I live in Hong Kong (HK), and I love it here. My home is in a great area surrounded by hills. I enjoy the friendliness of the people, the buzz of the city and the hiking that is available throughout the territory. As a result, the recent HK protests have disturbed my harmony. But, I am not alone; many citizens are disturbed by what is going on. These are troubling times for all Hongkongers. As a counsellor and psychotherapist, I am interested in the psychological damage being done to the people of HK as I consider how it can be minimised at an individual level.
This article is not about who is right or wrong in the ‘Battle for Hong Kong’ but about the emotional & mental damage being done to its people as a whole and at an individual level. What can be done about the ensuing psychological damage?
Perhaps stopping to reflect and work out what we are feeling about these HK protests may be a good place to start. We have all protested in our lives against parents, authority and our peers, and we have been affected by the emotional fallout. But why have we been so affected, and why are some people more affected than others? Indeed, how can we minimise the emotional fallout, so we don’t do ourselves or our environment permanent damage?
I’m going to approach this subject in 2 ways:
- The larger subject of HK
- The smaller subject of the individual.
Who is Protesting?
There are people, mostly the younger generation, who are taking part in every protest and their intent is mainly peaceful. Families have been part of the protests but, in the main, it is the younger generation fuelling the protest effort. There are also many people who are avoiding the protest areas and not getting involved.
Social scientists have always been intrigued by the reason that people protest.[i] What is why one person takes part in a protest march whilst others stay away? And taking it to a more intimate level, why is it that some family members rebel against, for example, parental control whilst others are never labelled as the ‘problem child’.
Are the young students taking part in the HK protests the problem children or are they the saviours of democracy? Your answer will depend on how you perceive the situation in HK.
HK is a resilient place and for those of us that live here the protests have created an invisible divide between those physically taking part and those others who are not involved and continue to get on with their daily lives. Outside the areas of protest, the city has carried on with ‘business as usual’. However, the mental stress that is caused by any protests affects the population as a whole. Even although we may not be holding hands copying the 1989 Baltic Way peaceful demonstration or walking through the streets of Kowloon, Causeway Bay or Central, we are affected by what is happening. There has been a reported increase in depression amongst Hongkongers.
Time Magazine recently had as its cover page title “The Battle for Hong Kong” suitably supported by a fascinating picture of a street in Hong Kong which was filled with tear gas. It was a very dramatic image and one that must surely have caused an emotional reaction from all people who walked past the news-stand in Central, HK where the photograph was displayed. It certainly gave me an emotional ‘jolt’ when I saw it.
Hong Kong is generally considered an untroubled and friendly city so to have images like this one openly displayed, and on social media and the internet, must have a negative effect on its people. And the tensions that are growing between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy groups within families, businesses, peer groups and friends is also taking its toll.
So why has one peaceful protest in HK led to months of protests and violence? A protest is a statement expressing disapproval about something. It can lead to violence and deep division if it is not negotiated correctly. And correct negotiations cannot happen between people who are completely entrenched with their thoughts and feelings. How we perceive situations and our environment will influence the statements we want to make in our lives.
The Perceived World
Social Psychologists believe that people live in a perceived world and their responses to their environment are a result of how they perceive and interpret it.[ii] For example, mainland China regards Hong Kong as a province of China and do not agree with the protests and are becoming more agitated with what is happening. Indeed, a former HK legislator said in the Time magazine report that: “We have to look at Hong Kong as a part of the People’s Republic of China, which happens to be governed by the Communist Party. That’s a reality check that many people seem not to want to deal with.” However, the students of HK perceive HK as a separate entity from China and want more independence from the mainland. Each group believe they are correct, hence the current situation and period of unrest.
Let’s bring it closer to home. How many parents have argued with their children about what they perceive to be acceptable behaviour and what is not acceptable? How many families are divided and no longer communicating as a result of divergent perceptions? Do social contexts influence the thoughts, feelings and actions of people to the extent that protesting through riots (collective action), violence, tears and stamping of feet (individual reaction) seem the only recourse for some?
Why do People Protest?
Before I continue, I think it would help our understanding if we had a little background information about why people protest. Over the decades the subject has been researched, and it is quite interesting to discover the common attributes of all protesters. This will also give us a clue about our individual protests and why we hold onto the associated negative emotions.
These HK protests are not the territory’s first. In 1989 1.5 million people took part in a protest in support for the participants of the Tiananmen Square protests. Within the smaller subject of individual protests, there has been such an increase in individual protests that family & couples’ therapy is now a growing branch of counselling and psychotherapy. This has resulted from internal family discord with one family member protesting about another.
Research by van Stekelenburg and Klandermans provides a theoretical and empirical overview of the psychology of protests which highlights common attributes.[iii] There are many reasons or triggers that cause people to protest, but only 3 will be highlighted:
Grievance – the perception that one is not receiving what one deserves. People get quite upset when they believe they are not being treated correctly. Respect and trust are key components to alleviating grievance. Violating a person’s principles leads to moral outrage and, in these situations, it is not the outcome that matters but the feeling of justice and how one is treated.
