The tyrannical Roman emperor Nero was the very first “enemy of the people”—so declared by the Senate in AD 68. And that may have been the last time the phrase was employed with any degree of accuracy in the realm of government and politics.

Over the centuries, however, it has certainly caught on, ironically becoming a popular (and often deadly) coinage wielded by tyrants and despots who, like Nero, wanted to promote sycophants and extinguish their enemies.

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File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

It was brandished, for example, by Robespierre and his hordes of murderous followers during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin to trample their foes in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and during the subsequent formation of the Soviet Union, and by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels during the 1930s against the Jews, six million of whom would perish at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich as a grisly consequence.

In literature, the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1862 drama An Enemy of the People—which featured a righteous doctor who blows the whistle on a contaminated water scandal in his town only to wind up ostracised and vilified by the very townspeople he is trying to protect—showed perhaps a more enlightened understanding of the ancient epithet, whose manipulation and abuse nevertheless continued in the non-literary world as autocrat followed autocrat and dictator followed dictator the world over.

Enter a 21st-century wanna-be dictator, US President Donald Trump, who—almost certainly blissfully unaware of this largely sordid linguistic history—has repeatedly maligned the media as “the enemy of the people” in what has, dispiritingly, been a far-too-successful campaign to deflect criticism, evade truth and frolic and revel in outright lies.

Well, last week—finally, refreshingly and redemptively—the media struck back. Prompted by the Boston Globe, more than 350 American newspapers—from little-known small-town dailies to giants such as the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald—published a coordinated series of editorials championing press freedom and attacking Trump for his relentless portrayal of the “fake news media” as “an opposition party” out to destroy him and, by extension, America itself.

The editorials come at a time when, thanks to Trump, a quarter of Americans and nearly half of registered Republicans, Trump’s party, believe the president should be able to shut down media outlets that in his mind are promulgating “fake news” and damaging the country.

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Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Here in Hong Kong, we do not have political leaders as crass, crude and vulgar as Trump, neither at the local nor the national level. And let’s be thankful at least for that. They are no less determined, however, to stifle our media—indeed, they have already made great progress in doing so—and turn us into cowed and obedient subjects of a post-modern imperial Beijing regime that so many Hongkongers accept as their destiny but reject in their gut.

President Xi Jinping, initially regarded as China’s new hope for transformational leadership when he came to power in 2012, has turned out to be Mao Zedong in a tailored business suit when it comes to human rights and press freedom.

While the media have never been free in China, under Xi the muzzle has become nearly absolute as censorship flourishes and human rights activists are jailed by the hundreds; at the same time, the rights and religious practices of ethnic minorities are being systematically crushed in regions such a Xinjiang and Tibet.

It’s a near complete and total chokehold, and its effects have inevitably crossed Hong Kong’s border and played havoc with the “one country, two systems” handover agreement that was supposed to safeguard the city from such pernicious influences.

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File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

For years, the Hong Kong Journalists Association has decried the decline in press freedom in the city—a freedom, let us remember, that is guaranteed in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which Xi’s henchmen now tell us isn’t worth the paper it is written on and local officials, acting on their instructions, willfully ignore. According to a recent HKJA survey, 73 per cent of the journalists polled felt the media was less free than just a year ago.

The general public agreed, giving press freedom a rating of 47.1 out of 100. That score would earn a grade of F on any teacher’s report card and is the lowest recorded since the launch of the annual survey in 2013.

If this year’s survey, conducted during January and February and published in April, were to be repeated today, the results would no doubt be even worse. In the meantime, Chinese officials have ramped up their calls for the implementation of anti-subversion legislation in Hong Kong that could be used not just against intemperate separatists such Hong Kong National Party leader Andy Chan Ho-tin, who caused such a fuss with his anti-China fusillade at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club last week, but also against media outlets reporting on people, organisations and events that Beijing deems to have “crossed a red line” of treachery and faithlessness toward the motherland.

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Andy Chan. Photo: Pool/SCMP.

It’s just a matter of time—and perhaps not much time—before such draconian legislation gets rammed down the throats of the Hong Kong people.

The last time a national security law was proposed for the city, in 2003, 500,000 people hit the streets in protest and the bill was subsequently shelved. But that was then and this is now.

People are weary of conflict and spooked by Beijing’s increasingly threatening hard line; moreover, many have lost confidence in the ill-disciplined pan-democrats, who seem to attack each other as much as they do the government.

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File photo: Wikicommons.

This is Xi Jinping’s city now. He wants anti-sedition legislation for Hong Kong, so that’s what we will get. The signals are clear.

On August 16—the same day that more than 350 editorials upholding press freedom and blasting Trump were published in the US—this city’s leading English-language newspaper, the Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post, considered by many to be our paper of record, ran a very different editorial of its own calling on Hong Kong officials to follow the central government’s authoritarian lead and go to work drafting national security legislation that would be acceptable to Beijing.

A day later the SCMP ran another editorial under the Pollyannaish headline “‘One country, two systems’ delivers the best of both worlds” extolling Hong Kong’s “unique constitutional order” as well as its “privilege to be able to tap the opportunities arising from the rise of the country” and its “duty to contribute to national development.”

So much for Hong Kong journalism’s united response against tyranny.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.