Letter from Hong Kong: An unexpected Thanksgiving

Why We Wrote This

Reporting in Hong Kong, our correspondent wasn’t expecting much of a traditional Thanksgiving. But it turned into a day of thanks – and a reminder of how many people look to the U.S. as a leader for human rights. 

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Thousands of Hong Kong residents, many waving or displaying American flags, gather in the Central district of Hong Kong Island on Nov. 28, 2019 for a rally to express gratitude to the United States for the enactment of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

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This year, a quintessentially American holiday has a whole new meaning – in Hong Kong.

When correspondent Ann Scott Tyson woke up on Thanksgiving Day, she expected another day of political reporting in the restive territory, where protesters have waged a 6-month campaign against Beijing curtailing their city’s freedoms.

But the day started with news that President Donald Trump had signed two bills aimed at bolstering Hong Kongers’ rights, after sending mixed signals. At dusk, tens of thousands of people celebrated along the shores of Victoria Harbor – many waving U.S. flags, or banners depicting Mr. Trump. 

For Ann, it was a testament to U.S. influence abroad, where many still rely on Washington as a beacon of freedom. Such feelings are acute today in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region that straddles the authoritarian and democratic worlds, and many fear the balance is tipping.

“It’s moving so fast, we are so worried now,” says Peter Wong, a retired pharmaceutical worker. “Look at this beautiful city!” he adds wistfully, standing under the city’s glittering skyline. 

As flags fluttered in the coastal, briny breeze, and cellphone lights waved like candles, Hong Kongers expressed how much they cherish freedoms that Americans already enjoy beyond measure.

Gratitude, gatherings, and, of course, good food – I felt fortunate to enjoy all these on Thanksgiving, despite being far from grandmother’s house.

I’d expected just another day of political reporting in restive Hong Kong, where I covered Nov. 24 local elections that produced a resounding win for pro-democracy candidates. The victory buoyed protesters waging a 6-month-old campaign against Beijing’s curtailment of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Then Thanksgiving morning, news broke that U.S. President Donald Trump, after sending mixed signals, had signed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA). The law, which won veto-proof, bipartisan support in Congress, is aimed at bolstering basic rights for Hong Kongers. Instantly, the quintessential American holiday took on new meaning in this semi-autonomous region of 7.4 million people.

At dusk, I joined tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents flooding into a large redbrick plaza in Central district on the shores of Victoria Harbor. Chanting “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” many waved U.S. flags as they spilled over into nearby streets in a huge Thanksgiving rally.

A gray-haired man in a baseball cap turned to me. “Where are you from?” he asked with the slight English accent common in this former British colony, which reverted to Chinese sovereignty 22 years ago, in 1997. I told him.

“Thanks for your country supporting the law!” said the man, Stannial Leung, a retired Hong Kong-born engineer and seaman. “Hong Kong will have no future if the government handles things like this,” he said, referring to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s refusal to grant protester demands for greater autonomy and police accountability. “That’s why we need a revolution.”

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Residents celebrate the enactment of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which in part requires the U.S. government to assess Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China and sanction Chinese officials for human rights abuses, on Nov. 28, 2019, in Hong Kong.

All around, strangers approached me with smiles and heartfelt thanks, a testament to U.S. influence abroad, where many still rely on Washington as a beacon of freedom. Such feelings are acute today in Hong Kong, which straddles the authoritarian and democratic worlds. Many residents fear China’s Communist Party is undermining the “one country, two systems” formula that protects Hong Kong’s independent, British-style legal system, basic political rights, and constitution for 50 years after the handover, until 2047.

Often while navigating Hong Kong’s thronging streets, I’m reminded of Chinese novelist Han Suyin’s famous phrase, “borrowed time in a borrowed place,” when the territory was under a 99-year lease to Britain. Now, once again, Hong Kongers feel the clock ticking.

“They say ‘one country, two systems’ but we feel it’s getting to be ‘one country, 1.1 systems,’” says Peter Wong, a retired pharmaceutical worker. “It’s moving so fast, we are so worried now.”

“Look at this beautiful city!” he says wistfully, standing under the city’s glittering skyline. “Why must we wear masks?” he asks, highlighting concerns about surveillance from mainland China.

People at the rally told me they hope the U.S. act will help buffer Hong Kong from such incursions. The HKHRDA requires the U.S. government to assess Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China each year, and whether it is sufficient to justify its current special treatment under U.S. law, and to sanction Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Hong Kong. A second U.S. bill signed into law Wednesday prohibits the sale of American crowd-control equipment like tear gas and rubber bullets to Hong Kong police.

“Today, Hong Kong is the new Berlin,” said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in one of several video-taped addresses by key supporters of the act broadcast at the rally on a giant screen. “The cause for freedom has never been greater,” Senator Cruz said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
About 1,500 Hong Kong residents gather for a march to the U.S. Consulate on Dec. 1, 2019 to express appreciation for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Some marchers carry a banner depicting a pro-democracy protester hosting a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Many at the rally hailed Mr. Trump as a hero. They held banners depicting him riding on a tank, and images of his head atop film character Rocky’s shirtless torso. “Donald Trump is the greatest president in the world,” a young worker who gave his name only as Mr. J told me, holding a U.S. flag. “I really like Donald Trump. He helps us fight China.”

China, for its part, warned of “strong countermeasures” after Mr. Trump signed the act, saying the U.S. law constitutes “interference in China’s internal affairs.” On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Beijing has suspended U.S. Navy stops in Hong Kong. Such visits have been suspended in the past, including during the recent pro-democracy protests. Ms. Hua said Beijing would also sanction several U.S. human rights and democracy groups. “These NGOs have supported anti-China plotters who messed up Hong Kong,” she said, referring to the protesters. She declined to specify the sanctions.

At the rallies on Thanksgiving and again on Sunday, when about 1,500 people marched in appreciation to the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, residents told me they hoped the U.S. government would move swiftly to implement the act.

“We are putting faith in President Trump to take concrete actions and pressure the Communist Party to stop suppressing Hong Kong and allow universal suffrage,” said a middle-aged worker named Paul, holding a bold blue sign saying: “President TRUMP – Let’s Make Hong Kong Great Again.”

As the night deepened on Thanksgiving, the crowd broke out in song – first Hong Kong’s unofficial new anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong,” and then, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Waving thousands of cellphone lights in the air like so many candles, as flags fluttered in the coastal, briny breeze, Hong Kongers expressed how much they cherish freedoms that Americans already enjoy beyond measure.

Something worth keeping in mind, I thought.

Oh, and about the food? The next day, I pulled up a stool at a large circular table in a dim sum restaurant packed with families joking and talking in Cantonese. It was the perfect cap to a Hong Kong Thanksgiving.

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