Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Do You Hear The People Sing

Getting in the last post of 2014. This is a piece I wrote about going to a Hong Kong protest in early October. I wrote it a while ago and it's been up for a couple of weeks on

When I stepped out of the Times Square subway station on Wednesday, October 1st, I couldn’t help sizing up the Chinese-looking people around me. That young couple cutting through the crowd, are they going to the demonstration? That middle-aged man with the mixed-looking child, is he? Some people had umbrellas on a clear night. They were easy to tell. Others were harder. Everyone walked intently, furious with purpose—but this was New York, they might just be going home to watch Modern Family. The tourists, of course, milled around like they were at the beach, creating small hurdles all over the sidewalk. I wove through, unmindful of them.
 As a Tibetan exile, I had heard too much from China-watchers about the bourgeois selfishness of the Chinese middle class, the Chinese youth. Now, hot on the heels of the Sunflower movement in Taiwan, the Umbrella revolution had sprung up in Hong Kong. For me, the night had an air of unreality. I was going to take part in the rally for Hong Kong, to stand in solidarity with the brave men and women of Hong Kong who were not afraid to say: we want real democracy. They spoke for Hong Kong but they knew that it was not just Zhongnanhai who was listening but all of China.
Once I arrived at the rally, which was about two hundred people strong, I could tell the people around me were new to protest. There were all kinds of people but the majority were young people in their twenties, mostly from Hong Kong, some from China. One guy spent ten minutes on the phone describing his location to a friend before giving up. My brother and friends were in the crowd too but I knew I wouldn’t find them until the rally was over. One of the organizers walked through the crowd, telling them that they were supposed to repeat the slogans. The slogans were mainly in Cantonese but sometimes in English. Hong Kong, Be Strong! Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong! Freedom, Freedom, Freedom! The crowd slowly picked up its cues, jelling together into a cohesive whole when we started singing Do You Hear The People Sing, one of the Umbrella Revolution’s theme songs:
 Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!

Now phrases from the speaker in the center were reaching us. Members of the crowd roared approval now and then. The girl next to me whispered to her boyfriend, “I am not comfortable saying it’s a revolution.” I understood what she was saying, and wondered when she would realize how wrong she was. As Yang Jianli, who was at Tiananmen in ’89 and lived through the massacre, said at a similar rally in DC, “I was in Tiananmen. And I experienced the massacre. I understand very well that the Chinese government still has the capacity and maybe the intention to violently resolve any dispute and suppress dissent.” For such a government, a government that rules without the will of the people, by force, any such public dissent is revolution. A rumble of snow rolling down a mountaintop may not have any grand designs, but sometimes it can turn into an avalanche.
I have a quote on my desk by the thirteenth century Tibetan scholar and politician Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen. He said, “All freedom is happiness, all oppression is suffering.” As someone born in a refugee community and brought up in exile, someone who grew up hearing about people with names like mine who were imprisoned or tortured for speaking up, a non-citizen of the world until I became a Tibetan American, I know this. I know this intimately. I put up this quote not to remind but to reassure myself. It was only a matter of time before the Chinese people asserted their right to live with freedom and dignity.

What will happen in Hong Kong? Who can say in the near future? In the long run though, we know. The battles will be fought out but the war was won long ago, in Athens, when the people got together and decided that representative democracy was the future of human government.