Hong Kong businessman Jimmy Lai plays with fire in the same bored manner I play with my hair. Lai, who has been everywhere recently, has been at the heart of anti-Chinese protests that have consumed Hong Kong in the past few months and has emerged as a vocal figure in its surge to democracy. He has supported anti-government initiatives, called out Xi-Jinping as a dictator and refused to submit when other business leaders have gravitated to the pull of Beijing. He’s his own man and his own empire: He’s a majority owner of NextDigital, a company that publishes reporting critical of China, and if that wasn’t enough, he publishes a weekly column to support protestors as the crisis has gone from mild to middling to full blown seismic.
For their part, the Chinese government, so incensed by him, struck out his name in his family records, leaving him a man with no name but plenty of positive press.
Recently, I watched Lai sit down for a 60 minutes interview with Holly Williams, where he spoke candidly about the protests, his hopes for the future, and even his personal career. But the best part of the interview — the segment that twists politics into philosophy and economics into zoology — is when he pares down the conflict to its core:
“When you lose freedom,” Lai remarks at one point, “you lose everything. What do you have?”
“I mean, you have a wonderful city, prosperity,” responds Williams.
“That’s what [the] Chinese thinks. That they think we just have a body, we don’t have a soul. You guys just make money, have a good life, don’t think about politics, don’t think about human rights … just eat, enjoy life…We have a soul; we are not dog[s].”
Lai’s comment sparked outrage in China, and the disdain for him resonated loudly with my family. But it brought up another point: While I started to revel in the way Lai operated, people would ask me if him, or more broadly, the movement, upset me because I was Chinese too.
Truth is, Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans are two sets of an alien people. I’ve always found a quiet disconnect in the way I interacted with my cousins, unable to fully grasp what it meant to be Chinese. Our lives were warped from the advice our culture gave to us. We’d sip tea and eat mooncakes, and exchange our languages. They spoke perfect English; I mumbled imperfect Chinese. And that was that.
Instead, being a first generation Chinese American has settled into a blurred area with no scripture or guideline to follow which offers utter confusion in how we should conduct ourselves, but also the freedom to carve out something new.
So in that spirit, I’ve spent the past few months wondering where my interests lie in this fissure, and silently, I’ve found myself empathizing more with those in Hong Kong, due to the pangs of the familiar nature of the conflict.
The lifeblood of this spat, which Lai emphasized in his interview, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what each side wants. China’s convinced the cure to Hong Kong’s ills lie in its teetering economy — its spiraling consumer confidence, plump upper class and rent prices that have gone full aerial. They’ve promised vague economic benefits to Hong Kong — for a portion of their political freedom, of course. But in Hong Kong, the protestors have instead submitted demands that betray only political ambition and hammer home themes of transparency and accountability, along with self determination.
But back here, the muted push and pull between economic vitality and political soul searching in the Chinese American community gave way to the opposite result.
Being Asian American has never quite meant anything to those who actually mattered — the people that held positions of power, donated to charities like supervillains and wrote the scripts to Oscar winning films. And maybe for the first generation, that kind of invisibility was a gift. Our parents would put their head down, work their nine to five jobs until their kids would have kids of their own, and hope that salvation would be found through well meaning, irresolute behavior. Then, one day, we’d be at the top, and no one would pinpoint how we got there.
That lifestyle was a flawed strategy — safe but impotent and actually quite damaging. It left us with a stunted sense of how we fit into this country, and little to no stake in the national conversation. Chinese American culture simply turned inward as the rest of the country marched to its culture wars, and political consciousness was substituted with economic urgency.
And this isn’t to equate the state of Chinese Americans with the brutality protestors in Hong Kong face but, instead, to admit the decision that has become subtly ingrained in our culture over here has been fleshed out and bombed over there — that a choice between economic prosperity and political assertion was given to us, and we chose the former.
That decision is why the standoff between Hong Kong and China is so riveting and so vicariously fulfilling. The best interest of the protestors is to resume their normal lives, to put down their protest signs. Instead, they’ve launched a rejection of a neighboring superpower while pressuring other stakeholders — business, countries, even sports leagues — to follow suit. Lai himself has become the unusual millionaire on the Hong Kong scene with his political rhetoric, and has risked his own business to speak out.
In the strangest of twists, the vitality of the Chinese American community comes with a rejection of the culture that our parents and their parents lived in. It sounds screwy, but in finding empathy for the Hong Kong movement, we can find solidarity in how future generations will live their lives. Lai decided, along with Hong Kong, in what they valued. And so in promising economic salvation to silence the screams of the protestors, China missed the mark entirely.
Finding the voice to support Hong Kong was never much a choice. In the end, I suppose, it all came down to the existential dread we faced each day — wondering whether our lives truly mattered, waiting for the years to fly by, living a content life that rang hollow and uttered no sound. If you figured you were going to live to only die just like that, you’d scream too.
William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Willpower runs every other Friday this semester.