China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2019/Sep

Be Sister Water

Different images have been used to capture the civil protests against government intransigence that came to a head in Hong Kong this summer such as, “the egg vs the high wall;” “blooming across the territory;” “leave no one behind;” and “be water.”

During a pilgrimage to Lourdes, I was moved by how God’s message of a call to repentance was revealed to a poor teenage girl, through the humble medium of water.

Can civil society (the young, the Church…), like water, be a call to conversion and a source of healing? And does healing mean a return to business as usual?

At the time of writing, the HKSAR government has declared the misbegotten Extradition Bill “dead,” but refused to withdraw it. The bill would have allowed, through “special arrangements” the surrender of persons wanted in connection with criminal matters to Macau, Taiwan, the mainland China and other places with whom there are no reciprocal arrangements for extradition.

Hong Kong authorities could also help gather evidence by way of search and seizure, as well as freeze and confiscate the assets of persons wanted for crimes in other jurisdictions. (See Hong Kong Bar Association’s A Brief Guide to Issues Arising from Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation [Amendment] Bill 2019.)

By breaching the barrier separating two judicial systems, one based on Common Law with due process, and the other where the Party’s will is paramount, the bill would fundamentally erode the One Country, Two Systems guarantee upon which Hong Kong was reunified with China.

Millions have marched in protest, reiterating five demands: withdraw the Amendment Bill; set up an independent investigation of the causes of, and responsibilities for widespread social conflicts (beyond the scope of the Independent Police Complaints Council); universal suffrage in electing the chief executive and the Legislative Council of the HKSAR; retract the “riot” label slapped on the anti-extradition bill protests; and unconditionally release all arrested protesters.

The former chief justice, scores of retired senior government officials, scholars, elder statesmen, business and diplomatic communities have also urged the government to withdraw the bill and set up an independent inquiry.

As the government turned a deaf ear, Hong Kong, known for its law-abiding and practical efficiency, blew a fuse.

Protests spread from city-centre to neighbourhoods. Violence escalated – especially between young protesters and the police. The stakes have been raised.

On July 21, thugs in white assaulted passersby and passengers on the train in Yuen Long, while the police were absent for long minutes going on hours; and video footage showed a legislator, Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, a protégé of the China Liaison Office, thanking the thugs for their trouble.

This sparked outrage across many sectors, from mothers to bankers and hospital staff, from non-government organisations to civil servants.

On August 5, over 300,000 workers responded to a call for a general strike. A non-cooperation movement that initially disrupted commuter trains grew to obstruct air traffic at the Hong Kong Airport, a major hub for global travels and freight.

On August 6, the chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, and senior government officials emerged after a long hiatus. Seizing upon some protest slogans (“liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”), Lam blamed radical elements for fomenting revolution, challenging China’s sovereignty and destroying Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

On August 7 in Shenzhen, Zhang Xiao-ming, the director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told a select group from Hong Kong that violent activities bore hallmarks of a “colour revolution.” The rhetoric has since ratcheted up to “signs of terrorism,” as the People’s Liberation Army and military police maneuvered close to the border with Hong Kong.

Tragically, hundreds of young people have already been charged with rioting (a severe crime punishable by long jail terms in Hong Kong). Now whiteshirts, redshirts and blueshirts, some wielding weapons, roam the streets beyond Yuen Long.

On August 13, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) called on the government and the people of Hong Kong to “engage in an open and inclusive dialogue … the only sure way to achieve long-term political stability and public security by creating channels for people to participate in public affairs and decisions affecting their lives.”

The UNHCR further noted it “has reviewed credible evidence of law enforcement officials employing less-lethal weapons in ways that are prohibited by international norms and standards.”

Be water, my friend

This comes from a famous quote by Bruce Lee: “be formless … shapeless like water … put water into a cup, it becomes the cup … water can flow; water can crash; be water, my friend.”

Here it alludes to organising tactics of the young (teenaged to 30s) who spearhead the resistance against the Extradition Bill Amendment. Unlike the Umbrella Movement in 2014, this wave of protest movement has no identifiable leader or spokesperson.

