China today, unlike in the past, you have freedom. You are free to do whatever you want, as long as you obey the law, and do not speak ill of the government.”

My mother forwards me accounts of hostility toward mainlanders in Hong Kong. When a Chinese student put up a national flag in her dorm room to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the simple expression of patriotism was perceived by some Hong Kong students as political aggression. A Taiwanese visitor was reportedly assaulted for speaking Mandarin. Numerous posts in online forums refer to people from the mainland as “locusts.”

I too find these cases of bigotry disturbing and deeply unfortunate. Disparities in economic development, centralization of political power, and a de facto caste system in the form of residential registration have created and enforced a geographical hierarchy in Chinese society. Hong Kong is no exception. The underdeveloped fishing dock on the periphery of the Qing empire became a global financial hub under British rule, and was by far the most affluent and cosmopolitan of Chinese cities at the time of the 1997 handover. There is a degree of cultural superiority born out of economic privilege. That sentiment, widely present in Hong Kong, is a source of resentment for many on the mainland, who look to the southern metropolis with envy.

However, what has made Hong Kong different from any other Chinese city is not just its wealth, but more fundamentally, its freedom. With that, it has preserved its traditional cultures and languages, facilitated the exchange of people and ideas, and created a local identity distinct from that of the mainland. As Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong society, pushes for Mandarin lessons and patriotic education at its schools, and interferes with the city’s autonomy and the rule of law, what Hong Kongers fear losing is not just economic status, but their way of life.

The former British colony is being recolonized by the People’s Republic. In this context, the mainlanders who moved to Hong Kong are not merely migrants, but settlers. The Chinese flag, the national anthem, the Mandarin language: all of these entities, political creations in their own right, become symbols of imperial expansion and state oppression.

“I am Chinese. I am patriotic,” my mother writes. “Hong Kong is a part of China. Anyone who is unpatriotic must be condemned by all.”

I read my mother’s words on the screen, the characters in the same shade of red as our national flag: they are like political slogans, the type she would have her students chant in the classroom. I wonder whether she has ever contemplated the meaning behind the syllables: What is China? What does it mean to be Chinese? How does one define patriotism, and is it always a virtue?

It is easy to accept a national myth, the illusion of a noble and benevolent motherland, so that as its citizen, one may also feel a sense of nobility and benevolence by association. What is inherently good does not require further examination. Legends obscure the moral ambiguity of statecraft, of war and conquest. A national identity, as prescribed by the state, provides ready answers to many of life’s most difficult questions: anyone who rejects it is branded a heretic, condemned and dismissed, so that the myth may persist. Truth is a small price to pay.

Is a lie worth believing when it makes lives — millions, perhaps — less burdened? America calls itself “a nation of immigrants,” because that is a more comforting concept than the reality: a nation of settlers, refugees, slaves, and indigenous people who survived a genocide. Even with its democratic system and freedom of speech, my adopted country is still struggling with its bloody past and present ills.

Back in graduate school, I once attended a public lecture on the founding fathers. Toward the end of the event, one of the panelists, an older white man, gave an impassioned defense of Thomas Jefferson. “How could such a great, brilliant individual, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who said all men are created equal…how could he possibly have had sexual relationships with his slaves?” The speaker’s voice broke, his face red, his indignation palpable, as if he were personally being accused of Jefferson’s misdeeds.

I am reminded of that episode as I watch video clips of mainlanders confronting Hong Kong protesters. “Hong Kong is a part of China!” they shout, waving the Chinese flag and blasting the national anthem. I believe their love for China is genuine, but so is their insecurity: Without their Chineseness as Beijing defines it, who are they? Without the glory of a rich and powerful homeland, can they still feel strong? Without wearing patriotism on their sleeve, are they still good?

“In a free society, people can love their country and still criticize its government,” I write to my mother, to which she does not respond.

***

“Pompeo, what’s the matter with you?” declares the headline of an opinion piece my mother sends me. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, had just given a speech lambasting the Chinese government’s oppressive policies.

“Read this. Do not comment,” my mother writes. She has been careful not to express anything overtly negative about the country I live in, worried that the U.S. government might punish me for her words. I tell her that is not how a democracy operates. My mother says I’m naive. “You never know.”

