• Nationalistic mainland Chinese overseas may not have the full picture on the reasons driving the protests in Hong Kong and further afield
  • It is up to supporters of the movement to provide that context, so that today’s opponents can become tomorrow’s supporters
Illustration: Craig Stephens

Last Sunday, an estimated 1.7 million people joined the mass protest in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. The rally was peaceful, showing the world that Hongkongers can advance or retreat as required. More amazingly, protesters apologised for the sporadic violence and inconvenience caused to the public at the airport.

That apology helped reinstate my confidence in the resilience and adaptability of Hong Kong protesters. Yes, violence will only invite fear and doubt but apology ensures understanding and support.

Clashes between supporters of Hong Kong and Beijing have spilled over to other parts of the world popular with Chinese diaspora, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

On July 29, pro-Hong Kong demonstrator Serena Lee was pushed to the ground in an on-campus brawl with pro-Beijing students at the University of Auckland. The video showing her fall made media headlines, but what struck me was that, at the very beginning of the video, two mainland Chinese students threatened her on camera, saying: "You cannot win either a physical or a verbal fight, why do you bother to protest?"

In comparison, the pro-Beijing students on Australian campuses seemed more "creative". On August 16, when a demonstrator called out "Hong Kong stay strong", her slogan was greeted by a big group of mainland Chinese students shouting obscenities in perfect synchronisation.

But if there were a tournament to display state machismo for their beloved China, the "little pinks" in Canada would win hands down. While their comrades in Australia and New Zealand used curses and punches against Hong Kong youth, the mainland Chinese students in Canada got into their luxury cars.

On August 17, convoys of Beijing supporters in Ferraris, McLarens, Porsches and Aston Martins expressed patriotism by waving Chinese flags and honking their horns in parades in Vancouver and Toronto to face off with groups supporting Hong Kong.

4 Lamborghinis have shown up at the corner of Bay and Queen, revving their engines with their drivers holding Chinese flags out the window. This seems organized. pic.twitter.com/Jdo0fxOuKL

" mitch sthilaire (@worldwidemitch) August 17, 2019

Pro-Hong Kong sentiment is on the rise worldwide. The patriotic fervour and thuggish behaviour of the pro-Beijing side is making the world look askance at them. But there is one more thing pro-Hong Kong activists must do for a landslide victory in the battle to win over public opinion: unite as many people as possible from all walks of life around the world, especially those from the mainland.

Canada university blasts 'bullying' as vandals destroy Hong Kong messages

First priority should be given to mainland-born students, scholars and professionals now based in Hong Kong, especially influencers like Zhang Xiang, president of the prestigious University of Hong Kong. After Zhang condemned the violent storming of the Legislative Council on July 1, he was harassed both on campus and at his residence. Audrey Jiajia Li is right when she says, in her Post opinion article, that "it is a moral and practical matter that Hong Kong protesters refrain from vilifying mainlanders".

I have visited 29 countries on business and worked in Singapore, New York, Beijing and Hong Kong. This international exposure has somewhat inured me to people's attitudes based on where I am from.

But it's different for my family. Joining me in Hong Kong for a holiday in 2013-2014, they experienced more hostility in their daily lives as Mandarin speakers than they ever had anywhere else, even in simple social settings like ordering in restaurants and asking for more napkins. But an amazing change in attitude was seen when they switched to English.

Speaking Mandarin is not a sin in Hong Kong and please don't make mainlanders feel otherwise. Actually, a lot of them share Hongkongers' ideals of democracy and freedom of speech and may even join your cause.

Boston may share its experience with Hong Kong in this regard. On August 18, the city witnessed a big but very diverse group of pro-Hong Kong protesters. They included locals, Uygurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese and even mainland Chinese, the organiser Frances Hui told me in a phone interview.

Some mainland Chinese support for Hong Kong protests in Boston on August 18. Photo: Frances Hui

Hui hit the headlines in May when, after getting an earful from a fellow passenger on a local bus for not identifying herself as Chinese but a Hongkonger, she wrote an article in the local media. That generated an outcry from some mainland Chinese, some of whom left her threatening messages, including, "Whomever opposes my greatest China, no matter how far they are, must be executed."

The animosity was still palpable at the Boston rally last Sunday: Hui was stalked afterwards and a car tyre was punctured. But, compared to their compatriots in other parts of the world, Beijing loyalists in America were more restrained and discreet and, in some instances, chose to find comfort in superstition.

According to Hui, some mainlanders in the city posted the address of the church she attends on WeChat groups and threatened to find her there. Others were eager to find her home address. A screenshot of a local WeChat group I received showed some people praying for pro-Hong Kong activists to be struck dead by lightning on the day of the demonstration, a classic way to curse people in Chinese tradition.

Chinese youth don't know history, but it's not their fault

Even so, Hui supports the idea to embrace more mainlanders. "We need more support from mainland China," she said in the interview. "The more they speak up for us on the internet, the more mainland Chinese will think about whether the values they stand up for are legitimate."

"When they go low, we go high", former US first lady Michelle Obama said at the 2016 Democratic National Convention amid escalating political strife. It's my sincere hope that the motto will be echoed in words and action among people who support Hong Kong on its journey towards peace, democracy and freedom.

Billy Huang has served media outlets in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States for more than 20 years. billyhuangpost@gmail.com

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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