This is Who We Are — We Are Hong Kong

The Best China


This is the latest chapter in ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, a feature of ‘The Best China’ section of China Heritage 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, the column Lee Yee writes for Apple Daily 蘋果日報.

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


Related Reading:


Prologue: Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan

When I was in Taiwan presenting a series of lectures following the events of Fourth of June 1989 [that is, the Beijing Massacre that brought a violent end to the months-long pro-democracy protest movement that had involved millions of people and enveloped dozens of cities in the People’s Republic], I was struck by how little interest there was in the recent events on the Mainland. The response of most people seemed to be: in the future the Mainland and Taiwan are simply going to go their separate ways. Anyway, killing people in the streets of Beijing like that has absolutely nothing to do with us.


Later on, as the Mainland economy really took off, Beijing was gradually able to exert both economic as well as increasing political pressure on Taiwan. For many years thereafter, the authorities on the Mainland tended to emphasise the importance of advancing cross-strait relations; they refrained from too much talk about unification or advocating the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy framework for Taiwan. But early this year [in a major speech on the Taiwan question made on 1 January], Xi Jinping made a point of addressing those very topics [as well as stating that the Mainland retained the option of reunification at gunpoint]. The upshot is that Taiwan faces a stark choice about its priorities. That is, should it:

  1. Lean in further to the Mainland economy to bolster its prosperity; or,
  2. Safeguard its autonomy, democracy and freedoms.

Without doubt, the unfolding Anti-Extradition Bill Protests of Hong Kong in 2019 offer people in Taiwan much useful food for thought. …

[The author goes on to discuss reports that Hong Kong protesters who believed that they were marked for persecution were seeking political asylum in Taiwan. The response was positive. — trans.]


Today, the evolving reality is simple: Hong Kong and Taiwan should form a ‘Community of Shared Destiny’ [here the author recasts a significant Xi Jinping catch-phrase; for more on its significance, see Shared Destiny: China Story Yearbook 2014]. That is to say, as such Hong Kong being as it is on the frontline, can alert Taiwan to the Communist threat, while Taiwan can provide logistical backup to the Hong Kong People who are facing down Beijing.

This ‘Kong-Tai Community of Shared Destiny’ already faces two very different possibilities: to remain in the camp of Civilised Humanity or to join that of Autocratic Bastardry. [For more on this choice, see here.]


from Lee Yee, ‘The Kong-Tai Community of Shared Destiny’
李怡, 台港命運共同體,《蘋果日報》, 2019年7月22日
trans. Geremie R. Barmé


‘自由-HI’ (Freedom Cunt) — protest apparel, Hong Kong, June 2019

An Editorial Note on a T-shirt:

On 13 June 2019, a riot-gear-wearing policeman was filmed taunting protesters by shouting:

‘Come on, let’s have you — fucking freedom cunts!’

for the video, see here.

Here the word for ‘cunt’ 閪 is pronounced ‘hi/ hai’. It features in the common Cantonese 粗口, or vulgarism, 屌你老母[閪], ‘fuck your mother’s [cunt]’, an expression that is equivalent both in meaning and frequency of use to the northern obscenity 肏你媽[個屄], or 他媽的, a hallowed ‘national swearword’ 國罵 that is also known as 三字經, the ‘three-word classic’. (In Standard Chinese the character 閪 is pronounced , although its meaning is unrelated to genitalia.)

On the T-shirt featured above, 自由 — ‘freedom’ — is melded with 閪 ‘hi’ to create the compound character ‘自由-HI’, ‘Freedom Cunt’.

See also:

We Are Hong Kong

Lee Yee 李怡

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


The results of the most recent opinion poll conducted by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute released the other day indicate that support among Hong Kong people for Taiwan independence had increased to forty-four percent, up nine percentage points since it was last gauged in early 2019. Meanwhile, popular opposition to the notion of Taiwan independence had fallen to forty-four percent, down six percentage points. [See: 新形勢下的2020台灣總統大選, 2019年6月24日] . This is the first time since these polls were initiated in 1993 that these two figures have approached parity.