She sends me photos from social media depicting some Hong Kong protesters waving the star-spangled banner. It was a politically savvy move, as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was being debated on Capitol Hill, which, according to the Chinese government, was another sign of U.S. interference.

“How stupid,” my mother says. “Nobody supports the ones who betray their motherland.”

I find myself torn over such imagery. There was a time not so long ago when I too saw the American flag as a symbol of the country’s founding creeds — freedom, equality, and the rule of law — however short reality may have fallen from the ideals. I swapped the national myth of my birth country for that of my adopted home, and blindly held onto the latter much longer than a thinking person should have. I am grateful to the U.S. for the hope it gave me and the life it has allowed me to live, as I am grateful to China for my existence and heritage, but no amount of gratitude justifies self-delusion.

What does it mean to protest against one empire by petitioning another? There are those in the U.S. government who are sincerely committed to democracy and human rights, who hope for a future of freedom and autonomy for the people of Hong Kong. But there are also opportunists who will use the Asian city as their own political theater, who appropriate the cause of a people for their personal agenda, who pay lip service to burnish an image, a convenient cover as they carry out oppressive policies at home.

Often, there is no clear distinction between the two camps. Politicians are politicians, after all.

It feels presumptuous of me to criticize anyone from an ocean away, to reduce life-and-death scenarios to academic exercises. The frontliners are braving rubber bullets and water cannons on a daily basis: who am I to judge the tactics of a few, or whom they turn to for help in a moment of desperation?

A successful movement needs its allies, but solidarity must center the most marginalized, not the most powerful. I find myself encouraged by activists and scholars in Hong Kong and among its diaspora who draw lessons from Black liberation and other indigenous movements to imagine a more just future where their city is not a chess piece in great power politics, and governance is reconstructed to serve not capital but the people.

“Every government wants what’s best for the people,” my mother writes.

“Every government wants to stay in power,” I respond.

“Stability benefits the people,” my mother says. “Every government should only mind its own business. Do not interfere with the internal affairs of others.”

“If a government kills its people to stay in power, should other governments interfere?” I ask.

It takes a while for my mother to write back. “What you are saying may sound right in abstraction, but it does not apply to the current situation.”

***

Rioter.

Masked rioter.

Black-clad rioter.

I wake up to a half-dozen messages from my mother: With links to articles in Chinese media, they all include the r-word in the subject line, followed by a graphic description of the latest acts of physical aggression by the Hong Kong protesters.

“Look at this!” my mother writes at the beginning of each message. “How terrifying! Hong Kong is in complete chaos!”

She uses bold characters in large font, with a string of exclamation marks added for emphasis.

In a society that values decorum more than justice, condemning violence is an easy way to feel good about oneself without asking the hard questions: Who is violent? Where is the violence directed at? What places do the respective parties occupy in structures of power?

Even among those who were initially sympathetic of the protesters’ demands, many have become disillusioned by the radical tactics. Violence is wrong, they say.

There have been several reports of physical violence by protesters, who beat up people and, in one extreme case, lit a man on fire. These incidents should be condemned, prosecuted, and punished to the full extent of the law. However, the poor behavior of a few individuals does not invalidate a collective cause. In the flood of reactions to the isolated cases, one could almost detect a whiff of Schadenfreude: any large group of people has its share of bad actors, especially when operating in high-stress conditions; when a mistake inevitably occurs, the distractors finally have the evidence with which to shout their preconceived notions, and are quick to discredit an entire movement with one example.

Most of the time, the protesters’ violence has not targeted people, but objects. Some were acts of self-defense, such as throwing Molotov cocktails or setting up roadblocks to halt the approach of riot police. Others were vandalism of public structures, including government buildings, state-owned banks, and subway stations, as well as shops and restaurants whose owners were perceived to be friendly with Beijing.

One can disagree with such strategies, but the selective destruction of property, as well as the disruption of public order, is a common form of political protest. The inconveniences and visual discomfort serve a purpose, to raise awareness, to expose hidden injustices, and to declare that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

“It is you who taught us that peaceful protests do not work,” reads the graffiti painted on the side of a Hong Kong street. Millions marched time and again in the early summer, only to be met with an unresponsive chief executive and escalating police brutality. The excessive firing of tear gas and assault of protesters are obvious instances of state violence. More importantly, a government not beholden to the people, a judicial system subject to political pressure, and the slow encroachment of civil liberties are all inherently violent.

