How many times can a city be “shocked” and “outraged” before there is nothing more to be shocked and outraged about? Before the things that shocked and outraged us no longer do so, because they have become our newly accepted norms? 

The director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, Keith Richburg, must have used this verbal tandem a dozen times in his interview with Radio Television Hong Kong about the arrest of Next Digital boss Jimmy Lai Chee-ying under Beijing’s recently imposed national security law and the police raid on Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper earlier this week. 

jimmy lai arrest bail media
Photo: KH/United Social Press.

Chris Yeung Kin-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, found himself in a similar rhetorical predicament when queried about Lai’s arrest and the 200 cops who marched into Next Digital’s headquarters in Tseung Kwan O, rustling through reporters’ notes, snatching up computer hard drives and stuffing 30 boxes full of  “evidence,” as if they owned the place. 
Yeung, too, repeatedly expressed his shock, but his tone belied his diction; he sounded far more resigned than appalled or dismayed. 

Like the rest of us, perhaps the veteran journalist is getting used to this. There are only so many jolts people can take before they simply yield and go numb, and many in Hong Kong have clearly reached that point of psychological surrender. 

Over the past year, we have seen our streets teeming with protests against an unpopular yet implacable government with which, according to a recent Chinese University of Hong Kong survey, two-thirds of Hongkongers are dissatisfied. Less than a quarter of us, the survey shows, think Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is doing a good job. 

carrie lam july 1 democracy rally protest march
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Of course, the millions of anti-government protesters who took to the streets render such surveys largely unnecessary, but — whether imparted through a public opinion poll or a massive street demonstration — the voice of the people now means nothing in a Hong Kong that has seemingly been recast as an authoritarian police state. 

Despite their tragic incompetence and lack of legitimacy, Lam and her ministers, thanks to the strong arm of Beijing, have never been more firmly entrenched in their positions. They’re not going anywhere, and so neither is Hong Kong—at least not anywhere most of us want to go.

The national security law has cast a huge pall of fear and uncertainty over the city’s future. The arrest on the sinisterly vague charge of “colluding with foreign forces” of, among others, the 71-year-old Lai, his two sons, Timothy and Ian, and the 23-year-old activist Agnes Chow serve as the latest imperious act of melodramatic warning to all of us: cross any one of the Chinese leadership’s ever-increasing number of red lines and you may well be targeted in the next national security police sweep. Or the one after that. Or the one after that…

Agnes Chow
Agnes Chow. Photo: Demosisto.

The collusion charge reportedly involves a group called “I want laam caau” that has mounted a campaign exhorting foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong for human rights violations. According to an unnamed source in a South China Morning Post article, the group — whose Cantonese name roughly translates to the popular English protest slogan “If we burn, you burn with us” — has raised more than HK$1 million from bank accounts registered overseas. 

A year ago — no, make that less than two months ago — no one dreamed that raising money, in Hong Kong or elsewhere, to promote human rights in the city could be a crime carrying a possible lifetime sentence in prison. But that could now be the fate of anyone in Hong Kong lobbying for human rights here or on the mainland with NGOs and governments overseas. 
Outrageous? Shocking? No, not anymore. 

That’s just the way it is in today’s Hong Kong, where the Legislative Council has been purged of many dissenting voices and, under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic, legislative elections that likely would have proved a risible embarrassment to the pro-Beijing camp have been put off for a full year. 

apple daily protest arrest
Supporters holding Apple Daily newspaper outside police station where Jimmy Lai was held. Headline reads “Don’t fear tyranny.” Photo: KH/United Social Press.

One struggles to find a way to respond to all this debilitatingly bad news without winding up behind bars. 

Well, making sure that Apple Daily sells out at every newsstand in Hong Kong was a great start. Even better was the two-day 1,200 per cent rise in the share price of Lai’s media company, Next Digital, sparked by a social media campaign launched by his many supporters. 

Next Digital shares suffered a steep drop on Thursday after the securities watchdog issued an alarm, but the widespread support for Lai, the Apple Daily, and the pro-democracy cause they represent were nevertheless clearly evident. 

Hongkongers may be losing their sense of outrage, but they remain as savvy and creative as ever. And that means there is still hope during this very dark time. 

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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.