Growing up in America, I’ve been accustomed to celebrating the 4th of July with the typical afternoon barbecues, long days at the beach, and nights of firework displays. When I found out that July 1st was Hong Kong’s equivalent holiday, I guess I imagined similar celebrations – with seafood replacing the dogs & burgers and maybe a few more firecrackers set off in the streets. I was wrong.
I quickly learned that the laid back barbecues have been overlooked for good old fashioned demonstrations of free speech.
For those out there that might not know, Hong Kong was a territory of the United Kingdom since 1842, chosen for it’s prime location as a trading port. In 1898, the UK received a 99-year lease of the New Territories, which is a large area of land that surrounds the existing downtown hub. As the lease was approaching expiration in 1997, British officials realized that it would be impractical to hand back only the New Territories. So, on July 1st, 1997 the entire region of Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China, under the conditions that China would treat HK as a special democratic region.
The handover date has since been marked by annual demonstrations led by the Civil Human Rights Front. It started as part of an event organized by The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China – a group that largely protested the Tiananmen Square shootings of 1989, and actively seeks to support democratic movements in mainland China. The protests were moderately well attended for the first few years, but became significantly recognized in 2003 when 500,000 marchers filled the streets in opposition to legislation that would have jeopardized Hong Kong’s freedom of speech rights.
Since 2003 there have been several big turnouts, prompting the HK Government to sponsor counter-protests that are in essence, pro-Beijing parades. This year’s counter-protests were the most successful yet, with roughly 40,000 Beijing loyalists competing with an estimated 76,000 protestors (and a few scattered Canadians shouting something about Canada Day…). The streets were filled with drums, bright colors and curious spectators of all ages. Of the people that I chatted with, many were happy that Hong Kong has retained it’s democracy and were proud to be a part of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle that China agreed to at the handover.
As I talked with some of the older people – a few who had immigrated from the mainland years ago, it struck me that there couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate the holiday. In America we often take our liberties for granted, because we haven’t had them threatened in recent years. But here in Hong Kong, the people on the streets have lived through fears that they might lose this valuable right – on more than one occasion. Was everyone on the streets? No. (Trust me, the beach was just as crowded.) But there were plenty of people that were passionate about their country, their rights, and their future.
With that in mind, I hope everyone out there gets to enjoy their 4th of July. And if you don’t have plans yet, perhaps consider holding a friendly protest – just because you can.