I turned on the news this morning to a live report from a breathless and clearly brave journalist in the maelstrom of a violent pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. Donning tear gas masks, she and her crew stayed the course to bring us the latest as Molotov cocktails landed within stone’s throw and students armed with umbrellas yelled back at fully armed riot police. The reporter who against all odds continued to speak in whole sentences as she and her crew bolted for safety, said that over the past six months of almost daily protests the students largely remained hopeful that the US government would speak out in favor of their cries for democracy.
I’ve not been to Hong Kong in years but as these dramatic and heartbreaking images unfolded on the television, memories of the colonial Hong Kong I knew throughout my childhood flooded my mind’s eye. Christmas days often found my family and me swimming in Repulse Bay. On these holidays after dim sum breakfasts, we’d take in the sea air as we rode the Star Ferry across the harbor, enjoy Peking Duck lunches afloat a friend’s fanciful junk, lounge over scented teas at the elegant Peninsula Hotel and because comfortable, western style shoes were not available in the city in which we lived, we’d get fitted for new tailor made shoes at Lee Kee Boot. Oh how the name “Lee Kee Boot” would make Dad laugh. There was a heady ambrosia of the best of British and Chinese culture melding in Hong Kong’s architecture, fashion, porcelains and cuisine. There was of course the sharp contrast of privilege versus extreme poverty. Everywhere but everywhere there was a sense of the thriving industriousness of her people. Hong Kong existed as a kind of miracle in the shadow of the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution in full swing…but it existed and its blended distillation of East meets West sophistication was intoxicating.
During the early 80’s, Dad helmed the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. During his tenure, my parent’s residence was just off Old Peak Road. It’s breathtaking view, particularly at night, of the harbor looked like a jewelry strewn table top. At that time Hong Kong was among other things, the gateway for American businessmen with an eye on the frontier of communist China with whom we were hurtling toward normalized relations. It was a heady time. On one visit to my folks during their Hong Kong assignment, I went into China on a back market visa. Dangerous, stupid but fun and perhaps the topic of a blog to come.
I do not mean to ignore wrongs under a colonial system long gone but Hong Kong then, in many ways, represented the best of what is possible in diplomacy, democracy, compromise, mutual respect. To see it on the news in it’s current state brought tears to my eyes.
The young people who have taken to the streets in support of democracy, need to be supported by any of us who believe in human rights, in freedom, in an open rule based economy. The students holding China accountable to its agreement of “one nation, two systems”, deserve better than silence from America’s leadership. What does it say about us when we abandon fundamental values in favor of seeking new tariff deals? Can leaders of the free world who do not lend their voices in concern and solidarity claim to be champions of democracy. Can they in fact claim to be leaders? If we cross the Rubicon to the means justifying the ends, isn’t it just a matter of time until our already battered raft of core values sinks…in this case into the storied Hong Kong Harbor?