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Javier C. Hernández and Xu Xi on Hong Kong’s Battle with Beijing

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

In this episode, New York Times reporter Javier C. Hernández and fiction writer and essayist Xu Xi talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about Hong Kong, current and past protests, and the powers that have sought to gain control of the city. Hernández talks about the practical realities of covering potentially violent situations and the unique collectivism of the current protests. Xu Xi discusses the challenges the movement faces as well as the historical dissonance that makes finding progress difficult.

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Readings for the Episode

PART I In conversation with Javier C. Hernández

V.V. Ganeshananthan: Whitney mentioned Ferguson earlier and just thinking about the scale of the protests, when I see the pictures and the images from Hong Kong, they’re just incredibly striking. What you’re describing sounds really hard to cover. What is it like to be present at these protests? What does it sound like and smell like? You were at the Hong Kong airport for one of the very largest protests in August. Have you been at a lot of these, and what has that been like to write about?

Javier C. Hernández: Well, I remember the very first protest I covered in Hong Kong, which I think was June 16. This was the one that captured headlines around the world, because there were two million people just flooding the streets of Hong Kong. I remember getting outside a mall early in the day and just standing there and looking over the edge of Hong Kong. You could see swarms of people moving in all directions. I’d never witnessed anything like that. It was orderly in so many ways. People were willing to part when they saw traffic coming their way or if an ambulance passed by or police came on motorcycles, and you’d see this mass line of people just open up and allow them to pass through. People were just civil toward each other, I’d say. I remember seeing families, lots of families, people who brought their children, hoping that they could inspire them to have some sense of political participation and democracy. It was just this amazing display of protests. And to me, I’d never seen anything, even in the United States, like that.

Whitney Terrell: We have a lot of listeners who are writers and journalists. I was just wondering, when you get ready to cover these protests, what do you bring with you? What do you wear? What do you do? I’m assuming you have a notebook and something to record with. But what else?

JCH: Well, I carry a huge backpack, because we have to carry a lot of protective equipment now. That includes helmets, it includes masks that help us deal with tear gas—

WT: Oh, really? Do you use those things? Do you have to put them on?

JCH: I’ve used them. There are a few cases where I’ve been near tear gas, but never anything like some of these messier incidents when they shot tear gas into subway stations, into enclosed spaces, but we carry them mostly protectively.

WT: Is it like Men in Black? Does the New York Times have a Q?

JCH: We have a tech manager who’s very, very good at all this. His claim to fame is that he was photographed by one of the pro-Beijing camps because he was out in the field bringing us equipment. Part of the thread of China’s skepticism of these protests has been that the West is behind them, that the CIA is secretly financing and orchestrating all of this. Kevin had been photographed and featured by one of the pro-Beijing outlets, because they accused him of being a spy, essentially, who was out there, when in fact he was a journalist, helping other journalists. So we do have that expertise in our bureau, and they make sure that we’re well equipped. We’ve certainly had cases where that equipment has been helpful, especially some of my colleagues who have been out there late at night, and some of these protests have turned chaotic.

WT: Are they dangerous? Has anybody gotten hurt? How’s that played out?

JCH: There have been some Hong Kong journalists who have been injured. We’ve been careful, we’ve had a lot of equipment—the most important thing to us is to get the story and to maintain some safe distance. So Hong Kong is actually a relatively good place to cover protests, because there are many vantage points from footbridges and buildings, and you can move back when things get chaotic, but certainly in some of these cases, you’re standing at the front lines and you don’t know what will happen. It can get very tense. You can hear protesters chanting slogans against the police, hurling insults at them. You can see the police preparing to charge with their shields and batons, and as a journalist, you just really have to think first and foremost, think about personal safety for yourself, as well as your colleagues and we have so many terrific local journalists who assist us, who are freelancers. I’m thinking in particular of Ezra Cheung, who’s been one of our terrific Hong Kong journalists who’s helped us on this story.

