Earlier this month, I swam across Victoria Harbour—the lifeblood of Hong Kong since our inception—in an annual race that was only recently revived after decades of concern about the water being contaminated. Hong Kongers of my father’s generation talk wistfully about the old cross-harbor swim and how wide the harbor was in those days, before the land-reclamation projects began, before the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.
Their reveries reflect an existential fear: Without our harbor, even the meaning of our name, “fragrant harbor,” becomes obsolete. We would suffer the fate we most dread—the crux of what has driven our students into the streets over the last month in their umbrella-toting droves: We would be just another Chinese city.
Hong Kong officials met with student protesters for the first time on Tuesday, and if there was one message the government conveyed, it was this: Give up on your dreams. That happens to be a line from the unofficial anthem of the protest movement, a rock ballad by the local band Beyond, and if you have visited any of the protest sites, you know how the next line goes: Anyone can do that.
Eleven years ago, I was the dreamy student. The controversy surrounding proposed anti-subversion legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law, our territorial constitution—controversy stoked by the malaise of SARS and the untimely deaths of two of our most beloved pop stars—had exposed our combustible political arrangement, and it seemed clear to some that without the release valve of direct elections, the top was eventually going to blow. I was a rising junior at Yale, all of 20 years old, when as also transpired this month in The New York Times, Martin Lee Chu-ming, the founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, wrote an article calling for universal suffrage, and Leung Chun-ying, now our chief executive but then a cabinet member, wrote back saying why that couldn’t work—that the proposal was deceitful without some kind of vetting by Beijing. The hope of publicly nominating candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office, one of the core demands of the protesters today, died more than a decade ago.