On June 30, Xinhua News Agency released details of the Hong Kong national security law. As I read the sweeping terms that could incriminate almost everyone the regime deemed threatening, my phone was buzzing with messages from friends in Hong Kong.

All of us were at a loss for words. Like most Hongkongers, we were not surprised by the law, and yet we did not know how we could speak of our grief and rage when those very emotions might now be cause for imprisonment.

protest march five demands 1 July 2020 causeway bay
Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

After I hastily drafted an essay as an attempt to articulate these feelings, I felt paralyzed as a writer, academic, and diasporic Hongkonger. The editorial staff of Hong Kong Free Press had slightly altered the title I gave to the essay: while I called myself a diasporic Hong Konger in the original title, the staff had changed it to “an exiled Hongkonger.”

Prior to this, I was hesitant to consider myself an exile—partly out of denial, but mainly because I did not want to eclipse the more imminent danger and risks that many local activists and journalists face. To write about Hong Kong is to confront the fact that I might not be able to return home safely. 

Many diasporic Hongkongers, myself included, have struggled with immense guilt for not being there to put our bodies on the frontline, for not risking more of ourselves alongside youth activists who have been brutalised by the police and prosecuted by the government.

Ironically, by incriminating “foreign nationals committing acts outside of Hong Kong and China,” the national security law has alleviated some of that guilt. Each time I speak of Hong Kong to my academic colleagues, or give a public interview about the national security law, I am fully aware that my speech is not free, that it comes at the cost of possible exile. 

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

As an academic and educator, my heart was broken wide open when news reports about book bans in libraries and schools started coming in just a few days after the implementation of the law. Soon after, academic staff in higher-ed institutions were told by the administration to self-censor.

On Twitter, Hong Kong literary critic and professor Tammy Ho asked academics from around the world if they would still consider working in Hong Kong in light of the National Security Law. Many who answered publicly replied that, despite the focus of their research and their fondness for the city, they no longer felt comfortable returning.

As a Hongkonger and a Hong Kong researcher, my loss is two-fold. I worry that when I lose the freedom to return to Hong Kong safely, I also lose the ability to fully understand the lived experiences of local Hongkongers, and, as a result, the opportunity to amplify their voices and complex struggles in my research and writing.

Now more than ever, we need to listen to Hongkongers who stand to lose the most. And yet, the national security law has rendered it risky for all who dare to paint a truthful picture of the city. 

protest police child causeway bay 1 July 2020
Photo: KH/United Social Press.

To write about Hong Kong now is to risk state persecution—not just for the writers, but for news platforms like Hong Kong Free Press that publish the work. As Editor-in-Chief Tom Grundy writes: “Fuzziness is a feature, not a bug—the authorities want journalists to overcompensate, tip-toe around ill-defined red lines, and ultimately self-censor. Beijing’s playbook also suggests small outlets like ours will be subjected to legal and bureaucratic terrorism—dragging us through the courts and red tape to drain our meagre resources and bandwidth.”

Tyranny demands that we either become a liar and comply, or remain silent and be complicit. The regime makes it costly for anyone who dares to act or speak up against it. At the same time, as seasoned journalist Annie Zhang posits, once we give up on our own language, on our ability to speak truth, we will be dehumanized and subsumed into the regime’s oppressive mechanism.

Despite heartbreak and fear, I am committed to continue writing and teaching against totalitarianism. Under this new age of terror, our resistance may no longer be visible on the streets of Hong Kong, but it can and should be renewed in our everyday commitment to be always on the side of freedom. 

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Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.