VVG: So when you say “we,” are you reporting in groups of three or four, or are you on your own? And did you have to learn a new kind of personal risk management as you were doing this? Is this a kind of new reporting skill for you?

JCH: I’ve covered other kinds of violent situations, but this one—I’ve never been in a situation where you’re out there so frequently, in violent or potentially chaotic situations. We do often work in pairs, or in small groups, just to make sure that everyone’s safe and cared for. We’ve used technology to help us keep track of each other and certainly our WhatsApp groups and other groups are constantly flowing with messages about where people are and checking in and making sure everyone’s okay. Our editor, Gillian Wong, has been the coordinator, and really the guardian of all the reporters here. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that these protests are always violent. Certainly the vast majority of activity we’ve seen so far has been nonviolent, peaceful protest, but certainly there have been these situations where things have suddenly escalated. And in those cases, we want to make sure that everyone’s okay.

VVG: The other thing that I wanted to ask was, you mentioned these are leaderless protests and that seems to me like a narrative challenge. These protests are so dramatic, but so much of the way that news reporting of this kind, the way that people have historically covered movements—the writers writing about them as movements have latched on to the characters driving those movements. What does it mean to write about collective action of this kind? To depict how, in some ways—these protesters have been inventive, and how do you write about that when they’re purposely doing this in a way that defies the narratives we might traditionally impose on it?

JCH: That’s a really interesting question. One thing that I go back to is, on July 1, I was covering the protests, and this was a key moment in the scene, because the legislature was stormed by protesters, and they smashed the glass doors on the outside and went inside and vandalized official portraits and the legislative chamber, and it was probably the turning point in the protests. I remember that a lot of people at that moment said, this movement couldn’t survive, that they’d crossed the line, that nobody would be able to explain why they had turned to violence. A lot of it was difficult to cover, because in that moment, you suddenly think, who are the leaders of this movement? Who is going to speak out for this movement? And there weren’t really any sources you could call or anybody in particular who was willing to speak—it was this collective voice.

The day after I covered those protests, my email alerts started popping up every minute or so because the protesters had organized an email-writing campaign, and so suddenly my inbox was filled with 500, 600 letters from Hong Kong citizens commenting on my coverage of that July 1 event. It made me realize the extent to which these protesters were so well organized and had given this collective voice the prominence it deserved in their view. For us, we’ve just made an effort to really highlight the varied faces of these protesters. We do stories about Cathay Pacific pilots and flight attendants and others who have been on the front lines and have sometimes been fired because of their activism. We’ve spoken with religious figures who have been a backbone of these protests. We’ve spoken with lawmakers, with students. It’s really been an interesting reporting challenge, because you want to make sure that you’re featuring prominently people of all backgrounds and voices, and not just one group of people who are claiming to be the leaders of a movement.

PART II In conversation with Xu Xi

V.V. Ganeshananthan: In reading your work, there’s this sympathy when you write about the Umbrella Movement. You talk about the generational split in Dear Hong Kong, you note how Occupy’s Umbrella revolution had these young people who would stand up and say, we believe in democracy, and older elites would scoff at that. One of the reasons I find your work so interesting is because your love for Hong Kong is evident through your critique of it—your willingness to note ways in which it is complex, it’s dealing with racism and patriarchy, etc.

And looking at it from different angles and points of view, both personal history and the way that your personal history connects to larger history. In This Fish is Fowl, you write about the popularity of your novel Hong Kong Rose and your own detachment from it, and you trace that to what you call, “Hong Kong’s sensibility of compromise, one that masquerades as courage or the right way to live.” You were saying that you thought Hong Kong Rose was one of your most popular books because Hong Kongers see compromise as virtuous.

We were just talking to Javier Hernández of The New York Times about what he was saying was an incredibly wide range of Hong Kongers involved in what’s going on now. So this movement seems much more inclusive and has somehow managed to attract the support of this wide range of people. The people organizing seem to be pushing past compromise, like Carrie Lam has withdrawn the extradition bill, and yet, the protests are still ongoing. I’m really curious about what you think about the protests going on now, whether they surprised you, what you think of what’s happening.

