Growing up, I was a shy and withdrawn child and avoided crossing any lines. During my school  years I did not once receive a detention. The people I was drawn to were mostly quiet like  me. We did not smoke. We enjoyed reading, playing sports and building model kits. An exciting  night out was to go to the cinema. We were the children who gave parents few worries. 

children kids hong kong china flag
File photo: GovHK.

My childhood did not prepare me to cope with friends who might be in trouble. Today, some are. 

Had the Hong Kong authorities withdrawn the extradition bill earlier in 2019, and not sought to ram it through in the face of unprecedented public opposition, the winds would not have blown.  

But we had to maintain a lie and could not accept what we all know was true: that our city was  defined far less by colonial rule than by communist oppression. Ours is a city not of migrants but of refugees, for whom security matters. This is why some are prepared to struggle so hard in defence of those qualities which make Hong Kong different from China. 

Had we been able to admit that our city’s ill are more than merely economic, but also about political issues and our local and Chinese identity, the whirlwind would never have begun.  

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“Business as usual,” the graffiti reads. Photo: Kaiser/HKFP.

Our future had been decided without our consent but on a promise: that Hong Kong people would rule Hong Kong. We were to have universal suffrage and democratic  representation. This was codified in spirit in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and written into our  constitution, the Basic Law. This was also, as archive documents suggest, a promise which Deng Xiaoping understood and accepted.  

Yet after two decades of disappointment and missed deadlines, we are not even afforded a  dialogue. In 2015 we were prepared to accept a compromise, and had compromised in the past. All  that was asked for was a road map to get us to the promised goal. Even this was too much.  

Had a protest not been described as a riot, and rioting not been termed terrorism, cooler and calmer heads may  have prevailed. Instead, the whirlwind was encouraged and grew stronger. 

Grandma Wong UK British flag
An elderly protester known as Grandma Wong waves a British flag at a protest on July 7, 2019. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

It is not the powerless who define a conflict but those in power. They have the authority to frame the discourse. The shift away from truthfulness and accountability, once hallmarks of Hong Kong, only confirmed what many already feared.

It was once beneath the dignity of the Hong  Kong government to peddle the types of unfounded conspiracy theories that prop up authoritarian  regimes. Our value system had been that of a free and open society. We respected and prized an independent judiciary and a free press. Today, Hong Kong sounds like Beijing. 

As it was, many people who had been backed into a corner now acted out of character. Some  lashed out. Others held their tongues, at least in public, when their conscience said otherwise. All  now face the prospect of punishment by a vindictive regime. 

Court of Final Appeal judiciary
Outgoing Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma’s farewell sitting at the Court of Final Appeal on January 6, 2021. File Photo: GovHK.

There are people I look up to, people I am proud to call friends, who I may not see nor speak with again. Even if we have not always agreed, and even if some may have acted with full knowledge that they were breaking the law, they do not deserve this. They are not guilty of what they are  charged.  

It is said that the difference between rule of law and rule by law is in how the law is applied. Make no mistake, the rule of law is under threat. And it is not from those who today stand in the dock. 

It is not the delinquent children of our city who are being punished. It is our idealists. It is those who  care. Those who would, in the Hong Kong I knew, have been allowed to flourish.

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Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a UK-based researcher and writer on HK and China affairs.