It is not insignificant that these figures mirror those recently gathered by pollsters on Taiwan:

The results of a nation-wide opinion poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation and published on 24 June [2019] show that seventy-one percent of the Taiwanese population supports the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement in Hong Kong. Furthermore, the influence of the movement seems directly reflected by the fact that, in the six months since December 2018, overall support for Taiwan independence has increased by fifteen percentage points to reach a new high of 49.7 percent. At the same time, another 1.75 million people have changed their previous position of ‘supporting cross-straits unification’ in favour of other options.


When interviewed by pollsters, apart from various personal factors, interviewees indicated that they had particular concerns [regarding the Mainland-Taiwan unification scenario], including what is dubbed ‘feasibility’. The reason that Taiwan independence is viewed by those interviewees as being unfeasible is that the Mainland government has repeatedly declared that such an option will simply not be countenanced; moreover, people are also aware that the international community will perforce respect the undertakings of various individual countries agreed when diplomatic relations were established [with the People’s Republic of China which, invariably, included a non-negotiable stipulation regarding the ‘One China Policy’]. If that crucially practical constraint — that is, ‘China will not countenance independence’ — is taken out of the equation, then support for Taiwan independence would certainly be greater [than indicated by this latest poll]. The thinking about Hong Kong independence is, in reality, the same.


Needless to say, support for independence is directly related to the issue of self-identification. For those [Mainland] Chinese who live in Taiwan or Hong Kong, for instance, it is unlikely that they will favour either Taiwan or Hong Kong independence. If, however, you identify yourself as ‘Taiwanese’ or as a ‘Hong Kong Person’, and not as ‘Chinese’ as such, then it most likely that your lack of enthusiasm either for Taiwan or for Hong Kong independence will primarily be the result of political considerations [mentioned above].


Over the two decades from 1997 to 2017, there have been significant changes in the way that generations of Hong Kong young people have come to identify themselves. According to statistics based on opinion polls conducted in 1997 [when Hong Kong was absorbed into the People’s Republic], thirty-one percent of young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine years regarded themselves in the category broadly labelled ‘Chinese’, that is they thought of themselves as ‘Chinese’, ‘Hong Kong Chinese’ or ‘Chinese Hong Kong people’. By 2017, that figure had fallen to 3.1 percent! This, in the two decades since the 1997 handover, was a significant new low in the numbers of young Hong Kong people who self-identified as ‘Chinese’.


Over the hundred and fifty years of British rule, Hong Kong People came to treasure their freedoms. But what do we really mean when we speak about Freedom? [The leading May Fourth-era thinker and liberal activist] Hu Shih [胡適, 1891-1962] put it like this:

‘Freedom should be considered in relation to external constraints; to have Freedom but to lack Independence means, in effect, that you are still enslaved. To be Independent means that you do not follow blindly; you do not let yourself be knowingly deceived; you do not rely on family or special contacts, not do you rely on others. Only then can you truly have a Free Spirit.’

[— quoted from Hu Shih, ‘Welcome Address to Peking University’, 10 October 1946 胡適, ‘在北京大學1946年開學典禮上的講話’Similar sentiments are featured in the China Heritage series ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University: voices of Protest and Resistance’ (March 2019-); see here.]


Here Hu Shih makes it quite clear what he means when he talks about ‘Independence’ and ‘Freedom’: Independence is the condition of and basis for Freedom. Without independence real freedom is impossible. Independence means that neither are you physically restrained, nor is your will subordinated to others. It also means that your mind and your thoughts are not fettered by pre-conceived prejudices. That is why Independence precedes Freedom; it is what Freedom is all about. Only with Independence can you truly be Free.


Someone who is long inured to living in a servile and submissive state learns from the very start that their existence is contingent upon the control of others. Or, as the Russian-Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky put it:

‘A Bird Born in a Cage Will Think Flying Is an Illness.’

[The rest of the quotation is:

A bird is born to be free. Hence, if it is locked up in a cage, it will feel like its whole essence is being limited to a tiny slice. It is as if its wings were cut off, along with one of its most characteristic traits, its ability to fly.

See also Geremie R. Barmé, : What Is and Isn’t Possible?’, China Heritage Quarterly, No.19, September 2009]

The generations of Chinese people who lived [as the writer Lu Xun put it in 1925] in ‘periods when we longed in vain to be slaves’ or in ‘periods when we succeeded in becoming slaves for a time’ [— he goes on to say: ‘These periods form a cycle of what earlier scholars call “times of good rule” and “times of confusion” ’ — trans. Xianyi and Gladys Yang], are used to believing that their very existence depends upon the largesse of the power-holders; they don’t even realise that the power-holders are living off them, the tax-payers. Moreover, they have long grown used to thinking that so long as they have adequate food and clothing in their cages things are pretty good. No wonder they regard untamed birds that fly off in search for freedom to be sick in the head.

