Grains of Sand

On shoring up international solidarity amidst the Hong Kong protest movement

Tens of thousands of protesters waving US flags marched on Hong Kong’s US Consulate to call for help from the Trump administration in ending a three-month confrontation with Beijing, September 2019. Photo: Joseph Chan on Unsplash


It’s approaching 6pm in Sai Ying Pun, and I’m frantically weaving through the bustling foot-traffic along De Voeux Road West. I’m trying not to lose sight of my friend, who, concerned about being late, is several paces ahead of me.

“Many of these young protesters were born after the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. They’ve literally seen their country transform itself”

— Associate Professor James Leibold

We reach our destination, an unassuming dessert shop aptly named “Lo Kee Dessert”. It’s a café like any other squeezed along the sidewalk, save for the yellow pig sticker on the glass door. The shop feels especially clandestine today, and as we enter, I’m suddenly wary of pedestrians’ eyes.

She turns to me and fastens a black face mask over her mouth, transforming from the friend I know into ‘H'(not her real name), the resolute Hong Kong protester. If it weren’t for the familiar sparkle in her eyes, she’d be unrecognisable.

“Welcome to Chat with You!” she says eagerly, eyes gleaming.

‘H’ is a Hong Kong University student for whom social justice has always been part of life; she attended her first protest at eight years old.

“I was very much influenced by my family, who would put on the radio that broadcast programs about social and political issues…it was second nature for me to step into protesting as well as I grew a bit older,” she says.

She needed no persuasion to join the protests when they started, but things changed in June last year.

“I always felt this sense of isolation from my peers because it seemed like we were concerned about very different things,” she says.

“When the movement happened, my peers started to change. They used to be completely politically ignorant, [but then] they started to be really vocal and expressive about their political opinions.”

Associate Professor James Leibold, head of Politics at La Trobe University, agrees the bill is a powerful catalyst amongst ‘H’s’ generation. He says it’s ignited their simmering mistrust towards the mainland Chinese government, who rule Hong Kong under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle.

“Many of these young protesters were born after the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty,” he says.

“They’ve literally seen their country transform itself in front of their eyes and I think they feel very disillusioned. That sense of action is quite urgent, because time is running out.”

The movement has exposed a greater shift in Hong Kong’s identity and beliefs, deepening residents’ national pride.

Like the majority of young ‘Hong Kongers’, ‘H’ feels compelled to fight out of love for her home.

“We identify as Hong Kongers – Hong Kong people who want to protect their own land,” she explains.

“Throughout this movement, this sense of identity is strengthened because when you have to confront this brutal authority, all the powerless people have to stand together.”

But if the motivation behind this fight is a localised love of Hong Kong, why are we so captivated by the protests internationally?

Click above to explore changing attitudes among Hong Kongers. Photo:  Erin Song on Unsplash

Things are in full swing now – including the door. Hulking awkwardly on a tiny stool in the corner, I feel a cold draught again and again as someone new squeezes into the dessert shop.

The room is teeming with participants, all crammed around several petit tables. Warm and enthusiastic conversation fills the tiny space. The Chat with You attendees ask question after question to the masked protester on their table, listening keenly to their muffled answers. I watch ‘H’ on a table opposite me, nodding along eagerly to the participants huddled around her.

A woman enters, interrupting the session – she is collecting donations. She is inundated with generosity, struggling to hold on to all the change in her hands. I ponder whether Chat with You had always been so thriving.

Founded in November 2019, Chat with You aimed to keep international students at the University of Hong Kong up-to-date with the intensifying protests.

An advertisement for Chat with You. Source: Chat with You Twitter page

“Most of the latest updates about the protests would be in Cantonese…our international students really struggled to find a way to express their support,” explains ‘H’.

“We decided to start this event called Chat with You, in which local student protesters would communicate with international students and professors, and just any people from [the] university really.”

Following the siege of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, classes were suspended on the day of their first session, transforming it into an unexpected success.

“It turned out that about 40 people came to the venue,” recalls ‘H’.

“It was an open space, and everyone was sitting on the ground, but so many fruitful conversations were being experienced…We talked about our emotions, the international friends asked us all the burning questions that they had, and we tried our best to give answers – in English of course!”

With tensions peaking at the time, the session became fertile ground for distressed students to interpret their feelings.

