Hong Kong: A democracy with an expiration date.

Human rights in Hong Kong have a firm expiration date: July 1, 2047. That’s the date that the sovereignty of Hong Kong terminates and the day that the city-state becomes a part of mainland China.

Those in Hong Kong enjoy freedoms of speech and rights that are a far-cry from their Chinese neighbors to the North. And although the handover doesn’t happen until 2047, China has already begun to expand its sphere of influence. With an independent but heavily Beijing-influenced government, the leaders of Hong Kong have already put universal suffrage and freedoms of speech directly at risk.

Joyce Liu immigrated from Hong Kong with her family in 2016. Since then, she’s watched from afar as China has begun to replace the Hong Kong she knows with the one that Beijing wants. Joyce’s message is simple. Her people are begging loudly for an intervention. But nobody is listening.

Tell me about yourself. You grew up in Hong Kong?


Joyce, a Hong Kong native, recently graduated teaching school.

Yeah. What’s really interesting is I was actually born on October 2nd, and October 1st is a national holiday for China. So, like, because of that, I was very aware of the handover. It happened in ’97, so it’s always a very big connection to everything. I’m horrible at dates, but I remember that specifically because of my birthday.

I think obviously growing up I was too young to recognize what was happening politically. But I think I was very sheltered. I was sheltered in the sense that we don’t talk about it in schools, even in local schools. And, I went through a communion school. So there’s that extra layer. At the same time at home I speak Cantonese. I’m very local. I do follow up with watching the news, I know what’s happening. 

Then obviously, there was the Occupy Central demonstration back in 2015, I want to say. Maybe 2014. But you know, being politically active wasn’t a thing in Hong Kong, at least it wasn’t until very recently.

When was the first time you realized there were political issues?

I think before the protests, I knew about other issues that were happening. Like, the overcrowding of the emergency rooms. People from China were giving birth in Hong Kong to the point where locals were not able to reserve a spot to give birth. There’s a lot of build up to where we are today, but I knew about the emergency room and baby situation, and I knew about the situation where they would flood here at the borders.

They would get all the baby formula and go back to the mainland because they don’t have baby formula. And all these medications too. If you go to where the borders are, pharmacy is such a big industry. And it has killed a lot of small business owners and killed a lot of local businesses. That’s where the tension started building off, and as somebody who was born and raised in Hong Kong, we were taught to hate the mainland. 

That was my next question. What was the education like about the Chinese party and China in general?

When I was younger, whenever we would go to China, my mom would give me these horror stories about how, like, organs were stolen in the bathroom. We were totally traumatized and horrified. We would go back, of course, and as they years progressed it would be easier for us to go across the border. There are a lot of spas and massages on the Chinese side. Still, it’s very love and hate. We love how cheap things are there. But we also hate the people when they come over, because they do all these rude things to us. It’s a love-hate relationship. But more and more, we hate China because of the government. It’s really hard to not be biased when you meet someone from mainland — and you can tell from the accent. It’s kind of like, I guess in America with the latinos or the Mexican border.


Hong Kongers participate in the now well-known Umbrella Movement in favor of universal suffrage.

So, the Chinese came over for the pharmaceutical industry. Where did it go from there and how did we get where we are now?

Right. So obviously there’s the hospital aspect, and then I think because the border eased up so that a lot of people from China could come over. So that really brought up the economy and the business aspect. So we benefit from it a lot, but not locally. They come here and they are ready to spend — they buy from Gucci, Louis Vuitton. But a lot of people hate that we don’t speak Cantonese as much anymore. The cities are crowded with tour busses. If you speak Cantonese and you walked into Chanel, they don’t treat you the same as someone who speaks Mandarin. I think it’s boiled to that.

And obviously there’s the problem that they pump up the prices so that it is just impossible for locals to buy a house. In traditional Chinese culture, you get a house and then you get married. So, a lot of people are like, “I can’t get married because I don’t have a house!”

So is there a class divide between Cantonese and Mandarin?

Yeah, for sure. I think Cantonese is kind of not recognized as an official language. But then there are so many of us speaking it. It’s the same writing system, like people would argue that it’s a dialect. It’s not necessarily interchangeable, though. But if you’re in Hong Kong and you don’t speak fluent Cantonese, then you get discriminated. And then whereas if you want to prosper or get a good job, then you have to speak Mandarin.

There were arguments where they were going to implement national education in Hong Kong a few years back, and that was crazy because they were thinking about eliminating Cantonese altogether and doing Mandarin. They were also thinking about teaching about Chinese history, but in a very propaganda way, like eliminating the Tiananmen Riots and all that. There were a lot of protests against that too.


Some Hong Kongers are worried about their culture being erased. Are there other examples of cultural erasure?

Well, writing-wise, there is the traditional and simplified Chinese. The reason it [simplified] was invented in the first place was because there were a lot of illiterates in China. They decreased the illiterate percentage in the population. But, in Hong Kong we still keep the traditional writing of Chinese. And that really gives you the sense of the language. In Chinese, a word could be made up of smaller words and you could tell a meaning — it’s very poetic and beautiful.

But, when everything was changed to simplified it’s just so ugly. There’s no better way to say it. You just lose the essence of it. So obviously, that’s one thing that we really insist to keep is our traditional writing. And it’s kind of sad, because if you go anywhere else you don’t see it anymore. In Japan, they don’t use the traditional one anymore. They use the simplified one.

What’s your opinion on Carrie Lam?

I think at this point personally, her spirit is out of her body. The things that she has been implementing are just so ridiculous. I don’t really follow her intentionally, for my own mental health.


Courtesy of @phoebe.film on Instagram.