Identity – our understanding of who we are and who other people are. Our identity could be described as our place in society or the family. The place could refer to age, gender, ethnicity etc. Every person has a personal identity as well as a social identity. Having a strong personal identity means we are more likely to protest at any loss of that identity. However, if our social identity has dominance, we are more likely to join in group protests rather than individual endeavours.
Emotions – our emotions function as accelerators which propel us into action or amplifiers which make us have stronger emotions about a subject. Both interact and determine how we protest.
Grievance, identity and emotions are listed as 3 separate triggers, but they interact and cross-over in daily life. The people of HK have a grievance with the government, they are fearful of losing their identity and the emotional accelerators and amplifiers are fuelling the protests. The reason for their protests fits the criteria of research. I don’t need to cite an example for the smaller subject of each individual and what happens in our lives when we want to make a protest. Think about a situation at home or at work when you have had a grievance and the above triggers will be present.
And, now we know a little bit about the theory of protests, what can we do to lessen the emotional fallout.
Minimise the Emotional Fallout
In HK it is reassuring to note that some non-government-organisations (NGOs) are providing emotional support and the Red Cross has set up a confidential psychological support helpline. The emotional fallout in HK will be lasting and who knows what the result for Hongkongers and their future will be. The Battle for Hong Kong is not over, and there will be many more emotional casualties and depressed individuals. In the big picture or larger subject, the government and NGOs are the best ones to deal with what is happening.
In relation to the smaller subject of the individual and their need to protest, the solution to minimising the emotional fallout is relatively simple. It requires each one of us to stop being so emotional, to learn to think and even question what we are doing and why we are doing it. If we have any sense, we realise that we cannot blame others all the time for our perceived grievances. We have to accept responsibility for what we do. Every actor in a show contributes to the whole production.
Ask yourself this question and then stop and ponder the answer: “As an individual what have I done to minimise the emotional distress caused by protests in my life?” You don’t have to be in HK to ask yourself this question. The protests in your life may have been about a personal grievance, identity or emotional crises or as the recipient of a person protesting about your behaviour.
There is no doubt that past protests, which are usually associated with hurts and grievances, can be like the groove of an old record when the needle gets stuck. The individual gets stuck in their tracks and is unable to move forward, which invariably leads to misery and unhappiness. It would be great if we could just reboot the brain like a computer or wipe the hard-drive and start again.
Human beings have the bad luck to be psychologically a combination of all of our yesterdays. In order to move forward, we have to look back. If we can reflect on what has already happened with an attitude of detachment, we might be open to perceiving it differently. And, hopefully, not in a way associated with grievance and resulting in protests. The solution is simple and really why do we want to complicate things when they are messy enough? All it takes is for each one of us to be willing to accept that our initial perception of any incident may not be 100% correct. This should allow the clarity to make an unbiased assessment of our reaction to the event. This is not about right or wrong or to allocate blame. But, the shift in perception would help a more empathic perspective to emerge towards ourselves and the others involved. The world would be a more peaceful place.
This may take some time. We may find there are some things we just cannot get over. But we might be able to have a more understanding perspective that prevents the protests of the past or present intruding in our life. Sometimes moving ourself out of the groove, so the music can play on, requires some truthful and deep self-reflection. Hiding what we are really feeling eventually leads to emotional dysregulation which results in negative psychological and physiological health outcomes.
Emotional regulation, or emotional self-regulation, influences our emotional responses. It requires us to look at and be aware of our internal emotional states, including both our reactions and our automatic physical responses. This requires us to become self-aware. We have to have an honest look at the ‘yesterday’ with no judgement of right or wrong and, if required, we may need to change our perceptions.
As Carl Jung, the renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, said: “Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
The secret to understanding the reason for our protests, and why we hold on to the accompanying negative emotions, does not lie out there in the streets of HK. It lies within ourself. How we perceive events will be pivotal in determining the motive behind our action or inaction. Being crystallised in our thoughts will keep the needle stuck in the groove with the grievance, identity and emotions becoming more entrenched. This leads to a dead-end.
In order for the music to continue, our perceptions have to change as we allow more balanced and empathic feelings to determine what we do. Then the negotiations can begin with a better understanding that allows for a solution to be found in the Battle for Hong Kong’s Psychological Wellbeing.
I live in HK and I love it here. I hope and trust that the simple concept of moving away from entrenched and crystallised thinking will enter the hearts and minds of all people as we allow new ideas and thoughts to shift our perceptions and bring back the harmony and peace, we all long for …… wherever we may live.
[ii] Stekelenburg, Jacquelien & Klandermans, Bert. (2013). The Social Psychology of Protest. Current Sociology. 61. 886-905. 10.1177/0011392113479314.