“The first event was special. There was this atmosphere of anxiety…Chat with You allowed us to be open and honest with each other. We could express our opinions and our feelings freely. I think within that anxiety there came comfort, support, kindness and empathy.”

“It humbles me seeing so many people [with] different stories and backgrounds, [who’ve come] here just to share their opinions with us…It humbles me as a human being to learn that there are so many people out there.”

— Chat with You organiser 'H'

Chat with You soon outgrew their venue on campus, expanding to include Hong Kong-based foreigners outside of the university community. They currently host monthly events in “Yellow Restaurants”, advertised on social media.

“Every Chat with You is different, and that’s why it’s so enlightening. It depends on the group of participants that you get,” says ‘H’.

“We always take away something really valuable…we try our best to resolve any confusions that they may have, and in the end we may even bond really well together.”

The success of Chat with You amongst foreigners illustrates the surging international attention the movement has attracted. Professor Leibold says such interest could be due to Hong Kong’s place in foreign affairs.

“Hong Kong has become a pawn of sorts in a geostrategic rivalry,” he says.

“Those who want to uphold democratic principles look towards the protesters as allies and those who want to criticize the West will argue that they are trying to undermine China’s peaceful rise and sow seeds of discontent.”

it doesn’t really matter what a handful of liberal democracies think about China…how is what’s happening in Hong Kong being perceived by people in India or Czech Republic or places in Africa?”

— Associate Professor James Leibold

‘H’ believes that international support is vital in their fight against the Chinese government. but Prof Leibold wonders about its significance.

“Hong Kong does have international support; those supporters are largely unable to make a difference on the ground – it doesn’t really matter what a handful of liberal democracies think about China,” he says.

“The real game is those countries in the middle…I think we need to be more focused on that; how is what’s happening in Hong Kong being perceived by people in India or Czech Republic or places in Africa?”

For ‘H’ and the supporters of Chat with You, its true impact lies not in political force, but something deeply human. Almost an hour after its scheduled end time, the session concludes. To my surprise, instead of separating we then go for dinner – we gravitate towards a restaurant two doors down bearing the same yellow pig sticker on its window.

The restaurant is full when we arrive. ‘H’ speaks some Cantonese to the man at the door, presumably the restaurant owner. He is obliging and genial, prioritising us for the next vacant table and offering a free drink with our meals.

The next empty table isn’t large enough to accommodate all of us; people I met only hours before now selflessly insist that I eat before them. I’m too hungry to resist properly so I go inside, touched by the generosity around me.

This isn’t how I expected Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests to look. Chat with You’s strength, it seems, is injecting human connection into a difficult political period.

“There was this participant that told me she came to Hong Kong from a foreign country-she didn’t know anyone, but she really wanted to participate in the protests…she felt unsafe because she didn’t know Cantonese,” says ‘H’.

“But through Chat with You she met us, she met people who share the same goals, the same ideals. We ended up going protesting together, watching out for each other – I think that’s one way Chat with You really worked its wonders.”

For those invested in the movement, such emotional nourishment is vital to staying afloat in challenging times.

“It’s surreal…on weekdays I would go to [class], but on weekends I would go protesting – it feels like the world is ever-changing and you never know whether you’re standing steadily,” says ‘H’.

“Hong Kong protesters are not superhuman beings; we’re just people who have our own lives…I [didn’t feel] supported and cared for [for] a long time till Chat with You started -it was something special.”

“Everyone is like a grain of sand, but when a grain of sand comes together with another and another and another you become a powerful force.”

— 'Chat With You' organiser 'H'

‘H’ believed it has reaffirmed her moral values and helped her feel like she was making a difference.

“The sense of social justice has been ingrained in me for as long as I can remember. Chat with You and the protests are a further manifestation of [what] I really want to do…my ultimate goal [is] to try to make the world just a little bit better,” she says.

“When you see all these injustices, all th[e] unfairness that persists in society you just want to bring a little bit of change.”

With the media focus on frontline protest violence, it’s easy to forget that organisations such as Chat with You are equally crucial to the movement.

Professpr Leibold predicts growing difficulty as the protests continue.

“People are going to have to make some really difficult choices – are they willing to go to jail? Are they willing to go out in the streets and protest? Will they try to make their peace with it? Or will they try to leave Hong Kong and migrate abroad?” he says.

‘H’ remains optimistic, saying that “Chat with You will go on, and the protests will go on, because people’s spirits are still burning.”


This story was originally published on upstart