First of all, I don’t think she’s very relatable because from what I believe, she graduated and straight away got a government job. So she never had to struggle. Like, if you get a government job you’re all set. We say “we vote” but it’s really who China appoints to run Hong Kong. You know that they would choose someone that is going to support the communist agenda. It’s not a secret or anything. 

The things that she does are so ridiculous. Like right now, we have a third wave of COVID-19. And it’s because there’s all these people coming through the borders from China, and she refused to have them tested. Like, how is it possible that the locals are the ones that are trapped in our house? We have a curfew. We’re not allowed to eat out after 6:00 PM. Are you shitting me? We don’t even get off work before that. 

I definitely don’t think a population has hated a leader as much as Carrie Lam before, and the funniest thing is that she thinks she’s done a very good job of running Hong Kong. And I think I would be very worried.


Protesters outside of the Hong Kong Government Headquarters.

How is it possible that China has so much control over Hong Kong’s democratic process?

Right, I talk about this with my mom a lot. Basically, Hong Kong was handed over to the British because of the Opium War four-hundred years ago. They had an agreement that there would be a 50-year-period where Hong Kong is a self-governing body. But, why is there a handover period? I think the intention was that the Brits thought that it would change China. Like, 50 years would be enough to reevaluate. But, no! It gives them an incentive to pick on us. I think it’s hard for us, because we’re really a generation that grew up in a really democratic way, but we also have been uprooted and given to China.

 And 2047 is the deadline when Hong Kong will combine with the mainland, right?

Exactly. I’m only turning 23 this year. So we’re not even halfway through the promised period of 50 years and it’s already starting to happen. It really discourages a lot of us and we’re just so sad. We weren’t even given a chance.

The best analogy I make is that Hong Kong is a kid that was adopted by the Brits. It’s raised by the Brits. And all of a sudden, you send that kid back to China. Like, the most opposite way of living as you could think of. That’s where we are now. 

What was your reasoning for moving from Hong Kong?

You mean, like, aside from democracy? Just kidding. 

Well, basically what happened is my grandparents from dad’s side escaped China because of the communist party to Hong Kong. Then, we were a colony of the British. Everything was all good, but when there was noise about the handover during the 80’s they were like, “Okay, we’re going to skedaddle out of here.”

So they married my oldest aunt off to a guy in Canada, and obviously the immigration laws were so much easier to manipulate that way. So, that’s how my whole family got to become Canadian citizens. So by default, even though I was never born or raised in Canada, I have the Canadian citizenship.

I knew I was going to go to Canada for university because it’s so much cheaper. My family was just like, “We’re so done with Hong Kong. It’s a great city, it’s just not the best to live in or raise children.” So they all moved back here [to Canada]. And we did, and we’re very glad I think.


What happens to Hong Kong in your perfect world?

That’s such a hard question. I don’t think that it would be fair for us or possible for us to be completely independent, because we don’t have our own army, so we’re screwed. What’s the word where men have a lot of ego and are very afraid of change? I feel like that’s China in essence.

They always question, “Where do you loyalties lie? You’re Chinese, so therefore you’re part of China.” 

But, I can be Chinese and also love democracy. I can be Chinese and love my culture. I also value human rights, and I wish there was a sense of open-mindedness where you ethnicity doesn’t define your values. You love your country doesn’t mean you love the communist party. A lot of people think that we’re angry because we’ve been oppressed, but it’s more than that. We want to be able to use Facebook, we want to be able to be free. That doesn’t mean we’re less Chinese. That doesn’t mean we don’t like China, but we have our own way.

Ultimately, do you think Hong Kong will become a part of mainland China?

It seems like it. I don’t know, with everything that is going on right now. Like, I know that a lot of international countries, like the UN, are speaking out. But they’re not really doing a lot. We’re kind of like the great sidepiece that everybody loves, but when it comes down to standing up against China, nobody really has the guts to do so.

It’s kind of like, I can have a lot of friends, but nobody is going to stay with me if I have a car accident or whatever, you know? I wish people would be more willing to stand up against China. It’s the same thing you see over and over again with the Muslim concentration camps at the borders. Nobody spoke up.

China is so powerful — but the more fear they have, the more power they have. I wish people were more willing to stand up against China.


Protesters gather with international flags around the American Consulate General in Hong Kong.

Would you ever move back to Hong Kong?

Short-term wise, I did think about going back and getting a job. But the living expenses are so high there. And there is so much tension. I don’t see myself going back to live long-term, which is a pity because I’ve always loved Hong Kong for its diversity. It’s really a place I would want to raise my kids.

I’m glad you’re doing this — that you know about it. Because it is so sad. I’m not saying other things don’t matter, but with the Black Lives Matter movement, if only people were that hyped up about all the injustice in the world! That’s what gets me the most. Like, Cardi B made a racial slur against the Chinese, but nobody is going to rise up against that. Where is that energy? Where is that fire that you have for Black Lives Matter? Just show me!


Courtesy of @phoebe.film on Instagram.

Joyce and her family have moved on from Hong Kong. But for millions still living there, a troubling new era lays ahead of them. The Trump administration has slapped China with a series of sanctions in response to its interference in Hong Kong. And the UN, along with many other countries, has formally condemned China for repeatedly alienating Hong Kongers’ basic human rights. As the world moves closer to the 2047 deadline, all eyes will be on the city. Below are resources you can use to help, even from across the planet.

  • Sign this petition to protect the rights of people in Hong Kong, especially the right to peacefully assemble.
  • Sign this petition to condemn the Hong Kong police for excessive force as well as call for an independent inquiry.
  • Search for your representative here and write to them to express your concerns over Hong Kong.
  • As China grows its influence over Hong Kong, support legislation to allow Hong Kong immigrants and refugees in your community.

Historically, America has repeatedly gotten involved on the world stage in the name of democracy. Hong Kong is no exception.


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