In early November, I messaged a friend in Hong Kong about being a panellist at an upcoming virtual conference. The conference organisers, a European foundation, would usually have reached out directly but were reticent given legal advice they had received about Hong Kong’s new National Security Law.
My friend, a well-known political activist, reluctantly declined the invitation. “I may be in jail [by] then,” he added. How Hong Kong has changed.
It is numbing to think of the many people I know from Hong Kong who in the last five years have been arrested, jailed or forced into exile. Many others have received credible threats to themselves and their families, lost their jobs or been hounded into silence.
It’s a significant and unwelcome change in a city that once took pride in its openness and good judgement. I have no qualms seeing those who acted violently and hurt others being held to account. What bothers me are the many I consider to be friends and inherently good people.
These include social workers, activists, teachers, academics, lawyers, writers and journalists — the minds and soul of civil society. They are not extreme nor violent – quite the contrary, in fact. Many are, by nature, quite like me.
Those who did commit crimes had done so by calling for or taking part in peaceful but illegal protests. They did not resist arrest nor deny the charges against them. Having demanded political accountability, they understand and accept that they too must be held to account.
The fact that the protests did at times degenerate into violence had little to do with them. In fact, my friends were often voices of moderation in a leaderless movement. A call to protest is not an incitement to riot.
To join the frontline, as some (now former) legislators did, to cool hotter heads and mediate between enraged protesters and police, was a responsible act. Seeking to be a bridge rather than just demonising the other side is what good people do.
Some of those arrested had devoted much of their lives to the democratic cause, defending the rule of law. In establishing Hong Kong’s once-civil political culture, they had more to lose than most by a descent into anarchy. They are persons of international standing.
I had lunch with two of them last summer. Though privately appalled by the increasing radicalism and violence of a minority, they were nevertheless empathetic enough to understand why people were losing their minds. They also realised that public condemnation would only fuel the anger and weaken the little influence they themselves might have; and that it would be better to be a moderating voice within the movement than to harangue from without.
It is a perspective which Carrie Lam, and those who advocate continued engagement with Beijing despite increasing misgivings, should instinctively appreciate.
The Hong Kong government was fully aware of who were the voices of moderation and reason within the movement. It also understood that to maintain influence and prevent the movement splintering into what would almost certainly have been more radical and destructive cells, public unity had to be maintained. And yet my friends, those moderate voices, were those whom they chose early on to target.
When Martin Lee and Margaret Ng were arrested, along with others, I left a post on my social media account to make these points. Having spoken to Martin a few weeks earlier, I knew it was coming. Both he and Margaret expected to be arrested. What shocked me was the manner of their arrests – did it have to be so public? Was a fully armed police team necessary to arrest an octogenarian lawyer? Like so much about Hong Kong these days, it all seemed a show.
And what are we meant to conclude from this show? It’s a simple narrative: all protests are riots, and all protesters are rioters and witting or unwitting tools of “foreign forces.” This is a well-rehearsed and long-running show. It is also distinctly authoritarian in its lack of nuance – there are no saving graces.
In an unaccountable and unrepresentative system political grievances can never be acknowledged, only social and economic ones. People must not get the “wrong” idea that they are empowered to change the system. Such an understanding is foreign, as are such demands.
And so other friends, foreign expatriates, have fallen victim to this lie. Despite there being no credible evidence that would be acceptable to any credible newspaper, let alone a court of law, they and their families have been hounded out of the city they made their home. There was once a time when learning the local language, engaging with the local community and coming to understand the many complex relationships and perspectives that exist in Hong Kong was looked on as admirable. Today, as on the mainland, foreigners are expected to remain within tightly controlled social parameters.
The friends on whom I now reflect were not driven by hate, nor had they when I knew them entertained ideas of secession. Most are proudly Chinese. The fact that many have come to hate the Chinese Communist Party and advocate for a “free” Hong Kong should not be reason for condemnation, but rather to raise the question: Why do they now feel this way?
We were friends not because we shared a political ideology – indeed, our political leanings were often very different. It was because we shared a common understanding and love of our home, Hong Kong. What Hong Kong meant for us individually may have been different, depending on our backgrounds and experiences, but its foundations were clear: its values and core freedoms, and the institutions in which they were enshrined.
It was because of these values, freedoms and institutions that my first memory of mainland China was not the optimism of what was said, but the awkward silence of what was clearly felt but could not be said. As a People’s Republic, China is both rejuvenated but also shacked, its identity, culture and values subservient to a modern and Marxist political party. It is why many Hongkongers are today leaving for Taiwan.
I continue to have many friends in Hong Kong. Some do not understand nor value the city as I do. Some do, but can live in silence. People are different. But a Hong Kong run only by patriots is not Hong Kong. Colonial Hong Kong was a refuge for those fleeing persecution, a beacon of relative freedom and security. Today, as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, with patriotic Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, it is not anymore.
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