“Individual violence is fundamentally different from state violence,” I tell my mother.

“Yes,” my mother responds. “But there is no state violence here. The police are rightfully enforcing the law.”

Power incentivizes forgiving and forgetting. Law and order are often code names for the normalization of systematic violence, demanding that the oppressed accept structural injustices as the default condition of life.

It is tempting to look at past movements with rose-tinted glasses, to speak of peaceful struggle when the reality was much messier and oftentimes violent. To this day, womenswear lacks functioning pockets, a design choice that can be traced back to women’s suffrage: the patriarchy snuck all kinds of restrictions and inconveniences into women’s lives, terrified that liberated women could carry weapons and political pamphlets in their clothing to start a revolution.

Mahatma Gandhi preached civil disobedience that included mass strikes and boycotts, methods that were unlawful by design and much more disruptive than smashing windows. Martin Luther King Jr. was accused of inciting violence and viewed as a security threat, demonized by the powers-that-be (who have since flattened his radical legacy into a sermon on a square, so as to appease white America’s sentiments). Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for leading an armed overthrow of the apartheid South African government.

It is much easier to train the eye on a burning campus than on the structures of power behind the flame. It is much more comforting for the docile to condemn violence than to confront the cost of liberation.

“There are no rioters; only tyranny!” — protesters spray-painted these words on the walls inside the Legislative Council.

I thought about sending these words, eight characters in Chinese, to my mother. But I was worried that it was too explicit. Instead, I used a quote from Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅.

Arguable the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, Lu Xun wrote an eulogy in the spring of 1926 for his former student, Liú Hézhēn 刘和珍, who was among dozens of young protesters gunned down by the Nationalist government, headed by the warlord Duàn Qíruì 段祺瑞, during an anti-imperialist demonstration in Beijing.

The famous essay was included in my middle school textbook in China, and I sent this line to my mother: “But the Duan government issued an order, that they were ‘rioters’! And then there were rumors claiming that they were manipulated by others.”

“You’re such a good student that you still remember this,” my mother responded. “Lu Xun wrote many things, but it was a different time.”

***

I never quite know how to react to my mother’s messages about Hong Kong. Does she wholeheartedly believe in Beijing’s claims that the people demanding freedom and autonomy are merely rioters and separatists? A small part of me wishes that my mother, as a child of the Cultural Revolution, is only repeating the official talking points out of political necessity, not personal conviction.

“She cannot say it openly, but she secretly agrees with you!” a voice inside me whispers. It can be comforting to indulge in such a fantasy, that I am not a lonely rebel but have a hidden ally in the woman who gave me life. Yet like any indulgence, the thought is followed by crushing regret. How could I be so selfish? The Chinese government has been cracking down on any form of support for Hong Kong protest on the mainland, and whipping up fury among its people. Even a moderate voice of compassion can be met with widespread public condemnation or worse.

For almost four decades, my mother taught Chinese in elementary school, following a government-issued curriculum of patriotism and party loyalty. There has never been any doubt in my mind that her view of China and the world is exactly as written in the textbooks and preached by state media: there is no intellectual space to raise questions, let alone form alternative opinions. To my mother, any deviation from party doctrine is not only a mistake, but also a dereliction of her professional duty.

The recognition of my mother’s political obedience is somewhat reassuring, albeit with a tinge of personal disappointment. I tried to ignore her messages about Hong Kong, only to be asked if I had indeed read all of the articles she had so painstakingly collected and annotated for my education. I thought about responding with some perfunctory assent, but found such an act of deception impossible to perform.

Depending on the events of the day and my mood in the moment, sometimes I read my mother’s messages with frustration, upset by what I perceive to be moral cowardice. More often, I earnestly hope she would adopt a harsher tone in denouncing my views: in the worst case scenario, her criticism of me may also serve as her political protection.