長期置身於奴隸狀態的人,一出生就學會必須依附權力才能生存。俄裔智利導演Alejandro Jodorowsky說:「籠裏出生的鳥認為飛翔是一種病。」世世代代生活在「想做奴隸而不得的時代」或「暫時做穩了奴隸的時代」的族類,習慣了認為自己的生存有賴於掌權者的供養,而不覺得是納稅人供養掌權者。他們認為籠裏生活有吃有穿就好,因此追求在猛禽環伺下自由飛翔是一種病。

Given the guarantees stipulated in the negotiated framework and practical undertakings of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, the People of Hong Kong originally believed that they would continue to enjoy the unfettered freedoms of the past. Over the past twenty-two years, however, they have gradually come to realise that this is impossible because the ‘One Country’ into which their ‘System’ is being subsumed is, in reality, a vast cage full of submissive fowl. The way the [Taiwanese president] Tsai Ing-wen has re-evaluated the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy in light of recent developments in Hong Kong [articulated in comments she made during a discussion at Columbia University on 13 July 2019] is as eloquent as it is instructive:

‘Authoritarianism and Democracy cannot coexist.’

[The relevant passages in Tsai Ing-wen’s remarks are as follows:

Many call Taiwan a “democratic miracle,” but I don’t believe in miracles.

I believe in the will of the people, and their vision for a better world.

Like the United States, our path to democratization was paved with the blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before us. Now the task falls to us to carry on their mission, and continue to bear the torch that lights the way for countries still on the path to democracy.

Ours is a heavy burden, and the path is not an easy one to walk. Because the challenges Taiwan’s democracy now faces are wholly different from those we overcame decades ago.

And these same challenges face all democracies in the 21st century. Why? Because freedom around the world is under threat like never before.

We are seeing this threat in action right now in Hong Kong. Faced with no channel to make their voices heard, young people are taking to the streets to fight for their democratic freedoms. And the people of Taiwan stand with them.

Hong Kong’s experience under “one country, two systems” has shown the world once and for all that authoritarianism and democracy cannot coexist.

Given the opportunity, authoritarianism will smother even the faintest flicker of democracy. The process may be gradual, so subtle that most don’t even feel it.

Imagine: As authoritarian forces increasingly encroach on daily life, all of a sudden, it is illegal to sell a certain book in your store. You are brought in for questioning about a social media post criticizing a new policy. Before you know it, you feel some unseen force is monitoring your every move.

You begin to censor your own speech, your own thoughts. You no longer discuss current events with your friends, for fear of being overheard. You spend more time looking over your shoulder than you spend looking towards the future.

Tsai Ing-wenColumbia University, 13 July 2019]

For the People of Hong Kong, although they have never had the chance to enjoy democracy, freedom is something with which we are both familiar and which we particularly treasure. That’s why, frankly, in light of the experiences of the past twenty-two years, we can echo the statement:

‘Authoritarianism and Democracy cannot coexist.’


As I said in the above, the condition or basis of Freedom is Independence. We don’t necessarily have to aspire to independence in name, but we must fight to preserve the relative independence that is stipulated in the ‘Hong Kong Basic Law’; only then can we be assured of our freedoms.

Over the last month or so Young Hong Kong has made one thing very clear: ‘Give me Liberty or Give me Death’. Or, [as one Mainlander observed] that we’d ‘rather be defeated in clamorous and glorious struggle than herded like pliant swine.’ [This is a line from Lee Yee’s earlier essay, ‘Young Hong Kong’China Heritage, 16 July 2019]


Young Hong Kong does not agree with those who might ‘Think Freedom Is an Illness’. Moreover, there are many of those in their middle and later years who primarily regard themselves as People of Hong Kong and who are also coming to see things from the point of view of Young Hong Kong.

We are the People of Hong Kong! When the Foreign Forces finally left at the end of British Colonialism in 1997 it was a new starting point for Hong Kong. That is our base line; there is no going back.