Opinion

Born and Raised in Hong Kong: A humanist view on global affairs

On 14 July, I attended the launch of the Graduate Institute’s Hong Kong Alumni Chapter. Hong Kong’s role in international affairs is more than trade and finance. It’s a beautiful metropolitan city. Come and visit!

By Yui Chiu

In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong[1] became politically divided while demanding judicial autonomy from the Chinese regime. That year 2019, a few of us HongKongers were lucky enough to graduate from the Institute in person before the pandemic. Though I do not have a public stance on the political landscape in Hong Kong, I felt helpless watching my comrades in the city standing in solidarity calling for freedom. In 2020, Thailand protesters looked to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement for inspiration. As the city evolved as a figurative divide between the ‘black’ and ‘white’ parties of political ideals, I asked myself, “What can I do for my city”? On the other side of the world, I was guiltily enjoying European serenity, but I took a chance to learn a bit about mediation and impartiality. “BlackLivesMatter” made me aware that the world should not be just black and white, but common ground. I started to work in the field of humanitarian aid. What if conflicts become opportunities for dialogues?

Life has changed since the pandemic

As protests started to diminish in early 2020 due to Covid-19, the pandemic has since then become a common enemy of the Government of Hong Kong and the people of Hong Kong. The direction of the city’s stringent policies intends to crack down the virus to ‘zero’ using universal rapid tests, limited border entries from overseas, and quarantines to date. The city evolved from a turbulent state to a gentler period of politics with the new Chief Executive elected in office effective from 1st July this year.

What’s Hong Kong’s role in global affairs? 

Hong Kong is an international city of its regulatory system apart from the Chinese Mainland. The current arrangement permits Hong Kong to function under the name “Hong Kong, China” in many international settings, e.g., the WTO and the Olympics, is expiring in 2047. Hong Kong is proud of itself for having K. L. Cheung won a gold medal in fencing at the 2021 Olympics. China, a much larger Olympic participant, remained robust in this winning history with 38 goal medals in its pocket to come just after the U.S.

In terms of trade, Hong Kong, China has been a WTO member since 1995. Hong Kong is a free port and does not levy any Customs tariff on imports or exports. The Mainland of China became a member of the WTO in 2001. Hong Kong is a super bridge between China and the world via Hong Kong where the customs are different from the mainland’s. Hong Kong still has products and exports of its name. Taiwan, Hong Kong and China will be at the same table for trade negotiations in the coming years.

People on the Move

Hong Kong has a mix of Chinese and Western cultures, thanks to its openness to migration. I always appreciated my parents’ ability to learn Cantonese when they landed in Hong Kong. Amid brain drains and citizens migrating through residency paths in some countries, companies may cease to operate in Hong Kong, giving rise to other cities like Singapore. Still, Hong Kong is a vibrant city of constant evolution, having technology advancement as an example.

Some local people in Hong Kong parted their way due to the changing political landscapes. Meanwhile, who is being left behind in Hong Kong? The Gini Coefficient indicates the rich-and-poor gap in this financial hub. Many social issues, like housing, are left to be solved. Furthermore, Hong Kong is historically an ‘entrepôt’ for refugees seeking protection, such as for the influx of Vietnamese refugees in 1945. Though Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees[2] , and has no legal framework governing the granting of asylum, individuals will not face deportation while they wait to be resettled elsewhere by the UNHCR. 

The war in Ukraine reminded us of the need to feel compassion toward people affected by conflicts. The war has implications on the use of weapons and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Switzerland, albeit its neutrality, opened the special ‘S permit’ for persons in need of protection coming from Ukraine. Like the Slavs are the ancestors of today’s Russians and Ukrainians, Homos Sapiens are the same species. The protests before the outsets of Covid-19 in Hong Kong were not international armed conflicts but received much international attention due to the effects on the Chinese economy and politics. The use of force from any side required discretion. Whether people affected by conflicts choose to move, we are all humans who deserve respect, prosperity and dinigty.

Fluid identities in one global home

Discussion around discrimination and racism during the pandemic, such as courses on understanding racism at the Institute/ discussions worldwide reminds me of my Asian origin. I remembered a stranger asked if I play martial arts. That might have been a compliment with foreigners knowing about our famous Bruce Li! I often felt homesick, missing the food of my city. In Geneva, I often found it less helpful in trying to speak French just to receive an English response…but I would just assume the best intentions and keep speaking French! Maybe some of us regard ourselves as global citizens the moment we choose Geneva to study! 

What if we identify ourselves more fluidly, instead of making assumptions based on where we are from or what we look like? I am from Hong Kong, and I am also a short life on the planet Earth. We all can do something for humanity. Change starts from within.

Regardless of complexion/origin/nationality, all people ought to enjoy the same level of respect and harmony. Kofi Annan said, “All the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, start with the humiliation of one individual”.  Nelson Mandela walked free and became a world great leader who represents peace. Dialogues play an important role in peace-making. 

We feel concerned when people in other countries suffer. People on the move will also have their identities shaped by their experiences. One day, refugees/ displaced persons affected by severe conflicts who rebuilt their lives by resettlement, voluntary return or local integration (identified as durable solutions) may say “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”.

Regardless of identity, one must have a sense of urgency to focus on what really matters in our brief existence.

Greetings from a Hong Kong local. 

The piece serves as the author’s personal reflection on her city’s role in global affairs, without implicating a political stance. The author graduated with a Master’s in International Affairs at IHEID. In 2016, she was one of the five chosen UN University Volunteers in Laos from Hong Kong. After having written her thesis on food security that is related to humanitarianism, she had her view on food security selected for a photo exhibition at WTO’s Public Forum in 2019. She welcomes any stories of people coming home/ migrating/ on the move, and suggestions on improving the article itself. Her email address is yui.chiu@graduateinstitute.ch.


[1] From Google: Hong Kong is one of the two special administrative regions (SARs) in China, together with Macau. Both have a colonial history. Macao is smaller and it was a Portuguese Colonial settlement from c.1557 until 1999. British Hong Kong was a colony and dependent territory of the British Empire from 1841 to 1997. The two SARs are a pair of relatively autonomous regions within the People’s Republic of China that maintain separate legal, administrative, and judicial systems from the rest of the country.

[2] According to the UNHCR, in countries with individualised procedures, an asylum-seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which the claim is submitted.

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