Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The price of freedom...

It's been 8 weeks since the protests in Hong Kong started - and what was big news then, the cynosure of eyes around the world - has slowly disappeared from the news. Incredible to think that the protesters are still on the street, still fighting for that inalienable, but yet, elusive right - freedom. Seems like such a little thing to ask for - the freedom to choose their own leaders, the freedom to be a complete democracy.

Taking on the might of Beijing, thousands of students took to the streets - and the world watched with bated breath, bracing for the worst, expecting the Communist juggernaut to steamroll the demonstration - but Beijing's response was unexpected, and perhaps, even more deadly - they did nothing at all. So, 2 months later, while the stalemate continues, the public support for the Hong Kong protests is waning, people losing interest in a cause that seems to be going nowhere.

Our October vacation coincided with the peak of the protests - a day before we flew into HK, the police tear-gassed the crowd, leading to the fear that the so far peaceful demonstrations would turn violent. I was a bit apprehensive about stepping into a potentially massive conflagration, but since our cruise left from Hong Kong, there was no way to avoid going there. To my total surprise, the buzz at the airport was completely normal - the only indication about the disturbance were a couple of signs near the bus depot - "Due to the incident in Hong Kong, certain bus routes will be cancelled"! Incident, indeed!!

And life elsewhere in Hong Kong was completely normal, too. The Metro was running regularly, which meant there was no inconvenience in getting anywhere. A lot of buses were suspended, but information about alternate routes was easily available - a lot of the offices in the financial district were closed - but other than that, all calm! We were easily able to go to Stanley Market, and spend a day there with our Suzhou friends. It was a bit surreal, thousands of protesters fighting for their convictions only a few miles away, and here we were, enjoying a slice of pizza, bargaining over trinkets!!

Also surprising was that we were able to walk right up to the demonstration - I have to admit that my heart was in my mouth as we walked past the barricaded streets, the usually bustling Central district eerily silent and deserted, I wasn't even sure if I should be taking pictures. No police in sight, as we walked on, past the students who had obviously spent the night on the streets, the banners and fliers covering the walls, the Red Cross tents, the food and water tents, the piles of garbage bags - all peaceful, there were some students singing, but most had pitched their tents on the roads, waiting...

To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable taking pictures - at best, a bystander to living history - at worst, a voyeur, trespassing on an intense display of convictions and beliefs. All these people, standing up to injustice, demanding their rights, refusing to accept a fait accompli...where does this strength come from? This is the stuff revolutions are made of - these are the principles that can rock the world. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a solution...Beijing will never lose face by conceding to these protests - I guess only time will tell how this shakes down!

Democracy - the high altar of freedom. Think about it, though - our democracy, the world's largest democracy - and how free are we? Yes, we have universal suffrage, but incredibly, year after year, we vote in the most corrupt politicians. Free speech - but not the courage to raise our voices against injustice. We live in fear - fear to walk the streets of our cities, fear to ride the public transport, fear to stay out late, heck, fear to sometimes even step out of our doors. Is this freedom??

Freedom? The freedom to judge people based on religion, caste and worse, skin color? Freedom to openly abuse and harass those less unfortunate than us? The freedom to litter our streets with impunity - hey, it's a free country, and I'll spit where I want to! Freedom to turn a blind eye and deaf ear, to mind our own business - humanity be damned! The freedom to criticize and complain, but to never lend a helping hand? The freedom to demand, but to never shoulder responsibility. The freedom to ogle and molest women openly, and yes, the freedom to look away - must be her fault, look how she's dressed! Our unique freedom - not exactly a poster child for democracy, is it?

And on the other hand, there's China - yes, a communist country - internet restrictions, absolute government control, no personal rights. But I can take a taxi home from a restaurant at 2am without a thought. I can go for a walk whenever I want, wear what I want, without a second look from anyone. Don't get me wrong - I'm no advocate for communism - but seriously, I would gladly give up access to Facebook if it meant that my mother could go for a walk in the morning without worrying about her mangalsutra being snatched!

I am not naive enough to believe that there is one magic solution to all problems - but there has to be a start somewhere. These Hong Kong students are fighting to preserve their democracy - let us take a good, hard look at ours. No point in blaming the system, after all, we are the system! And together we can make a difference - work towards a better democracy, and the dream of true freedom. Let the change begin!

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