Akshadha Lagisetti is a 17-year-old, Indian-American political organizer from Atlanta, Georgia. She has been very involved with politics and activism in Georgia since 2018, when she first worked on Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign.
“Are you optimistic about the future of Hong Kong?” I asked dozens of street protestors at an anti-government protest in the city in late May. I was expecting No’s, and I got plenty, punctuated by heavy sighs and the occasional teary eye, sometimes conjoining convoluted rants. But to my surprise, I also heard numerous affirmative answers. The optimism was cautious, at times desperate, but it was all out of love for their hometown.
At the time, the cynic in me chalked it down to naivety. But after the Chinese government passed the Hong Kong National Security Law at the end of June, that optimism became my lifeline.
Over the past year, Hong Kong was a battleground. Mass protests week after week, tear gas, and standoffs with riot police. Revolutionary posters all over the streets, online communities sharing protest iconography, all imprinted with the same slogan: “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
The movement stemmed from peaceful protests last summer against a proposed bill that would allow the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China. The bill was highly unpopular due to concerns over the Chinese government using it against pro-democracy politicians and activists. The bill was withdrawn within a few months, but the movement persisted, for it was fundamentally a resistance against Chinese control and a fight for the right to self-determination.
And so the protests continued. The streets of Hong Kong were awash with feelings of despair and frustration. Yet there was a tiny glimmer of hope in the cacophony of voices chanting and singing in unity.
Then, at 11 pm on June 30, it all went silent.
The Chinese government passed the Hong Kong National Security Law, criminalizing “secession, subversion, terrorism, collusion” against the Central People’s Government, all punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Only a handful of people had seen the full text of the law before it was implemented. Yet, it covers acts as ubiquitous as advocating for democracy or chanting protest slogans.
The impact was instantaneous. Activists fled the city in self-exile, media personalities disappeared off their platforms, and global corporations planned to cease operations in the city. In the midst of the chilling effect of self-censorship, protestors had to ask themselves: Is the revolution over? Did we fail to liberate Hong Kong?
On the morning of July 1, the day after the law’s passing, pro-China groups lined the streets with red flags in celebration, and boats with nationalistic slogans sailed across Victoria Harbor. For many protestors, it felt like they’d woken up in a dystopian version of Hong Kong. Like it will only be a matter of time until they have to live in fear of speaking their minds and pledge allegiance to a government they can’t trust. A matter of time until the optimism that ideas can change the world fades, replaced by the feeling of complete powerlessness against an authoritarian government.
But in the afternoon, thousands took to the streets in protest, every single one of them risking arrest and potential life imprisonment. It was an act of courage and defiance. The protest anthems rang louder than ever before, and it was then that I realized, this isn’t over.
It’s been a bleak month for the city. Constant updates on new arrests and actions newly declared “unpatriotic,” media outlets declaring this the “end of Hong Kong.” But on the ground, I saw that Hong Kong’s beliefs remained unchanged; the Chinese government simply limited our freedom to express them.
So, where does Hong Kong go from here? This is a question of its identity. Is it constituted of freedom of speech and freedom of the press? The right to protest and criticize? Free-market capitalism and democracy? Or is it something else, something untouchable?
Hong Kong can’t be killed by a set of laws because its identity has transcended beyond tangible confines. It’s a belief, a conviction, a spirit. That spirit may hibernate for a little while, or be driven underground, but it will never burn out. It lives on in the remains of protest graffiti that couldn’t be washed, in banned slogans circulating online in variations of code. It lives on in underground activist groups risking it all to stand for what they believe in and in the hearts and minds of millions of people.
If the past year of protests has taught me anything, it’s that the people of Hong Kong won’t back down so easily. This is a population with an unrelenting belief in freedom and an unwavering moral compass. So, to answer my own question: Yes, I’m optimistic about the future of Hong Kong. The strongest people I know are all here, so how could I not be?
Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.
Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.
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