By Amrita Roy:
Last September, news channels were flooded with images of people taking to the streets in Hong Kong to protest against political injustice. Breaking away from the polite, financial hub image, the people of Hong Kong showed that they weren’t politically apathetic and would fearlessly speak their mind. Comparisons with other global protests were made as over 50,000 people joined the protests. The movement’s name soon changed from Occupy Central to Umbrella Revolution to signify not only the shield that protesters were using to protect themselves from tear gas, but also how the participation exponentially increased through all sections of the society. The protests dragged on for months, the government refused to budge, and people began to lose hope as the hard truth hit home once again; that as long as the Communist Party is in charge, there will be no democracy for Hong Kong. The last of the protesters dismantled their camps in December 2014.
But is the movement over? Will people accept a Communist Party backed Chief Executive again in the 2017 elections? I had the privilege of interviewing Mohamed Thalha to learn more about the future of Hong Kong and the movement and what was achieved through the Umbrella Revolution. Like many of the protesters, Mohamed Thalha is an undergraduate student and is an active participant in the movement. Having grown up in Hong Kong, the city is truly home even though he belongs to a Tamil Muslim family. Being part of the ethnic minority in Hong Kong, he focuses his political activities to bring about more recognition and equality for the minority community through the movement. He was featured in the documentary, Coconuts TV: Minority Report – A Look At Hong Kong’s Ethnic Minority Protestors.
Amrita Roy (AR): How did you get involved in the Occupy Central movement? What propelled you to join?
Mohamed Thalha (MT): I used to follow the movement but never actively partook in it. However, this time around, some of my peers were attacked on 28th September 2014 by the police which acted as the catalyst. I felt the pain and anger that other students around me felt and joined the university students’ gathering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
AR: You specifically focus on raising awareness about ethnic minority rights in Hong Kong. What has your personal experience been like having grown up in Hong Kong?
MT: The treatment of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong is disrespectful. We are often treated like third class citizens. When Hong Kong was under British rule, Indians were brought to Hong Kong to serve as police officers which effectively gave the Indians a higher status is society. The uneasy relationship has continued since then and people from the subcontinent are often mistreated. For example, Chinese Hong Kong locals don’t feel very comfortable sitting beside an Indian on the MTR trains. They don’t believe that we belong here. But it is getting better in the younger generation which is much more open minded.
AR: What does democracy in Hong Kong mean to you?
MT: For me, democracy is more about liberal governance in Hong Kong. It is unrealistic to expect China to give up control of Hong Kong, especially considering how important Hong Kong is to China’s growing economy. Hong Kong is in a very precarious state at the moment. While we want Hong Kong to be a democratic city-state, it simply isn’t possible in the near future. It is important for both sides to sit down and negotiate.
AR: While the protesters tried to negotiate, the government simply didn’t listen to any of the requests last year. If it continues in this manner, how do you see the movement shaping up in the future?
MT: That was one of our failures; we couldn’t get any of our requests implemented. However on the good side, the movement led to the birth of many splinter political parties who have a better vision of what they want to achieve and are starting to compete for seats. The movement also highlighted many plights and obstacles that common people in Hong Kong face but never get addressed like high inflation in property prices and education. The price of real estate in Hong Kong has doubled in the past couple of years, making housing unaffordable to a large section of the population. The rent doubles at every contract renewal. Hong Kong already has one of the worst economic gaps in the world and this is only going to increase it even further as real estate ownership is going to be concentrated.
Also, the government isn’t helping out. While the government provides subsidized public housing, the supply simply doesn’t match the demand. My family waited for seven years on the wait list to get a public house. The government sells prime real estate to private enterprises and builds the public housing estates on relatively cheaper land which is usually close to the Mainland China border. It is very difficult to travel every day to school or work from those areas.
AR: So would it be fair to say that you believe that instead of holding mass protests to leverage bargaining power, it is more necessary to focus on smaller, more localized issues and make this a long run movement rather than expecting immediate results?
MT: I believe that more than just mass protesting on the streets, it is important for all of us speak up about the issues we genuinely care about and pursue them. Since Occupy Central, people from all walks of life are more concerned in political matters but aren’t taking proactive steps. They are just quietly bitter about how Hong Kong is still effectively ruled by the Communist Party. On 1st February 2015, the Civil Human Rights Front organized a peaceful march. Each small act like this will keep the movement alive in the international radar. The recent parallel trading protests forced the Chinese government to address the issue and they have set up a committee to look into the matter. So its smaller issues like these that are affecting the daily lives of people that need to be raised. This way, the government can take more focused and actionable measures and therefore it is easier for citizens to hold the government accountable also. And eventually, through many of these small changes, we can bring about a holistic change in the society and hopefully achieve democracy.