EXCLUSIVE: Simon Cheng talks democracy and freedom in Hong Kong

By Mason Quah

FOR people with heritage from both mainland China and the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong it is not as simple as choosing a side.

Simon Cheng, currently in exile in the UK, spoke to Redaction Politics about his experience in the movement and the pre-existing tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong has less democracy but greater freedom. This is the reason they’re angry. They’re free to know how bad and undemocratic it is.”

This distinction, that Hong Kong people have some privileges from their position as well as drawbacks, is used as a point of attack by Chinese media, stigmatizing the protests in Hong Kong as an anti-Chinese movement.

Similar representations can be seen in some international depictions of the movement. Simon Cheng disagrees with these factions of the protesters but does not want them excluded from the movement.

“”Some protesters are aiming not for democracy but independence. This wouldn’t help many Hong Kongers, as the same systems would be in charge of a free Hong Kong.

“Our ultimate goal is full democracy, that value is the only way to justify why the society should tolerate dissents, including advocating for independence, as a basic freedom of speech in all civilised countries.”

“The majority of Hong Kongers don’t care about the politics, although now the awareness of social justice issue is growing, but are worried about economics. In the mainland you feel the country rising but in Hong Kong you feel like you’re falling down.”

This falling feeling, Cheng explains, comes from the way that Hong Kong’s status is exploited by wealthy mainlanders for economic gain. Businesses and the broader economy of Hong Kong are subservient not to the local people but the mainlanders holding the purse strings.

In contrast, the rising feeling of mainlanders is equally a source of tension.

The nationalism held by mainland Chinese, buoyed by their growing status as a superpower, creates a political culture where criticisms of Chinese government are conflated with attacks on the Chinese people.

Cheng relayed his own experience of being told that his interactions with international media and foreign powers were “the wrong way of speaking out” and his situation would have been better resolved going through the appropriate local channels. This line of critique is perhaps common to all such movements.

An aspect of the growing nationalism in the country lies not just in the way that things are getting better but the decreasing number of people who remember times being worse.

“The newer generation doesn’t have the same memories of the cultural revolution. They see the country as a rising star and are nationalistic as a result. The people don’t care about ideology but money and power.”

The privileged class of mainland Chinese that are using Hong Kong in this colonial way are a minority and Cheng feels solidarity to his family and countryman in China. Improving democracy in Hong Kong is a tool towards improving democratic rights across the nation.

“One country, two systems is unjust and unfair. We are tired of asking permission to the mainland for everything, feeling like second class citizens.”

The unincorporated US territory of Puerto Rico in the US is one comparison Cheng makes but notes the distinction with China that “if your mother country was a democracy it would be easier to fight for those rights”.

Looking to the future of Hong Kong, the former Consulate worker sees reform as less and less possible as China grows in power.

“We spent decades waiting to see what China will do after economic reform, and for the following through on promises of universal suffrage. The honeymoon is over.”

While the population of mainland China are strong potential allies, the current best supporters of Hong Kong are the international Diaspora of expats who support the cause.

Speaking on his own asylum claim in Britain Cheng said “Fleeing the hometown is not surrender: It is externalising the issue so more people can see what is going on. We need to believe that someday we can return to the hometown.”

As part of his work to rally the expat community Simon Cheng has founded the movement for Hong Kongers In Britain.

While the organisation is in its infancy, their goal is to maintain connections between the Hong Kong community abroad alongside raising funds and awareness for the legal protection of Hong Kong protesters and asylum seekers.

An additional project underway is the proposal of a shadow parliament to Hong Kong’s government, elected by the city’s population. “Why should we wait to be granted democracy? This would be a non-official civil group, not breaking international law, but we can claim legitimacy as representing the voice of the people.”

This would have dual purposes: It would provide a representation of the protesters’ voices in a most civilised and peaceful manner, and it would inclusively and neutrally invite participation from all people with various political thought invested in this democratic mechanism.

Even people involving themselves in the informal democracy for the purposes of pushing a pro-Beijing stance would be involving themselves in a greater amount of democracy than could be achieved under Chinese elections.

This would, understandably, be something that Beijing would be very concerned over. There would be no shortage of groups, locally and internationally, looking to exert influence over the process to proclaim themselves as representing the people.

If kept appropriately transparent it is possible that this could solidify the protests not as the independence movement it is impugned as but a pro-democracy campaign.

Cheng sees this as a way of integrating the goal of the movement into their process for achieving it, “mirroring the things we want Hong Kong to have.”

Featured Image: Simon Cheng (credit)

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