There is no central authority; decisions are made on the spot or via social media through direct participation based on consensus. Participants can respond quickly to a call for action and disperse quickly.

By digging in its heels and hardening its position, the government hopes to win by attrition (protesters are injured, some critically, and arrested) and by turning public opinion against “rioters” who deserve to be violently suppressed.

Hong Kong now faces dangers

The movement’s only “success” so far, the suspension of the bill, is attributed to the June 12 siege of the Legco Building. Young and passionate, some protesters vented their frustration (for lack of government response) through violence. But the human costs have been high both for the protesters and the police (to the point when they no longer see one another as human).

The protests are subject to infiltration. The incitement to violence could become a pretext for cross-border military suppression.

Can a protest movement that began with such grace (peaceful, considerate and humorous), that has demonstrated such moral strength and won worldwide admiration, sustain and regenerate itself?

Be Sister Water

In 1858 the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared 18 times to Bernadette Soubirous whose family was reduced to living in a former prison. The grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes was then a place for waste disposal, not unlike the filth (collusion and systemic inequality) that is crying out in Hong Kong.

In 2017, Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient was 0.539 (a sign of troubling economic inequality). Beneath the glamour of global acquisition and aggregation of capital, a growing number of the poor and disenfranchised live as disposable human beings.

Yet God’s love is revealed once again among the lowly! Bernadette later said humbly, “The Holy Virgin chose me because I was the poorest.”

Our Lady asked Bernadette to pray, kiss the ground, and eat the bitter grass. During the ninth apparition, she said: “Go to the spring, drink of it and wash yourself there.” She did not mean water from the river, so Bernadette scraped the soil, covered her face with mud, and uncovered the source. People were scandalised by these strange acts. But they were acts in penitence for sinners.

In Hong Kong, the young people who cover their faces also do strange things out of love for their home and the values associated with it. They are eating the bitter grass of tear gas, pepper spray and possibly ripped future. With rudimentary tools, they uncover for us the source of integrity, wholeness and truth.

We need to return to the source, and do penance for sinners (ourselves included).

The goal is not to hate, but to build a strong civil society, and develop strategies to win upcoming elections for 18 District Councils and the Legislative Council.

Maria J. Stephan of the United States Institute of Peace, and co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), shared her findings: Violent actions lead to more violent suppression. Non-violent civil resistance draws on average 11 times the number of participants than violent protests.

She cites the examples of Poland, Chile, South Korea and Tunisia. Civil society challenges autocratic regimes through strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience. Equally important, it has to develop dialogues and peaceful methods to widen and diversify the alliance.

Success depends on “creating and sustaining civic space” and “some combination of working within official political and legal institutions and outside them, via parallel structures.”

That means everyone plays a part. Governance that is participatory and representative is not given. We need to train for it.

Like a good shepherd, the Church (Catholic and Protestant) has been accompanying the flock, especially the young people, praying together, offering sanctuary and teaching them that justice cannot be arrived at through unjust means.

On June 19, John Cardinal Tong and Reverend So Shing-yit, head of the Catholic diocese and the Hong Kong Christian Council, respectively, issued a joint statement supporting two key demands of the anti-extradition movement: independent investigation and withdrawal of the bill. The Church is responding to the signs of the times.

From a tiny source in Lourdes, I think of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a stream that flowed “from under the right side of the Temple, south of the altar.” The water reached his ankles, knees, and waist. Then it became a “deep water, a river impossible to cross… life teems wherever the river flows… The marshes and lagoons, however, will not become wholesome, but will remain salt. Along the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree … they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal (Ezekiel, 47: 1-12).

If 1.7 million participants at a “flowing rally” remember our source, the water can even heal those in power! The line from St. Francis goes like this: “Praise be you my Lord through Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.” Only God is worthy of praise. We are all creatures. But we are secure in God’s plan of creation.

Finally, instead of a key to privilege, may Catholic education and Catholic social teaching help uncover the “spring of water within, welling up for eternal life” (John 4:14).