What the Snowdens of Yesteryear can do for the Hong Kongers of Tomorrow: Hong Kong’s Snowden Rally
On the morning of June 15th, 2013, I read in the South China Morning Post over breakfast that there would be a protest to protect Edward Snowden––the infamous man who caused a global storm when he leaked confidential information on the National Security Agency’s surveillance systems and then fled to Hong Kong––from U.S. extradition.
Snowden’s face had nonchalantly peeped out from every newspaper in the few days before June 15th, and I was curious about his precarious future and what Hong Kong people thought of him. I found a Facebook event listing the time, location, and other details of the rally (bring your own whistle) and decided to hop on the ferry from Macau to see what was going on.
There were about a few hundred people (300 according to police, 900 according to event organizers) gathered in Chater Garden right outside the Central Station metro stop (Lai). Many were sporting signs plastered with scary 1984-esque surveillance symbols captioned “Big Brother is Watching You!” and banners demanding the preservation of democracy.
Shortly after beginning the march, I met a little girl and her dad, whom I will call Wang Hui for his protection. He told me he was participating in the protest because as a Chinese-raised American, he wanted to stand up for the rights for which he had left China over twenty years ago. Wang Hui was born in Hubei province, but he is an American citizen who spent several years working in New York City. While he was in college in Beijing in the eighties, he took part in the Tiananmen pro-democracy student demonstrations.
“To be honest, I’ve always idealized America,” he told me as we marched, “I came to the U.S. in 1990, right after the Tiananmen incident. It was really hard to get out of China back then; you had to have a direct relative in the U.S. to leave.
“Growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, I got really tired of the government controlling everything. I thought, America should be the shining light of freedom and democracy, but now we’re finding out that the U.S. government is meddling with things they’re not supposed to be meddling with.”
Other marchers I talked with said they were unhappy with the hypocrisy of the U.S. in criticizing China for blanket surveillance while partaking in covert information gathering itself. Still others remarked that they were marching because of fears that the Snowden situation might lead to China’s increased intervention in Hong Kong.
Despite these outspoken cries, however, the Hong Kong rally to protect Snowden was the most civilized protest I have ever seen––nothing compared to the guanacos and tear gas of Santiago de Chile or to the chaos of the recent protests in Brazil. In fact, the whole ordeal was so calm that towards the start of the rally, a couple of American college students standing next to me looked around and quizzically asked each other if the event had begun yet. When we did start the march, parading through red lights and shouting for the protection of Snowden, buses and cars politely paused to let us pass, and policemen gestured towards where the path continued. An ambulance sat neatly in the crook of a hill we walked through, waiting to prevent any––if any––impending injuries; there was no rush, no fuss, it must have arrived hours earlier. At the end of the march, the crowd simply petered out and went home. Wang Hui’s daughter said she needed to use the toilet. We exchanged contact info; he ushered her to the nearest restroom, and I got on the metro back home.
The joke is that Hong Kong people protest over anything, but that is not to lessen the value of their protests. Rather, Hong Kong demonstrations are unique in that in a history of colonization by Britain and “re-colonization” by China, they show that dissent can be peaceful, and that peaceful protests do work.
On July 1, 2003, Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest a National Security Bill put forward by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government under influence from Beijing. The legislation would put in force the controversial Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The article states that the HKSAR government has the power to enact any laws to “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies” (Chan 240). Though Article 23 was written to be a part of Hong Kong’s Basic Law before the handover, it was not to be implemented right away after 1997. When the government began the process of implementing Article 23 via the National Security Bill in 2002––through a public consultation procedure full of manipulated results, no less––the Hong Kong people were outraged and horrified by the possibility of the central government encroaching on their freedoms.
Thus on July 1, in the thick, midsummer heat and humidity, over 500,000 by the government’s estimate gathered in Victoria Park to march in protest. Despite the weather, enormous crowds, and hours of waiting to participate in the march,“the march was peaceful," one scholar writes, "there were no fights, no arrests, no property damage. The marchers were dignified, proud and patient” (Petersen 13). Hong Kongers saw the fruit of their efforts when their peaceful demonstrations throughout the entire summer led to the resignation of major government officials and the withdrawal of the legislation (Petersen 52-3).
Whether or not the rally actually did anything to save Snowden is debatable––Snowden left Hong Kong before U.S. and Hong Kong officials could come to an agreement about his extradition, and he is now seeking asylum––but the marches did reveal something essential about Hong Kong (Smith & Levs).
Nearly every news report covering the Snowden story has quoted his statement that he chose to flee to Hong Kong because of its “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” It turns out that Hong Kongers lived true to his words as they set out to march in the name of his protection. Though CNN writer Alexis Lai did lodge a complaint that the rally “failed to gain a strong sense of momentum, hampered in part by the narrow looping route” designated by city officials, the fact that authorities allowed this protest, and moreover, that dissent happened peacefully, is incredible.
The march to protect Snowden is an example of what scholars Kin-man Chan and Ming K. Chan term a “post-modern protest,” one that transcends the actual issue (protecting Snowden) and fights for a much larger one (protecting freedom of speech, press and privacy)––thus, the conflation of Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping in several of the protest posters (241). Indeed, Hong Kongers are extremely sensitive to any encroachment on their political freedoms, as Wang Hui had expressed to me earlier while he held his daughter’s hand. “Her biggest question,” he told me, “is ‘why should we protect Snowden?’ How do you explain to a seven year old?”
He chuckled, and I thought about how his comment reflected the deeper reasons––the beyond Snowden reasons––why so many Hong Kong people were part of this march. More than just the mere protection of Snowden, Hong Kongers participated in the march as a symbol of their desire for greater freedom and democracy. The unique environment in Hong Kong, one in which people have permission from the government to stage peaceful protests, is also one that faces the threat of loss of freedoms as the 50 year period in which Hong Kong is under English Common Law (as stipulated by the Joint Declaration) draws closer and closer to a close.
In my experience of taking part in Hong Kong’s Snowden rally, I saw first-hand the unique combination of passion and peace with which the Hong Kong people fight for their rights. Though their protests are many and comparatively tame, they are also extremely consistent. It is through this consistency that Hong Kongers aim to create the politically free city they believe they have the right to live in. The Snowden rally, too, is a footstep in the long march Hong Kongers have decided to take on in the name of democracy.
Chan, Ming K. China's Hong Kong Transformed: Retrospect and Prospects Beyond the First Decade. Hong Kong: City University of HK Press, 2008. eBook.
Lai, Alexis. "Hong Kong rallies in the rain for Edward Snowden." CNN [Hong Kong] 16 Jun 2013, The Age of China. Web. 8 Jul. 2013.
Petersen, Carole J., Hualing Fu , and Simon N. M. Young.National Security And Fundamental Freedoms: Hong Kong's ARticle 23 Under Scrutiny. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005. eBook.
Smith, Matt, and Josh Levs. "NSA leaker waits in Moscow ... and waits." CNN 27 Jun 2013. Web. 8 Jul. 2013.