September 28 marks the anniversary of the pro-democracy gatherings for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong at the Admiralty District (the compound of their government offices), Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.
At exactly 5:58 pm in 2014, police hit young people with batons and fired tear gas canisters onto what was otherwise a peaceful protest. It became one of the most determined movements of this generation — and the millennials were at the forefront. Prince Wong turned 17 back then on the streets at Admiralty. She was the spokeswoman of student activist group Scholarism. She recently celebrated her 18th birthday, but she is still waiting for her most desired birthday gift — democracy.
I stood with her in front of the Central Government Headquarters in Hong Kong last month to ask her where the movement was headed. “We have put lots of effort in the Umbrella Movement but we didn’t have any response and that’s why we are not sure about what we should do in the future so we are still finding a way,” says Prince.
Occupying the Non-Democrat Majority
The 79-day mass protests — their version of America’s Occupy movement — called for reforms in the Hong Kong electoral system. While the ultimate aim of the Hong Kong mini-constitution (called Basic Law) is universal suffrage, protesters do not see the system as genuine democracy. Under the Basic Law’s latest amendment proposal, the public will vote the Chief Executive, but only after a 1,200-member committee composed of different sectors in society nominates the candidates. “Mostly rich people and with power,” Prince says when asked to describe the election committee.
The Occupy movement of civil disobedience protesters became known as the Umbrella Movement or Umbrella Revolution, after protesters used their umbrellas to protect themselves from attacks of police, Triad and anti-democracy members.
And in what looked like a move inspired by the 1986 People Power Revolution in Manila, the Occupy movement used the color yellow as their unifying symbol: yellow umbrellas and ribbons were seen across the protest areas in the Central Government Headquarters, Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.
As the sit-in protests went on, student activists resorted to a more radical measure — a hunger strike. Prince Wong was one of them.
By the start of December, she deprived herself from ingesting anything but water in hopes that the government would have a dialogue and move to reboot the political reform process. At one point, Prince vomited twice within an hour. After 118 hours, upon the advice of their medical team and still without any response from the government, she had to discontinue her strike.
Before the hunger strike, the founders of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP)—the main organizers of the movement—had already called for the occupiers to leave and transform the protest into a community campaign.
Shortly after the hunger strike, people started leaving the streets and with no critical change in the government, the Umbrella Revolution slowly shifted its strategy to more indirect actions. Despite the huge turnout of people supporting the Umbrella Movement, Professor Benny Tai still believes that pro-democracy supporters remain a minority in Hong Kong. Tai is one of the three founders of the OCLP: “You may say the majority of Hong Kong people [still believe] that stability is the most important concern… the civil disobedience action might have caused a social disturbance and they disagree with this way of striving for democracy.”
Tai’s words have basis. Last June, a survey conducted by the Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme reveals just how divided Hong Kong is on the issue. The survey found that 48% of Hong Kong citizens support the government’s proposal for the 2017 Chief Executive elections; only 38% oppose it; and 14% are either neutral, unaware or undecided.
Tai explains that Hong Kong is a very pragmatic society. Although the Umbrella Movement was able to get the support from most of Hong Kong’s youth population, he says there are still a lot of people thinking democracy is not as important as stability and economic prosperity.
Reflecting on last year’s protests, Tai believes that the most important thing for their cause is to have the support of the Hong Kong majority. “I believe that a democratic movement of Hong Kong may still need more time to build up our strength in order to achieve our goal. I’m still optimistic that Hong Kong will one day have genuine democracy. Though I cannot tell for how long we have to fight for, but in the long run I think Hong Kong will have democracy.”
The Other Minority of the Umbrella Movement
Pro-democracy supporters are not the only “minorities” fighting for their rights in Hong Kong. Twenty-year-old Jianne Soriano was one of the very few Filipinos who joined the movement. She says it was the first time she felt she belonged in Hong Kong. “I felt like since I am born and raised in Hong Kong — I’m a local — I felt like participating in the protest was my responsibility to be part of what’s happening in the city,” Jianne explains.
She remembers the time she visited the Philippines for a holiday. She said she was teased as the “rich girl” and “foreigner kid.” In Hong Kong, her home, she was ridiculed for not being able to speak fluent Cantonese. She may have two homelands, but she could never identify herself with any of them. Because Jianne is not of Chinese or Hong Kong descent, she is considered part of the city’s ethnic minorities.
As of 2011, ethnic minorities make up 6.38% of Hong Kong’s seven million population with 133,018 Filipinos. Historically, Filipinos have been the largest ethnic minority group in Hong Kong until Indonesians took the top spot in 2011. Together, Filipinos and Indonesians are the largest ethnic minorities in the city followed by Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Japanese, Thais, Koreans, Other Asians, Whites, and mixed race.
Many ethnic minorities have been in Hong Kong for generations and have played significant roles that helped shape Hong Kong’s history. Parsis and Indians were traders in Hong Kong since the 1840s, including Seth Ebrahim Noordin who founded the city’s first cross harbor ferry service which is still operating today. Ethnic minorities were also among the founders of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, China Light and Power Limited, and many others.
But despite all these contributions, Filipinos and other ethnic minorities do not experience equal rights in the city they consider as home. Jianne points to Hong Kong’s educational system as one of the greatest contributing factors to this trend. Ethnic minority students, she says, are mostly segregated from the local Hong Kong students.
Instead of being in the same schools as the locals, other South Asians are placed in what they call designated schools while Western students go to ‘international’ sections of Chinese-medium schools (CMI). Critics have long been complaining of the system as segregationist and counterproductive to the goal of social integration between ethnic minorities and ethnic Chinese.
