So, the aftermath of the Umbrella Revolution protests (not the whole movement itself, just the beginning stages) is upon us. I didn’t comment earlier because I wanted to wait and see what was going to happen. Now it seems clear that there are indeed going to be repercussions, some of which could be ugly.
There have already been a number of articles about surveillance: calls being intercepted and eavesdropped upon, people being followed, and so on. The received wisdom is that Beijing is snooping, gathering intel to use against key figures in the protests. This is worrisome, of course, especially in light of the Sony email hack (which despite the implications for free speech, I have to admit I’m enjoying — it’s rather fun to see a multinational have its balls sliced off so quickly and cleanly). At the same time, hell, I’m American and something of a dissident. I can’t imagine the NSA hasn’t read my boring emails. Our new normal is to proceed through life with a numb supposition that those bastards are so thorough in their spying that they know how many kernels of corn there will be before we even go to the bathroom to do Number Two.
I’m making light of it (sort of) because sometimes all you can do in the face of the awfulness is to laugh at it. Given that just before these announcements hit the media, there were a number of articles about how China supposedly employs some 2 million people (is that the right figure or am I off by a zero?) to maintain the Great Firewall, though, I think there’s cause for some concern. Yes, they already have 1.x billion people to eavesdrop upon. Next to that staggering figure, what’s another 7.2 million (less the grannies and aunties who had nothing to do with any umbrellas other the ones they regularly poke into their fellow pedestrians’ eyeballs)? So it’s actually not impossible that people as peripheral to all this as, say, me, could now be under additional scrutiny.
As I said at the time, I know where my boundary is, and being about 8 months away from permanent residency (which I still want and plan to get as soon as I’m eligible), I feel that I need to tread carefully. I’ll be on much stronger legal ground once I have permanent ID. I think.
On the other hand, Beijing and the HK “government” (I think it has lost its legitimacy and has thus earned its quotation marks) have shown they don’t seem to give a damn about rule of law. Perhaps getting permanent ID will change nothing. Or perhaps it will just be revoked like those students’ Home Return Permits (the visas that permit them to enter mainland China) if I become inconvenient somehow.
Now the crazy is escalating. In what universe is it okay to attempt to separate a 14yo boy from his parents for what is obviously such a case of political revenge? Setting aside the likelihood that the boy knew exactly what he was doing and why he was out there amid the protests (teenagers don’t always have the best judgment but older adults go too far when we fail to credit them for being able to think at all), to file a protection order seeking to take him out of his parents’ custody? This is appalling.
What other forms of reprisal are we about to see, and how wide will Beijing cast the net? Looking ahead, what happens this year on July 1? Or on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre? At what point will retaliation against key figures in the protests extend to more obvious curbs on the freedoms of speech and assembly HK has enjoyed up till now? These are questions that need to be asked.
Here’s a thought exercise: When I am trying to get my head around a complex issue (I’ve tried it with neoliberalism and haven’t succeeded yet), one question I like to ask myself is “What is the endgame?” I’m quite good at seeing the big picture and, when I’ve had enough time to think and enough evidence to work with, can generally connect the dots. But where this breaks down is in a system where there is no rationality in place (not unlike a certain school where I used to work). Is it just that Beijing and the HK “government” wish to intimidate the population and keep them/us docile until HK has been overrun with mainlanders to the point of utter assimilation? Will nothing be right in Beijing’s eyes until the average HK person can’t board a plane without scalding a stewardess or getting into a fight or trying to open the emergency door just before takeoff? And in the meantime, the population of HK just needs to be made to shut up — by force, if it comes to that? Are the HK and Beijing officials actually stupid enough to think that subjugation will work here? I guess we’re about to find out.
My closing thought is a rumination on the extent to which I now feel safe (or not) here. This has been on my mind a lot. The surveillance thing? If being active on Twitter and visiting the protests a few times was enough to put me on a list of People to Mess With, then so be it. I bought cereal bars and saline and face masks for the protesters at the beginning. If that’s enough to get me followed, well, I’d know it by now. But my not-yet-permanent status is cause for some concern, and if I were to change my mind about wanting to visit the mainland (I wouldn’t mind seeing Xi’an, Chengdu, and Lijiang, at least), I’d hate to be denied a visa. But I’ve also done some writing on what I think could and should happen next, and I’ve been reluctant to publish it. Don’t get me wrong, I will when it’s ready, but I am thinking about my reluctance and what it means. It’s not that I’m afraid of being jumped by thugs; it’s more that my vulnerabilities aren’t hard to find. It wouldn’t have to be dramatic. Lingnan could just not renew my contract two years from now. La Migra could theoretically decline my application for permanent residency, on whatever bullshit grounds. Will either of these things happen? I doubt it, but then, this is no longer a rational system. It was and now it’s not.