For now, at least, people in Hong Kong are not afraid of sharing year-old photos on their social media timelines. Which, since this Wednesday, have been filled with photos of Ted Hui.

Hui, the 38 year old former Democratic Party legislator now in self-imposed exile in Denmark, was often pictured with a loudspeaker and a dogged expression on the pavement in the middle of last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations. Police on one side, and protesters on the other.

He would try to calm the situation and, given what the situation was, he would try to convince the police not to use so much violence against protestors, and not to use so much pepper spray and tear gas, and not to arrest so many people simply for the fact that they were out.

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Ted Hui is pepper sprayed. Photo: Studio Incendo.

His efforts were admired by many – but not by the police, who would spray him with pepper spray right in the face, often in that casual manner that we all witnessed last year, as if a can of pepper spray was just an expedient way to chase away something really, really annoying.

Ted Hui was seen trying to negotiate with the police during the Polytechnic University’s siege, and then again on countless nights in countless locations. In one video, a policeman gets so annoyed at him and his loudspeaker that he pulls off his goggles, sprays pepper spray right into his eyes at close distance, and pushes him away.

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Hui turns his back, shutting his eyes in pain, looking thoroughly disgusted. But one protest after another people would still spot him, urging the police to be restrained, to no avail. Throughout the demonrsations, and then again, throughout this weird pandemic year, which has seen the authorities double down on arrests, an effort at moderation – maybe even reconciliation – would have been the most welcome, and a balm for a very bruised Hong Kong. Just like Ted Hui had tried to be… but things haven’t gone this way.

Ted Hui
Ted Hui. Photo: via CC2.0.

There has been no space for dialogue, neither in the time leading up to last year’s protests, nor during the protests, and even less so in their aftermath. The pro-government politicians have been proceeding like in battlefield formation, occupying one space after another and evicting the opposition, as if anyone who doesn’t think like the authorities no longer has the right the exist.

We saw that in May, when Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong’s chairwoman Starry Lee took over the House Committee, to become its chair. The proceedings didn’t follow the normal protocol, and the chamber became chaotic, with legislators trying to stop the takeover in all possible ways. In a different time, people might even have laughed at it, disorderly as it was. In 2020 in Hong Kong, however, it was a chaos that came out of desperation: The legislature was turning into an empty shell, a chamber that would only welcome politicians that supported the government, and that was willing to paint anybody who has a different idea of what may be best for Hong Kong as “unpatriotic.”

Things have been moving fast, in spite of the pandemic, and May seems a very long time ago. Since then, plans for the national security law were drawn up without consulting Hong Kong or the legislature – only after it was implemented by Beijing was the wording even made public. Elections have been delayed by at least one year, and the goalposts for who and how Hongkongers can run for future elections have been shifting nearly every day. It makes the presence of pro-democracy legislators in any future legislature a very unlikely possibility. 

Ted Hui June 12, 2020
Ted Hui at a protest in Causeway Bay on June 12, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

It is hard to believe that anyone enjoyed the antics in the chamber – neither those who engaged in them, nor the sour security guards who stopped them. Nor the pro-government camp that looked at the shenanigans like they were very disgraceful and unbecoming – a lot more so than ignoring democratic procedures and treating elected democrats as radioactive dirt. 

The last time I was at the University of Hong Kong, a large banner near the library read, in bold black letters: “Free, don’t flee”. I don’t know if the banner is still there – these things tend to disappear quite quickly these days. But how can anybody ask anyone else to pursue that intimation, when all opposition is carrying such a high price?  

free don't flee
A slogan at HKU. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala.

Ted Hui faced multiple criminal charges in Hong Kong – at least nine, at the latest count – and the increased severity of punishments for non-violent crimes must have made the decision to flee Hong Kong a painful, but maybe unavoidable, one: stay, and be part of those spending months and years in jail, or flee, and hope to benefit Hong Kong from afar?

Maybe this new exile will make it even harder for those arrested to be allowed out on bail, but to blame Ted Hui for this would be yet one more instance of blaming the victims. Because the government has decided to bar all avenues for dialogue and reconciliation and has declared those who disagree with it, in the words of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, “enemies of the people.” It has turned a political crisis into a political struggle reminiscent of the more ideologically militant years in the mainland.

Demonstrations are hardly allowed – the last one to get permission from the police, sponsored by the Hong Kong Journalist Association, was then blocked by the Chief Secretary, Matthew Cheung. Debate in the Legislative Council seems a quaint habit Hong Kong used to have: its effectiveness was decreasing steadily, but the exercise still looked valuable. That space too has gone, and our chief executive has praised the new lack of opposition as having restored “rationality” – stating once more that to her anyone who disagrees with her ideas, must surely be crazy, and irrational.

Carrie Lam 2020 Policy Address
Carrie Lam attends a Q&A session at the Legislative Council on November 26, 2020. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

I wonder if she finds fleeing to be irrational, too?

Exile, for anyone so involved in the public life of their home like Ted Hui, must carry a loss of meaning that is very hard to imagine. Yet, right now, imagination is the one gift Hong Kong must cultivate. 

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Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.