Living and Learning in Hong Kong 2019

Hong Kong Apostasy


Students of elementary Chinese are taught a simple rhyming saying:


The longer you live the more you learn.
Even then, you’ll never know it all.

The vocabulary is basic, the syntax rudimentary, but these lines convey a timeless message.


This is the latest chapter in ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, a feature of ‘The Best China’ section of China Heritage that is devoted to the 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill Protest Movement. Its author, the veteran journalist Lee Yee 李怡 (李秉堯), was the founding editor of The Seventies Monthly 七十年代月刊 and he has been a prominent commentator on Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan politics, as well as the global scene, for over half a century.

This essay is translated from ‘Ways of the World’ 世道人生, a column that Lee Yee writes for Apple Daily 蘋果日報.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
29 July 2019


Other Essays by Lee Yee on the 2019 Hong Kong Protests:

LIHKGDaily or Freedun Daily on Facebook

Winners & Losers

Some are asking: Can the Hong Kong protesters win? My answer is that if they persist, they cannot lose. This is a struggle over human values — freedom, justice, dignity — and in that realm the Hong Kong people have already won. Yes, if they give up, then the machine will take over. But while a brutal dictatorship might outlast them, it can never “win.” It is human nature to have ideals and to put them into action. A dictatorship cannot change those facts. Its defeat is only a matter of time.

— Ai Weiwei, trans. by Perry Link; quoted in
Lee Yee, ‘Hong Kong Cannot Lose’,
Apple Daily, 26 July 2019

Living and Learning

Lee Yee 李怡

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


In an essay that I published some four months ago, I announced that, henceforth, I would be cutting back on writing columns about current affairs to focus on memoirs. My thinking was not so much my readers; nor was it born of any particular urge to pass on ‘precious life lessons’ to the young, or readers far in the future. Rather, it was really just about myself. You see, as I get older my energies are sapping away and I felt I had to get a few things down while I still could.


But after only a month of publishing reminiscences, as the political tumult in Hong Kong escalated I found that I had to put that plan aside. Hong Kong is the place where I have lived for over seventy of my eighty-three years. Over the years, it’s a place that has given me numerous opportunities and it is a place that I have loved and cared about for my entire adult life.

Since 1979, when the future of Hong Kong was first cast into doubt, I have focussed my energies on thinking about and expressing my concerns for the political life of this place. Over the past few months, Hong Kong has, on a daily basis, challenged both my previous understanding, as well as lifetime of experience. Throughout this period a famous line from the May Fourth-era writer Lu Xun has repeatedly occurred to me:

‘While it is true that I constantly dissect and analyse others with a critical eye, I am, in reality, even more unsentimental when I apply the knife to myself.’



The day before yesterday, I was obsessed with what was happening on the streets of Yuen Long in the New Territories. It was my view that the protests planned for Yuen Long on the 26th of July [in response to the attacks of the previous week during which pro-government thugs had indiscriminately attacked local people] should be about sending a message en masse, one that declared in no uncertain terms that the people would not be intimidated even though the authorities had made it clear that they were in cahoots with those organised street toughs.

I naïvely thought that it would be more than enough for people to march in a demonstration of solidarity; equally, I felt it important that the demonstrators avoid hanging around what was essentially a dangerous spot any longer than necessary. That’s why it was a relief to read a notice on the LIHKGDaily [or Freedun Daily] Facebook site declaring: ‘Those on the front line have decided that we will all withdraw at 7:30pm!’ But that’s not what happened at all. The declaration that everyone would leave together was not what the demonstrators on the front line who were confronting riot police had decided at all. Instead, they were motivated by the ideas to do with ‘Retake Hong Kong, Revolution in Our Time’ [a slogan of the previously controversial political grouping Hong Kong Indigenous].

If the government was adamant in its refusal to respond to the [protesters’ five key] demands each new demonstration would simply up the ante both for the authorities and for the police. The protesters made it clear that their approach is: ‘faced with riot police we will hold our ground; when the opportunity arises we will advance our cause.’ They are mentally prepared to be beaten and arrested; their sentiment is summed up in the words ‘Revolution can only be achieved through sweat, tears and blood.’ People are now aware that they are not going to get what they want merely by marching in the streets. They also know that personal safety, or avoiding injury cannot be their paramount concern … …


These young protesters aren’t in sympathy with the familiar approach of oldsters like me who have always argued along the lines that ‘as long as there is life there is hope’. Generally, we have felt that it was enough to express our views in a free and unfettered way. These protesters, however, believe that they must go further. A friend of mine encountered a group of ‘Black Clothes’ [the signature outfit of protesters, all the more so since the street thugs of Yuen Long dressed in white] on a bus and observed that looking into their eyes they detected a steely determination, a roiling anger, as well as a sense of tragic hopelessness.