Xu Xi: The generation of this compromise is my generation, and the generation about 10 years younger than me. We grew up at a time when Hong Kong’s future looked good, so you keep your head down. You don’t overthrow the British government—instead, you accept this compromise with being a colonized citizenship. It is not till now that young people are pushed beyond that limit and I don’t think that they can compromise any more. I do understand. I don’t like violence. I don’t believe in violence, if possible. But I do understand why they feel it’s necessary, because they got the government to finally listen to them for five minutes.

I just gave an interview the other day to La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, and I was asked about whether or not a political culture could evolve in Hong Kong. I’ve often written about how apolitical we are, how we’re much more fond of fashion and shopping and everything. Hong Kong is a very consumerist, capitalistic society. We flip contracts on mortgages and housing. That’s how people got rich. If you could buy enough housing, you would become wealthy. But this is an awful way to run a community, a culture, a country, and it’s not a country.

The younger people are bolder. They’re also more educated in politics and in political science. They have traveled, they have seen and exposed themselves to other ideas, not just Western, but also from the rest of Asia, from Africa. A lot of the young students get to travel. One thing that the Hong Kong government is good in, is the universities are well funded. So they get to travel to other places and see the world and understand that there are other ways of thinking about what life should be. They’re not so willing just to sacrifice, become a business person, or a lawyer, or doctor, and those are the only things to do. I mean, there’s more to a culture and a society than that. You should consider your freedom of speech. You shouldn’t have to work around the clock. Japanese culture, Korean cultures, are popular among young people in Hong Kong, for obvious reasons, because they feel like they can identify with it.

But they also see things like the Japanese salary man who drops dead at his desk. I don’t think Hong Kong people want that. In fact, one thing Hong Kong did very well, when we went through the handover from under British rule, we kept all our public holidays. We have probably more public holidays than anywhere else in the world. I think we’re very close to Singapore. We’re very smart about hanging on to holidays, because there is a belief that we should have some leisure time. It’s the young who are willing to sacrifice. Some of them have stood up and said, we’re willing to martyr ourselves, willing to die. There have been a few suicides already. It’s sad. I hate to see that they feel they have no future unless they stand up and fight. It’s a very big risk, and China just has to come in with tanks and they’re dead. China, I’m hoping, won’t, but who can say right now?

Whitney Terrell: You grew up and were thinking about Hong Kong at a time when the primary thing to think about was British rule and the colonial status of Hong Kong. The protesters now, the younger people, have grown up during a time when China was in control of Hong Kong, because the handover happened in ‘97. Some of them are looking to the West and the UK or America for help in establishing democratic freedom. That’s a weird sort of dissonance within Hong Kong itself. I wonder if you could talk about that.

XX: It is a very weird dissonance. I understand why they waving the American flag and the British flag, but it also makes me very sad because I know perfectly well, that Britain and America, when push comes to shove, will go and make sure that they’re dealing with China first. This is just the way of the world.

WT: You’re right about that.

XX: It’s the balance of power. Yes, absolutely.

I think Hong Kong chooses to look there, because where else are they going to look? South America? No, I don’t think so. Europe? Not all of them speak European languages to do so. It’s much harder for them, whereas they can look at America and Britain and these are big enough powers. Britain, of course, is part of Hong Kong’s history. So, there is recognition there of what that brings. I mean, I think they would many of them would rather look to Canada if they could, but Canada is not as big a power as America is in the world. I think that it’s sort of natural for them to look there, but it is futile. I mean, politically, it won’t help them in the long run. That’s what worries me a lot about the young there. They have to find a solution from within. They have to be able to figure it out with the Hong Kong government. And the Hong Kong government, I’m afraid, is made up of a bunch of bureaucrats, the elite. Hong Kong government’s civil servants at the higher end are very well paid. Carrie Lam makes more than the President of the United States. Consider this: it’s the people who protect their own, their families. They’re taken care of. They can afford housing. What young person can afford housing? It’s ridiculous.

