In the 1980s, Hong Kong – often described as a borrowed city on borrowed time – was put on a 50-year countdown by China and the UK.

As soon as the curse was placed, a mass exodus took place, with few trusting the Communist Party’s poor track record.

Hong Kong
Photo: GovHK.

But, as two decades passed, the curse still didn’t seem to have come true. Reassured, some people even returned to their homeland.

Yet the turn of events over the past few weeks suddenly made things clear: The curse came true early after all, with power-obsessed Beijing deciding it can wait no longer.

All remaining faith in our legislature died when pro-China lawmaker Starry Lee illegally seized power in House Committee – with literal physical force (and the backing of Beijing) – in order to speed up the passing of the National Anthem Bill.

This highly controversial law criminalises mockery of China’s national anthem, and legally requires all schools to make the Mandarin tune a part of the compulsory curriculum in our Cantonese-speaking nation.

Demosisto national anthem banner
Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow protest the national anthem law. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The Chief Executive also unprecedentedly warned schools to stop liberal studies teachers from infusing students with “fallacious arguments”, blaming the subject as part of the cause of young people’s resistance to her rule. She added that government plans to fix “problems in education” will soon be announced.

In the same week, the Education Bureau forced the Examinations and Assessment Authority to scrap a public examination question regarding Japan’s history with China, after state media criticised it as encouraging students to become “traitors”.

The government also announced that public broadcaster Radio and Television Hong Kong (RTHK) management will be put under review, even after the traditionally courageous RTHK promised to halt production of their popular political satire show Headliner (頭條新聞), following a warning from the Communications Authority for poking fun at the police.

RTHK Headliner
RTHK’s Headliner has received complaints after airing a controversial episode. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

For over three decades, Headliner has served as a light-hearted introductory platform to the political world for countless youngsters including myself. First aired under British rule in 1989, it beautifully utilises government funding to reflect the public’s criticism of the government itself, with a unique sense of local humour. The now-doomed show has been as much an integral part of the Hong Kong identity as the Lion Rock.

But the final nail in the coffin came with China’s decision to directly impose a national security law in Hong Kong, bypassing consultation and ignoring any constitutional stipulation that such laws must be passed by Hong Kong itself.

Like many Hongkongers, I attended my first ever protest in 2003 to march against the introduction of Article 23, which states Hong Kong must legislate against “treason, secession, sedition, [and] subversion” of the Chinese government. The legislative process was shelved after a historic rally of half a million people.

But the people’s victory was temporary. 17 years later, the new law now being drafted by China will limit even more freedoms than Article 23, criminalising, for instance, not only “subversion” of the Central Government, but also of Hong Kong’s local government. Slogans like “Step Down, Carrie Lam” could soon become illegal.

July 1 china extradition protest
Slogans on the wall read: “Carrie Lam step down” and “Falling day of Hong Kong”. Photo: Todd R. Darling.

But ahead of the enactment of the dreaded security law, the government has already been using social distancing rules as effectively martial law to suppress dissident voices.

“Yellow” (pro-democracy) diners have been constantly harassed by the police, sometimes “inspected” up to eight times in one week, even when no regulations were broken. Legitimate and peaceful gatherings of less than four people in places like shopping malls have been violently shut down as soon as the participants sing their “new national anthem” Glory to Hong Kong, and opposition parties’ legal distribution of free medical supplies like face masks have met the same fate.

Finally, for the first time in 30 years, Hongkongers were forbidden to hold their iconic annual vigil for their Chinese neighbours who were massacred around Tiananmen Square in 1989, as social distancing measures were conveniently extended to June 4 – a decision clearly made to coincide with Hong Kong’s largest annual sit-in.

candle tiananmen vigil june 4 victoria park 2020
In defiance of police ban, thousands of Hongkongers lit candles in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to remember the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Photo: Kaiser/United Social Press.

Hong Kong’s borrowed time is officially over. This is certainly just the beginning.

Yet for the first time in history, some Hongkongers are saying: “We refuse to emigrate. We will stay and defend this land with our lives – because it is our home.”

Undeniably, the bloody suppression of dissidence starting in 2019 has caused an increase in migration outflow. An explosion of emigration enquiries were reported after news surfaced about the national security law.

But unlike pre-handover times, the people who are staying behind are no longer just those who lack the option to leave. There is an entirely new sentiment amongst Hongkongers: jumping ship is not the only option, and staying to fight is in fact a responsibility.

September 29 2019 Protest police arrest
Riot police subdue a protester. Photo: Studio Incendo.

This is not to say we are now more optimistic about the outcome of our fight for freedom than we were before 1997.

On the contrary, the sense that this might be an unwinnable battle is clearly conveyed in new protest vocabulary that shows shocking acceptance of the total destruction of Hong Kong as we know it, such as “Laam Chaau” (攬炒) – which roughly means “if we burn, you burn with us”, and “Bo Dai Kin” (煲底見) – “see you at the bottom”.

Many Hongkongers are now surprisingly willing to bear the consequences of the huge blows to the economy caused by extended periods of social unrest, if it allows even a small possibility to take back control of our homeland.  

Ironically, this fervent patriotism was unheard of under British rule. People fled whenever they could, and the ones that couldn’t mostly just lamented their fate.

September 29 2019 Protest police tear gas
Photo: Studio Incendo.

But under the intolerably oppressive rule of our Chinese neighbours, with whom we were once close enough to even share the same written characters, a sense of local identity has emerged so strongly that people are now willing to die for the future of Hong Kong.

A new era of nationalism has dawned. The “Hongkonger” identity is felt more deeply than ever, with a survey showing that almost no one under 30 self-identifies as “Chinese”.

For most of my life, talk of independence has been dismissed as some remote fantasy. But these days, black flags that read “Hong Kong Independence – The Only Way Out” (香港獨立,唯一出路) have become a commonplace.

With heartbreaking images like small children carrying placards that say: “Better to be a shattered vessel of jade than an intact piece of tile (寧為玉碎,不作瓦全)”, Hongkongers are sending a clear message to China: We’d rather die in honour than live in disgrace.

If we are no longer allowed to mourn for Tiananmen Square’s martyrs, soon there might be no one left to mourn for us. Yet thousands of people still fearlessly defied the police’s objection as well as the government’s social distancing rules to hold the forbidden vigil at its usual site this year.

The people in this tiny nation are now prepared to sacrifice their own lives to defend their home against China’s totalitarian regime. Not us, says Hong Kong.

Tiananmen vigil Victoria Park 2020
A poster that reads “Heaven slays the Chinese Communist Party.” Photo: May James/HKFP.

They can force our students to sing their national anthem. They can impose a security law that most people oppose. They can even shoot us down on the streets in broad daylight. But they cannot kill us all.

If the Chinese government thinks that Hongkongers will be the only ones trembling, they’ve got another thing coming.

Christina Chan is an activist who was a part of the Hong Kong post-80s movement. A graduate in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Hong Kong, she now lives in exile where she is heavily involved with permaculture and continues to keep an eye on Hong Kong affairs.