Since the Anti-Extradition Bill Protests began [in late March 2019], actions launched by ‘Young People of LIHKG and Telegram’ have repeatedly challenged me. They include:

  • The siege of LegCo on the 12th of June;
  • Repeated thoughtful public written declarations;
  • The appeal to the international community to boycott [that is, to cancel the passports or rescind the citizenship of] individuals who are selling out the interests of Hong Kong;
  • The crowd-funded ‘Stand with Hong Kong at G20’ advertisements published in the international media on the eve of the 2019 G20 Osaka Summit [held on 28-29 June];
  • The storming of the Legislative Assembly Chambers on 1 July; and,
  • The assault on the Central Government Liaison Office on 21 July… …

[Note: For a chronology of the 2019 protests, see here.]

Many of these things have been beyond my experience and they have exceeded my understanding of what is possible. At this point, although the Extradition Bill has been put on hold [although not withdrawn entirely], its existence has become the flashpoint for the whole range of popular discontents among people of all groups and a way for everyone to engage in collective resistance. The protests have also attracted international attention and elicited broad-based support. For their part, however, the Hong Kong authorities have demonstrated just how divorced they are from what is actually taking place. They have proven themselves to be politically discombobulated and show signs that their governance is careening towards total disarray.


On 19 July 2019, The Stand online news site published an interview with the organiser of the Telegram group called ‘We’ll Go Down Together’ [who goes by the name Finn]. In total this group have launched eight successful actions on the basis of an overriding principle summed up in the expression 攬炒: ‘we’re gonna take you down with us’. They sum up their attitude with a line taken from [Katniss Everdeen,] the hero of the 2014 film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1:

‘If we burn, you burn with us.’

[Note: 攬炒 means to throw ingredients into a wok and stir fry together; or, ‘if we are being cast from the frying pan into the fire, you’re gonna burn with us.’]

It’s a sentiment that you can also find in the ancient Book of Documents [the early Confucian classic on history] that reads: ‘時日曷喪, 予及汝皆亡’, literally, ‘When will this sun ever disappear? We are determined to see you dead, and we will die with you if that’s what it takes.’ This was an oath sworn by people who were involved in the greatest slave revolt in Chinese history, at the end of the Xia dynasty [of the second millennium BCE]. Jie, the tyrannical ruler of the Xia, had compared himself to the sun and the rebels swore to snuff him out, even if it meant that they too would perish.’

[Note: 予及汝皆亡 yú jí rǔ jiē wáng: a famous line from the Book of Documents. The full sentence reads 時日曷喪 shí rì hé sàng, 予及汝皆亡 yú jí rǔ jiē wáng: ‘When will this sun [i.e., tyrant Jie] finally set? We will take you down and we will die together!’ See ‘Declarations of Tang’ in the Book of Documents《尚書 · 湯誓》; see also the notes to Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility — Part IChina Heritage, 31 January 2019.]

《立場新聞》訪問了一個連登群組「我要攬炒」的真身,他們連續發出八波有效的攻勢,依靠的只是一個信念,就是「攬炒」,他們引用電影《饑餓遊戲》中主角對白:「If we burn, you burn with us.」也就是中國《尚書》所說的「時日曷喪,予及汝皆亡」。這是夏朝爆發的歷史上規模最大的奴隸起義時奴隸發出的誓言。針對夏桀自比為太陽,奴隸誓言是:「這個太陽為甚麼不消失?」「我就和你一起死吧!」

But what chance do they have of success? Finn told the journalist:

‘Now they may be but vague and distant hopes. However, up until now there was only a 0.1 percent possibility of any success; now that’s increased to one percent. That means the potential has increased tenfold.’

And that’s why they persist.


The attitude of this ‘Dare-to-Die’ group is that they have turned a situation in which ‘everything is impossible’ into one in which ‘anything is possible’. They have forced older people like me who think of our experience as a kind of ‘capital’ to realise that all we really have is debts.

Why does Young Hong Kong have this ‘daring do’ mindset, and how, against all expectations, has their belief elicited such widespread resonance? The reason is that, since the failed opposition to the express railway link between Guangzhou and Hong Kong in 2009, the Chinese Communists have been emboldened to encroach on Hong Kong step by step; they have worked hand in glove with the Hong Kong Communist government. As a result, Young Hong Kong feels that there is no escape, but also no retreat. Forbearance [and the Leftard group’s advocacy of] social inclusiveness, non-violent and rational action have served to highlight the impotence of our traditional modes of resistance, as well as showing up our profound hypocrisy.

After all, it is because people on Mainland China have no choice but to demonstrate forbearance for the status quo on a daily basis they live in a society that is ever more shameless and unprincipled.

Hong Kong cannot tolerate the situation any further; to do so would mean we surrender ourselves to the power-holders and give them license to impose their moronic ideas, allow them to unleash their boundless appetite for abasement. We would be reduced to the status of a Fallen Society, just like that on the Mainland.


I’ve learned a great deal over the past few months; I’m also profoundly ashamed. I’m ashamed because I now realise that if, in the past, we had had the courage that Young Hong Kong has today, we would not be in the present predicament. That’s simply the truth.