Connie Schultz: May a million umbrellas bloom
By Connie Schultz
So many seemingly small moments reveal the heart of the protest unfolding in Hong Kong.
Thousands of citizens, most of them students, are flooding the streets to demand the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and to insist on democratic elections for his successor.
And all this, gleaned from various news reports:
Demonstrators not only cleaning up their trash but sorting it, too, for recycling.
Art installations springing up.
Protesters greeting riot police by raising their hands in the air to telegraph their peaceful intentions.
Schoolchildren pinning bright yellow ribbons to shirts and wrapping them around their wrists to show solidarity with university students.
On sidewalks and in the streets, cardboard boxes brimming with medical supplies, food and water donated to the students. Students pointing plastic spray bottles at fellow protesters and misting them in the heat.
Clusters of colorful umbrellas bloom like poppies in a field of humans. First intended to guard against Hong Kong’s ubiquitous rain showers, they are now a symbol of resistance — of the “Umbrella Revolution” — after many tried to use them as protection against police tear gas fired into the crowd last Sunday.
Frequently, crowds sing the chorus of a 1980s ballad by the Hong Kong group Beyond, titled “Boundless Oceans Vast Skies”:
Still free and independent,
Forever singing my own song out loud, going everywhere.
All of this is happening because Hong Kong’s young people want to live in a democracy.
As I write, we do not yet know how China will respond. It is uncertain how this is going to go.
My short time in Hong Kong, however, makes me certain of its students’ motives and their intentions. The protests have been peaceful because that is their nature — which is not to be mistaken for lack of resolve.
In late 2009, I was one of seven American journalists invited to Hong Kong Baptist University’s third annual Pulitzer Prize Winners Workshop. It was more than a week’s worth of seminars, panels and one-on-one discussions with Chinese graduate students studying journalism for a year in Hong Kong.
For most of them, it was their first trip off the mainland. For the first time, they could set up Facebook accounts and use Gmail, both of which were blocked in China. They decided to use American names, too, such as May and Charlene, Ben and Jack.
Also for the first time, they could engage, openly and without reservation, in conversations about what it’s like to practice journalism without fear of prison. To feel free to challenge those in charge because you’re protected by something called the First Amendment.
They were as respectful as they were relentless, pressing and pushing us to explain practices that to them were unthinkable. Questioning our government? Requesting official documents — and getting them? Without fear of retribution? Of prison?
Privately, some of us U.S. journalists worried about what we were encouraging. Could all this how-to discussion about journalism in a democracy hurt them? How could it possibly help when they were required to return to China at the end of their academic year?
One of the sessions we had during my time at the workshop was a “woman’s panel.” The room was packed with young women armed with cameras and questions. They needed little coaxing to talk about gender issues in their country.
After about 45 minutes of “girls” this and “girls” that, I finally shared my observation: “Why are we talking about girls?” I asked. “I see only women in this room.”
Quick study, that bunch. Later that day, I was boarding a shuttle bus on campus when a group of female students started calling out my name. I turned and was greeted by 10 waving, smiling students, who started yelling all at once.
“Connie, we are women!” they shouted, their faces beaming. “We are women!”
When I hear about the students of Hong Kong taking to the streets, my mind fills with memories of the ones who went before them. Those students I met who were so strong, so willful. So full of joy.
I am still in touch with some of them. I marvel at how they are carving out lives that sometimes make me nervous for their safety. They call me “mother Connie” for good reason.
That single year in Hong Kong gave them a taste of freedom. Regardless of where they live now, there is no going back.
China may be in information lockdown, but the Mays, Charlenes, Bens and Jacks, they know what’s happening in Hong Kong.
I can feel their smiles.
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