Please, a Pause

The sorry over the 唔割席

This morning I woke up to “唔割席. 完.” on an Instagram Story. Had I missed something overnight? I spent the next 45 minutes trying to unearth more snippets from the second day of the Hong Kong Airport protest (Aug 13) that might shed light on such an absolute statement.

The expression 唔/不割席 means to not cut ties [no matter the differences], or in this case “in solidarity”. 完 means end [of discussion]. The resolute statement and the subsequent shut down is yet another tragic step in the demolition of this city over seven million people call home.

The demolition is a joint effort. It is actively carried out in the violence that ranges from vandalism and arson by protestors, to excessive tear gassing and violent arrests by the police, to beatings by people with triad backgrounds, who first surfaced on July 27 beating people in the Yuen Long MTR station. But it is also actively endorsed by us bystanders taking sides over breakfast, lunch, and afternoon mah jong above the street battlegrounds.

This week’s slogan has been 還眼 (an eye for an eye) brought about by the Sunday, August 11 with city-wide violent clashes where a young woman was shot in the eye (SCMP video, HKFP, NYTimes, Global Times as an example of China’s state media).

By the second day of the Hong Kong Airport protests, the protestors got exactly what they asked for — not the return of an eye — an incarnation of the vengeance that invoked that nearly four millennia-old battle cry. Protesters seized, searched, and tied up individuals at the Hong Kong Airport.

Via 文宣收集處 Left: Hong Kong Airport Protest’s slogan is “An Eye for an Eye” Aug 12 & 13. Right: Aug 14 poster following protestor violence.

One circulating response is 不割席 — in solidarity. Amongst some friends who have casually brought up the topic, apologising is not an option. To them, an apology could mean everything from implying wrongdoing, to justifying police violence, to admitting defeat. But is it?

The morning immediately following, this bilingual apology was issued:

Via Matters* Likely through Telegram, Check threads by and Mary Hui and Rachel Cheung

The apology in Chinese acknowledges the resentment (憤怨過激) and excessive reactions (過激反應), and promises to reflect on their actions. This is definitely a good start. In Chinese, there is a commitment to own up to areas where they have fallen short and apologizes specifically to supporters (我們決定勇於面對自己的不足,在此故謹向一直支持的市民誠心致歉). (Though, a similar line would be ironically stated in an interview that mimics the police presser that said there was room for improvement, but overall acceptable.)

An apology does not negate solidarity for a cause; on the contrary, an apology is an acknowledgement of the goal, and a self-awareness of where we are relative to it. It is accountability.

A movement with such disparate views and tendencies cannot be judged as a unified front. Individuals have crossed lines — the same lines that they were protesting regarding conscience. But when those lines are crossed, the collective must come up with a bottom line consensus. Today, the movement did so admirably quickly. Below is a summarized debate about the Hong Kong Airport incidents leading up to the apology:

By the afternoon, another apology surfaced:

Via 文宣收集處 a dissemination from anonymous Telegram groups (Aug 14, 2019)

The Chinese is tuned for local readers while the English version is for international readers. Critically, the last Chinese sentence reads something like we don’t want violence to rule Hong Kong (我們不要暴力治港).

At first skim, the message seems solid. But on a deeper read, it runs a little thin — a sorry, not sorry. In Chinese, why is the poster apologising for the inconveniences caused and indirectly invoking police violence without reference to the assaults on individuals? In English, the messaging apologizes for trip delays, and pleads sympathy for four deaths since the protests began. There may have been four deathbeds that travellers could not reach in these past two days.

But I will take the apology as sincere, if a bit incomplete. Accountability is integral to the movement’s integrity. We cannot move on, let alone forward, if we cannot say sorry. The apology from protestors for what happened at the Hong Kong Airport is what should have happened with the police following the night of August 11.

August 11 was horrific. Not in absolutes — it was only an eye, people being shot at close range and pushed down escalators, mobs of police beating unarmed people and arresting them with unnecessary force. By comparison, Kashmir’s special status has been revoked and the Indian government has moved in and locked it down — a full occupation. But Hong Kong as a wealthy, global city should not be holding itself to the lowest common denominator. Sunday night was a horrific display of rage by armed people.

It has been met citizen rage.

Left & Right: Aug 18 rally posters.Center: DAB supports police violence — for more see 文宣收集處

This rage will realise the ultimatum that has floated since June: If I burn, you burn with me. For any side to back down now, government, police, and protesters, feels like defeat.

Makeshift fences to replace the metal ones removed by protestors to make barricades.

Feels like. As these feelings harden, the walls have gone up and the escalation of methods to break the other side. Instead, the city is being broken. The city is missing fences (a good break, for me) and marked up with graffiti and blood, while its citizens are dealing with the side effects of expired tear gas, from rashes and diarrhea to coughing blood. Inconvenience and setbacks are part and parcel with with democratic processes, but assumed justification by the actions on each respective side is not.

But what goes into internal debates can be lost under the looping flashpoints from the street. Under the public current of circulating posters, protestors are not one unified block. Behind the ranks, the police force is also not monolithic.

Nor are the people of the Mainland of one ignorant, apathetic, or hostile mind. Below is a message that one interviewee from the Mainland wanted to pass over the Great Fire Wall:

I doubt the friend who posted 唔割席 will see this because of the echo chambers we have fallen into as we charge forward, day after day, a new protest to protest yesterday’s outrages.

How can we stop if we are fighting for our lives? This evening a friend had posted a status that has since been taken down. It read something like We only have ourselves left. We have to keep fighting.

There is no winning this fight. Just as no-one escapes life alive, no-one in this city will escape unscathed. As with life, what we choose to do with the time we are given is up to us. What would I be fine with doing now irrespective of the future? I would be fine with letting you decide the future of your home city, however painful this is to watch. I would be fine with watching this city burn, if this is what you want. But I will not use rage and anger to bury the pain; nor will I stop trusting that there are people on the other side who want to build a better future, if very differently. And I will continue to dig for that common ground on which to replant trust, which is the foundation of any system — democratic or otherwise — that is built.

I have one simple ask of everyone on all sides: please give pause. It could be five seconds before responding, five minutes to think, five days break from social media. It could be more, like thinking beyond the catchy slogans, fact checking, self-reflecting, investigating the other side’s messaging, and perhaps imagining what decision making went into throwing tear gas in front of buses. It could be an afternoon with your dog, or cat, or favourite bowl of noodles.

To the protesters, I will not ask you to stop showing up. To the police, I will not ask you to abandon your post. But I would ask that you both consider how you can fight for the future differently, and find other ways to build one. To civilians, consider the pillars of democracy like the judiciary that the Hong Kong Airport Authority has used for an injunction and the family of the woman who’s been shot is considering. To the officers, you cannot choose your orders, but you can choose how you execute them.

To the people who are opting out, you are not bystanders. By not saying anything, we are not just implicitly supporting our friends, or whomever is speaking, but the looping of sensationalised headlines and raw flashpoint footage that doesn’t help digestion of these events or our feelings.

We need paths out of this dead end. I ask all of us to look across to the other side often, so as to spot the olive branch that might surface. It may not be the one we imagined, but I hope there is a long enough pause to at least honour the offer.

I hope that we can pause just long enough to see that on the other side is another person looking right back at us, wanting this to stop, too.

Sources to check:


Facebook groups:

Thinking about the intersection of social justice and tech, with a LGBTQ and POC lense.