There is also a long standing mother tongue education policy that assumes all students in Hong Kong are from Chinese language families. Ethnic minority students are taught at the same pace as their local school counterparts by Chinese teachers who have no special training for dealing with minority languages and cultural differences.
Such conditions result in mediocre Chinese language proficiency for many ethnic minorities — a very important skill they need in order to pass competitively in the university entrance exams and eventually get jobs, as Chinese language is also compulsory for civil service entrance. Around 70 to 80 thousand students take the exams every year, but only 29,000 university degree seats are up for grabs. The rest of those who do not pass, either take a gap year, choose associate/foundation programs, work or go overseas.
“We couldn’t take the Chinese exam, so we take an alternative exam. But it’s only equivalent to Grade 2 level, so how can you get a job or get into university with that low qualification? That’s also a disadvantage… In order for you to learn or practice is you need to talk [in Chinese] but there’s really no chance for you to talk if you went to a school [where] all I can hear is Hindu, Indian, Tagalog, Nepali,” she adds.
In Jianne’s case, she says she only learned more about Chinese language and culture when she finally entered college. Like many other ethnic minorities who did not pass the exams for university degrees, she chose the lesser choice of associate degree in English Communication instead of the course she really wanted — journalism.
She laments that schools for ethnic minorities oftentimes do not have much resources and good facilities. “My school was three floors only and then the top was like a resident housing. The school had to share with the primary section so when I was actually in my senior year, we actually used the primary section’s [classroom], and then when we left, the primary section used [it].”
Just last week, the Zubin Foundation released Hong Kong’s first comprehensive study on the status of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong from 1997-2014. The research affirmed the stories of Jianne about the educational system—lack of Chinese language skills, lack of inclusion—and gave further insight on employment, racism and violence among ethnic minorities:
- Young ethnic minorities find it difficult to find jobs — and the elderly are working too hard
- Chinese reading and writing are critical to getting jobs in Hong Kong
- There is a racial hierarchy in Hong Kong and brown is at the bottom
- Ethnic minorities (except Indians) have a much higher chance of ending up in elementary occupations
- Ethnic minorities (except Indians) earn less than the Hong Kong average
- Poverty is a serious problem facing ethnic minorities — and so is child poverty
- Crime is a growing problem among ethnic minorities
- Domestic violence against ethnic minorities women is a big problem
Since the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997, Hong Kong’s education policy has transformed in several ways. The only positive development for the welfare of ethnic minorities is last year’s announcement of the adoption of Chinese as a Second Language framework which will see more ethnic minorities learning Chinese in schools, and implementation of measures to give them equal access to job opportunities.
But much is still needed to be done in order to fully integrate their group to the majority of Hong Kong society, says Jianne. She says there should be more opportunity for Chinese and ethnic minorities to be together and understand each other as both members of the Hong Kong people.
“The only time I saw us together in one event is [the] Umbrella [Revolution]. We’re not really noticed. They just know we’re here, they know we exist. I remember someone said to me, ‘Yeah, we know ethnic minorities exist but we don’t know anything about them.’ That’s the reason why they don’t talk to you or approach you or get to know you coz they don’t know anything about you.”
Shifting the Attitudes of the Majority
Democrats and ethnic minorities face the same problem — making the Hong Kong majority listen and empathize with their cause. The civil disobedience protests may not have worked as expected, but they are not giving up. Indirect actions like gatherings, seminars, talks and networking are being organized across the city, with the goal of pushing for political reforms, particularly in amending the Basic Law.
For ethnic minorities, Jianne is taking her campaign to a different level. Two years ago, she and her two half-Filipino friends won an Internet competition called iCity NetY Ambassadors Program and became the first non-Chinese students to represent Hong Kong in the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Bali, Indonesia.
The prestige made her realize that she could use these opportunities to help bring the discourse on ethnic minorities to more Hong Kong people. Like tiny ants finding their way through a giant anthill, they say the road to achieving their goals may not be clear, but they will persevere. “Just because [you have bigger problems] doesn’t mean ours is not important. It’s also important to be solved [because] it’s not only going to affect me… their future generations might come here and will get affected. So it’s a problem for Filipinos in general,” Jianne’s response when someone once told her that the Philippines has bigger problems than the issue of ethnic minorities.
Prince, full as she may seem and no longer in the streets, is continuing to fight for a democractic government, which she believes can also result to the stable government the majority wants. “Because we want a fair, just system for Hong Kong people,” says Prince.
In 2014, Prince and Jianne, though they never met, converged at the middle of Admiralty. They had a common goal. Democracy, yes; universal suffrage more specifically, but really, for equality. They tell us that no matter how different we are, the different places we came from, and the different details of our battles, at the end of the day, we are all the same. At one point or another, we were also either Prince or Jianne.
The important thing is not whether we won. The important thing is that we are still trying.
[Entry 98, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
JM Nualla is the Social Media Head of SubSelfie.com. He is presently the Program Producer of Global Conversations on CNN Philippines. He also serves as an Assistant Professor in iACADEMY, teaching scripwriting and mentoring thesis projects. Previously, he was a Segment Producer for the GMA News Special Assignments Team and Senior Producer/Online Content Manager for Claire Delfin Media. Beyond his career, JM is a follower of Jesus, a frustrated mountaineer/traveler/adventurer, and a hopeful romantic. Broadcast Communication 2009, PUP Manila. MA Journalism 2014, Ateneo de Manila. Read more of his articles here.