In Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, a new government takes over a small island off the coast of Japan and begins to remove objects from its residents’ memories. 

First, the residents must bring out a chosen item from their possessions and destroy it by killing, burning, burying, or discarding it in the rivers and oceans. Then, as time goes on, the people’s ability to remember begins to fade, until all is forgotten.

The chosen items start off mundane – such as bells, perfume, emeralds, and birds – but eventually grows to newspapers, televisions, and the ferry that takes people from the island to the mainland. 

This process of forcing people to forget by removal is what the Hong Kong government hopes to achieve by their refusal to allow protests and their rolling out of the national security law. 

Unlike the imaginary government in the novel which makes random things from daily life disappear, the Hong Kong government is choosing to make disappear manifestations of resistance against the central government. 

This process began even before the national security law was put into place. Under the guise of Covid-19 outbreak, the government banned the memorial for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Victoria Park. This was followed by the police declaring the July 1 democratic protest an illegal assembly. 

By doing so, they shrunk the numbers of attendees to those who were willing to flout the law. These events once gathered hundreds of thousands of people, and in the case of last year’s protests on the reunification anniversary, a breathtaking one million people, according to organiser estimates. 

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Since the promulgation of the national security law, the process has accelerated. In just two weeks, titles by Joshua Wong and other democracy activists have been taken off public library shelves and schools have been told to do the same.

Police have arrested people under the law for not only ephemera such as stickers and flags bearing references to Hong Kong independence, but also the ephemeral: shouting certain slogans and singing lyrics that contain them. Eight people were arrested during a silent protest for holding blank placards in opposition to restrictions on expression.

By carrying out such actions, the government is trying to remove dissident ideas and words from the public discourse with the aim of wiping out the memory of last year’s rebellion and, as the net grows wider, the democratic movement itself. 

In the novel, not all individuals forget what has been banned. There are some in the population who remember. People keep quiet about their ability, and the protagonist’s mother hides some “disappeared” objects secretly in a large chest of drawers. 

Threatened, the memory police roots out and rounds up these people to bring them to unknown locations where no one knows what happens to them, in order to ensure collective memory loss. 

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This is the same process the national security law puts in place. It threatens to take the most “serious” cases of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, to be tried in closed Chinese courts, where the accused will be placed in secret jails where they face torture. This is to force those who remember the promise of freedom made to Hong Kong to pretend that they do not recall it enough to fight for it. 

The threat to one’s safely is a warning to all who want to continue fighting for the freedom we were promised, and which we once had. But unlike in the novel, people’s memories are not as easily wiped out.

As time passes and more things are taken away from the public, people’s private memories will no longer be reflected back to them through public discourse and important political anniversaries. 

As time passes, the disconnect between the government’s truth and the people’s own will widen. No doubt there will be moments when people feel their reality and that of their society are mismatched, which will make them doubt whether what they remember is real.

And if taken to the worst-case scenario, as depicted in George Orwell’s seminal work on totalitarianism, 1984, people will start feeling like “lunatics” because what they know to be true, is supposedly untrue according to their leaders.

So, before the process can even begin, let’s collectively safeguard our memories. Know that even if the outside world no longer mirrors the facts we personally remember, our own memory is enough to prove the existence of these truths.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Let’s all not forget in the deepest of recesses of our minds that candles were lit on June 4 every year for 30 years in Hong Kong to commemorate those who were killed and jailed during the 1989 Chinese democratic movement. That on July 1, last year, a million people walked the streets of Hong Kong freely to protest an extradition bill they felt was unjust. That last year, Hong Kong rebelled against the Chinese Community Party, and people shouted eight-character slogans about reclamations and revolutions that I can no longer say.

Just know, even though we might not hear “Glory to Hong Kong” sung in public for a long time, that hearing the first four bars will no doubt rouse feelings of pride and release a flood of recollections. 

What we hope, of course, is that we will not have to lose these memories. That there will be no decree that will force us to discard our belongings and our knowledge. That events and actions won’t be extinguished no matter how harsh the law becomes. That the spark remains, and the resistance continues on. 

We do not know what is coming in our future, what difficulties it will bring, and what surprises await. Just know, even if the world outside starts looking unfamiliar, if what we remember differs from what is being told, that history, its actual events, what really happened, can never be altered. 

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Yan Sham-Shackleton

Yan Sham-Shackleton has written for SCMP, BC Magazine, HK Magazine, PopMatters, hongkong.com and china.com. Her previous blog, Glutter, was nominated for a free speech award by Reporters Without Borders for her writings regarding democracy in Hong Kong and China. Some of her art, theatre and written works are archived in NYU Library’s Riot Grrrls Collection and Glasgow Women’s Library. Her fiction has appeared in journals around the world. She is nearly finished with her novel set during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.