To leave, or not to leave

July 15, 2021 10:10
Photo: Reuters

Leaving is no easier than staying.

At times like these, it is tempting – if not the emotive default – to think that decisions over one’s departure, migration, residency, and citizenship, ought to be viewed through lenses of heroism and change. Many amongst those who leave Hong Kong declare that they are ostensibly continuing their campaign elsewhere – keeping the spirit alive, so to speak. On the other hand, many who opt to stay have claimed that they’re staying for a better, brighter Hong Kong – one that they, too, could play a role in co-creating and molding.

Let’s face it, though. Deep down, we all know, that underlying such grand-standing gestures and speech remains deeply rooted anxieties, insecurities, and uncertainty over the city’s future. Hong Kong has endured some of the worst episodes of political violence over the past two years, with its relationship with Beijing stooping to near-unprecedented lows (setting aside the 1967 riots, for one).

Hongkongers of all political orientations have found themselves caught in the crossfire – those who support the Establishment, find many in the Establishment today familiar faces with wholly unfamiliar politics; on the other hand, many who harbour pro-democracy sentiments, have found themselves thrusted into lending support to a radicalising fringe that enacted a hostile takeover of the broadly moderate democracy movement that had underpinned the city’s slow but steady progress towards universal suffrage – prior to 2015.

There’s little point crying over spilled milk now, but it’s perhaps worth noting that the level of agency individual Hongkongers had is by no means sufficient for them to qualify for responsibility. We’re all collectively responsible. We’re all victims of fate – of a Greek tragedy with no actors or actresses, and an international audience that fawns over the city’s demise as a political tool, as a point of rhetoric, as a weapon against a rising, ascendant power.

Setting all of this aside, there’s truly no right or wrong answer when it comes to whether one should leave. Those who leave could well find themselves the brunt of structural racism, discrimination, socioeconomic disefranchisement, and communal alienation. Yet they could also be leading lives and pursuing dreams that they never had the wherewithal or space, the freedom or time, to accomplish whilst in Hong Kong. Some may leave for their children to receive the kind of education they’d want their future generations to experience; others may leave, for this city offers them no recourse and no way out of the poverty quagmire in which they are entrapped.

At the end of the day, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” It’s tempting to judge, to ridicule, to mock those who emigrate from the city – but who are we, who are you, to judge? Who are you to condescend and patronise, to lecture and teach and persuade those whose lived experiences you have never shared, to stay behind in a city they no longer truly love?

On the other hand, there are those who believe firmly in staying behind – some would attach lofty political ideals to the decision; others may aspire to reach for the stars, only to be frustrated by the recalcitrant constraints and problems that afflict us today. These problems can’t be tackled in one go – nor can they be ameliorated through feel-good armchair activism alone. It takes a village to raise a child – it takes collective efforts across the aisle, across different political stances, to revive a city in decline. There are lines and boundaries that cannot be transgressed – then there are conditions and predicaments that we can and should seek to change. Such change cannot come about on an individual basis. It cannot materialise through the wishful thinking of dreamers, the splurging of cash by a single tycoon or donor, or the viciously inward-looking, vested culture embraced by careerist politicians.

Change comes via collective action – a can-do spirit rooted in what makes Hong Kong great, our cultural pluralism, our versatility and flexibility, and our openness to the unbidden and unknown. Yet such collective capital must be directed towards fruitful ventures – that seek not to thwart or destroy or undermine or, worse yet, partake in dangerous self-immolation. These ventures could and should range from grassroots community work (indubitably rendered more difficult by the nascent constraints on formal political apparatus that had hitherto been designated with such functions), to philanthropy and poverty relief efforts, to bridging the Mainland-Hong Kong divide – which has only widened, not shrunk, over the past decade.

It goes without saying, that those who stay must find a way to make things work in a new normal. Yet figuring out this modus operandus takes far, far more than the initiative on the part of citizens. It requires those in positions of power to reflect upon the direction in which this city is taking – and to contemplate how Hong Kong should best support and facilitate the rise of its own country; ‘tis not through hollow rhetoric or self-serving politicking. Nor is it something that would follow from the haranguing of any and all who dare dissent. The ball remains in the court of those who wield formal, political power – to make Hong Kong, once again, a home for all, as opposed to the few.

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HKEJ contributor