If we both lived in free societies, I would simply tell my mother my honest opinion, pointing to the Chinese state’s authoritarian nature and imperial legacy as the main culprit. We might get into a prolonged argument, with neither of us convincing the other, but the conversation would be uninhibited.

Instead, I cannot speak in my mother tongue to my mother, even in private, what I write publicly in English, my adopted language. No communication is truly private on Chinese platforms: my messages may one day become incriminating evidence in her inbox. For a lack of better options, I find myself responding to my mother in a circumspect way. I never mention China, the Communist Party, or Hong Kong directly. I make general statements, and ask broad questions. I give historical references, and use examples from other countries. I cite famous people without elaborating on the context, from Elie Wiesel to Dr. King, from Vaclav Havel to Lu Xun.

I laugh at myself for the absurdity of such maneuvering, and am embarrassed for how pretentious I must appear. Each time my mother writes back to say that she needs to think about what I said, or look up a person or event, I am hit with pangs of guilt. She should be relaxing in her retirement, or pursuing hobbies of her own interest. Instead, she is burdened with some fragmented lessons about oppression and resistance, worrying about my safety and possibly also hers, all the while embroiled in a discussion about politics, the menacing topic she has always tried to avoid. The one I could never let go.

“China has always saved up what’s best and given it to Hong Kong: the cleanest water, the highest quality foods, and the most favorable policies,” my mother writes.

“But Hong Kong cannot appreciate it. Instead of being grateful, it is throwing a tantrum.”

“Can you imagine how sad the motherland must be? Her heart must have gone cold!”

The Chinese government has frequently depicted itself as a loving mother and Hong Kong as her ungrateful child, in an effort to infantilize the Hong Kong people and deny their right to self-determination. Yet as I opened my mother’s message, what I saw was not political propaganda: her words were personal, with every character hitting me like a brick.

“You are a piece of flesh that fell off me,” my mother used to say. For much of my life in China, I had kicked and screamed for a sliver of space from her suffocating and tyrannical love. I crossed oceans and continents seeking the room to breathe, a chance to grow into the woman I would like to be. I wonder how much my mother has been projecting our tortured relationship onto the events in Hong Kong over the past several months, waiting for the moment of unquestioning submission, when the lost child finally comes home.

“A city is not a person. And every person has their agency,” I respond.

“Young people are restless. They like to take it to the streets,” my mother writes. “When they grow older, they will realize how naive and stupid they were.”

“Slavery persisted for centuries here,” I shift the conversation to the U.S. again. “Should the slaves simply wait for the masters to have a moral epiphany?”

“Like you said, it took centuries,” my mother responds. “Everything has its time. Now is not the time.”

“It took centuries of continuous struggle,” I push back. “Nothing happens overnight.”

“Everything has its time,” my mother repeats herself. “Now is not the time.”

“Every person has only one life.” The conversation has gone further than I would have liked, but I let it continue.

“Nobody can choose when to be alive, but they can choose how to live.”

“You have always been better at words than I,” my mother says. “I just want you to be well. Do not take part in things that are too big for you to understand. Politics is not for ordinary people. The waters are too deep.”

As with most of the choices I’ve made for my life and career, I have again betrayed my mother’s humble wishes. She wants to protect me, while I merely want to do what I believe is right. In an unjust world, one’s safety and one’s conscience become incompatible: unless a person completely abandons one for the other, life is a constant negotiation between the two; each decision is a compromise, each compromise an accumulation of guilt.

I know I am not alone in having difficult conversations with family about politics, in China and elsewhere. In Hong Kong, a significant number of young protesters have become effectively homeless after splitting with their pro-establishment parents. I have never liked the phrase “generational divide,” because today’s young people, with any luck, will one day also grow old. If there is anything about youth and dissent, it is that we have spent less time convincing ourselves that what is should just be.

I see in the people of Hong Kong a version of China that is still possible: a rejection of the false binary between prosperity and freedom, an assertion of national identity independent from the state, a breakup with the imperial fantasy, an imagination of justice and the willingness to demand it. I do not know how many from the mainland share a similar view, as expressing such an idea carries considerable risk. Each time I encounter one, in person, online, or through an anonymous post on social media, I feel a surge of kinship, like we are from a homeland that never existed — but one which, if we collect enough of each other, maybe will.

***