The opening words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities come to mind when considering Hong Kong right now: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
On July 1, as the national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong took effect, many people around the world said that it was “the death of Hong Kong.”
While I actively shared the substantive concerns that underpinned that sentiment, I took a slightly different position. I said that it was the death of One Country, Two Systems of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, and a grave breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration – but not of Hong Kong itself, for Hong Kong would live on in the hearts, minds, and souls of Hongkongers.
This weekend my sentiment has been proven right. Hongkongers have, yet again, inspired the world with their remarkable courage, determination and commitment to the values of freedom, human rights, and democracy.
They did it last year when a million people marched against the proposed extradition bill and then, despite police brutality, a week later two million people demonstrated, according to organiser estimates.
They did it again in the district council elections last November when, despite almost half a year of exhausting protests, some protester violence and daily disproportionate, indiscriminate police brutality, Hongkongers voted overwhelmingly for pro-democracy candidates.
And this weekend, despite threats that they could be violating the new security law, over 600,000 people quietly lined the streets to vote. They were participating in the primary elections that the pro-democracy camp held on July 11 and 12 to choose candidates for the Legislative Council ballot scheduled for September.
Only last week, the Hong Kong government published its “implementing rules” for the new security law, which gave the police unprecedented and sweeping powers. Many Hongkongers had already begun describing their city as a “police state” due to the reign of terror imposed by an unaccountable and increasingly violent police force behaving with total impunity. But these powers reinforce this description officially.
With powers to search private properties without a warrant, pull down material from the internet, intrude into social media, freeze bank accounts and prevent people from leaving the city, Hong Kong is now very much a police state of the worst kind.
Already dissident books have been withdrawn from libraries, and school children prohibited from singing, chanting slogans or boycotting classes. Cultural Revolution-style book burnings have not yet physically occurred, but it may only be a matter of time – and even if we don’t see such visual images, the Great Firewall is likely to descend on Hong Kong, erasing online content in a 21st century equivalent of book burnings.
And yet – as they showed the world this weekend, Hongkongers are not going down without a fight. They might not be taking to the streets in the way they have been over the past year, they might not be testifying to foreign parliaments because the law bans “collusion” with foreign political entities, and they might not be chanting or displaying banners with banned slogans any more – and with good reason, for the new law imposes up to life imprisonment for such “crimes” of subversion, secession, collusion with foreigners and “terrorism.”
If there’s one thing Hongkongers are not, they are not stupid. If such direct forms of protest could land them in jail for life, they will find other ways to express themselves – even if the most courageous continue to push the boundaries as much as they can.
But as we saw at the weekend, this is not just a movement of radicals prepared to risk everything. It is a movement of ordinary people who otherwise want to get on with their lives, prepared to turn out at the ballot box to express their will if given a chance.
And so the rest of the world faces a choice in how to respond.
We can either accept the death of Hong Kong’s way of life as a consequence of the new security law, assuming – wrongly – that we are impotent to do anything about it. Or we can hear the cry of Hongkongers – repeated again and again over the past year and most recently just yesterday in polling stations across the city – and take a stand.
A stand that makes it clear to Hongkongers that even if Beijing and its puppet Chief Executive Carrie Lam refuse to listen, the world hears them.
A stand that says even if we cannot immediately “liberate” the city, we can at least make the Chinese Communist Party pay the highest possible price for breaching an international treaty, breaking its promises and destroying Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.
A stand which says clearly to Hongkongers that even though they may be entering into “the worst of times,” their convictions inspire us to work for “the best of times.”
A stand that says the world knows that even if One Country, Two Systems is dead, it is now “A Tale of Two Cities.” A city increasingly under the grip of the brutal, mendacious, repressive Chinese Communist Party while a free, open, vibrant city still beats in the hearts of ordinary Hongkongers. A city that is increasingly dead in its institutions, governance, and autonomy versus a city that is as alive as ever in its people’s hearts.
Let’s hear the message from Hong Kong this weekend and ensure those who seek freedom know without a doubt whose side we are on. And one day that “season of Light” that Dickens wrote of will overpower the “season of Darkness.”
This article originally appeared on UCA news.