VVG: It’s kind of like New York.

XX: Yes. Similar to New York. New York has the advantage of being an older culture. It has a history of the arts and culture that it can always go back to. Hong Kong is much younger. It hasn’t yet developed enough of its own culture and art and history to be able to stand on that. There isn’t the money for that, that will keep people in Hong Kong. People leave Hong Kong every time there’s a problem. This is our history. There’s always an exodus. I’ve watched exoduses from the time I was a child. To me, what’s happening now reminds me of 1967, the riots then. Those were worker-led. Not young people, like it is now, it wasn’t university students, although some of the left meaning university students were definitely involved at the time.

Again, it was about inequity. It was about the impossibility of, unless you’re born into the right family, or you’re part of that elite, you’re going to have a lousy life. You’re going to always be the underclass. Those are some of the same people who are supporting the young people now. The ones who have always been working class.

WT: It’s interesting that you paint Hong Kong as this pure example of capitalism, which has, therefore in it, a lot of flaws, if the only thing that people care about is money, or property values or whatnot. Yet, they’re fighting to maintain this particular kind of life against a government that is also interested in capitalism, just a sort of state controlled kind of capitalism. I mean, what’s the difference?

XX: It’s a society that would like to see itself do well, be prosperous, be able to make their own films, to have art, to engage in sports, to have people go to the Olympics. It’s not a society that’s looking to overthrow everything. In fact, Joshua Wong, who’s one of the primary leaders, believes in one country, two systems. He’s not looking for independence. The independence call is from a minority. I do understand why they feel the way they do. I have felt that we should have fought for independence a long time ago, but we missed our chance back in the 60s, and at that time, nobody was going to oppose the British. Unless you overthrow the government, you’re not going to be able to establish independence. So most humble people, the majority, probably would be content with some kind of special administrative region status like we have now. As long as we can have a little autonomy and we can get some self representation, etc. etc. where China cuts Hong Kong a little slack. Come on. Hong Kong’s always been this political anomaly. And you know, that’s its best hope, to remain a political anomaly.

WT: In This Fish is Fowl, you write about an unpublished novel of yours called Proximity, which you wrote back in the 70s and it imagines Hong Kong with a nationalistic party that wanted to secede from China. Seems on topic with what we’re talking about here. No one would publish it at the time. How do you look back on that book now, in light of the protests, and what kind of writing do you think this protest will prompt from yourself and from others?

XX: It’s very interesting, looking back on that. I knew I was right back then, but of course, who believes you? The 70s was when Hong Kong began to change. It began to get prosperous. The 70s was when Cantonese was finally recognized as an official language in Hong Kong. Prior to that, it was only English, if you can imagine. When I think back on that, I’m shocked very often, but that was the case. So, the 70s was the beginning of change and we were beginning to see Hong Kong come into its own. It was the 70s when you began hearing pop songs that were very local and there’s some famous ones that local people know. This was the era of Under the Lion Rock, which was a local documentary, which spoke to Hong Kong’s own identity and spirit. That was the beginning of a sense of a Hong Kong identity as quite separate from China.

That’s why I always felt it had to happen eventually, that there would be people calling for independence, but it came too late, that’s the way I sort of feel it. But I think now looking forward, what do you write? Well, I’ve been lately writing a great deal about Hong Kong because I’ve been commissioned like four times to write something. The novel I’m working on right now, it’s a sort of novella. I keep saying, well, it’s actually about the north country of New York and ice fishing. This is where I live now, way up north in New York State, but in fact, it opens in Hong Kong. So, you figure out what I’m really writing about at the end. I think that my work is leaning more and more towards the transnational kind of existence in the world, because I am part of that population that doesn’t belong in any one place.


Transcribed by and condensed and edited by Gilbert Randolph and V.V. Ganeshananthan. Photo of Xu Xi by Paul Hilton. Photo of Javier Hernåndez by Earl Wilson.

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