1984 in fiction, 2018 in reality... Hong Kong style

April 06, 2018 18:00
Beijing, the Hong Kong government and the pro-establishment camp have ganged up on HKU law professor and pro-democracy activist Benny Tai after he discussed Hong Kong independence at a seminar in Taiwan. Photo: Bloomberg

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a totalitarian dictatorship devises the concept of thought crime to punish those who dare to think of concepts deemed to challenge the established order. In the Hong Kong of 2018 serious consideration is being given to making thought crime a reality.

Here’s where we are today: Benny Tai, a Hong Kong University law professor and indeed a pro-democracy activist, goes to Taiwan to participate in a seminar where he muses aloud about the consequences of the evolution of democracy in China. Among the possibilities he sees emerging is that in these circumstances Hong Kong might achieve independence. He did not advocate this eventuality, merely speculated on it as a possible outcome, among others.

At this point the sky falls in with the mainland media leading calls for Tai to be prosecuted for "crossing the line"; totally predictably this call for prosecution is rapidly taken up by the usual sycophant rabble and, for the first time, the administration also officially chips in. Some "merely" believe that Tai should immediately be sacked from his university post; others are looking for more severe punishment, including stripping him of his passport.

Apparently, the clearly stated commitment to freedom of speech, contained in the Basic Law, does not apply here because a "line has been crossed". Really? And where is that line elaborated in either the Basic Law or Joint Declaration for that matter? (Sorry, have just remembered that this international treaty, lodged at the United Nations, somehow no longer applies for the excellent reason that Chinese officials have stated that treaties signed by the PRC can be abrogated at will.)

Meanwhile, as the white terror spreads, it is indeed perfectly possible that another of the infamous "re-interpretations" of the Basic Law will take place and thus the mini-constitution’s Article 27 can be amended to incorporate whatever limitations need to be imposed to change both the intent and meaning of the words "freedom of speech".

We are only in the fourth month of 2018 but the pace at which the screw is tightening is truly daunting.

The government will soon ram through new legislation on the correct use of the National Anthem.

The right of citizens to stand for election, already circumscribed for those guilty of independence thought crimes, is likely to be further circumscribed to include critics of one-party rule.

Meanwhile, in all critical areas where ideas are exchanged and debated, those refusing to toe the party line are being subject to greater pressure.

As ever, among the enemies of democracy, the universities are first in line for pressure. Next up is the mass media, where mainstream media companies have already been purging dissident opinion and suppressing news that deviates from the party line but the process has yet to be completed.

However, it does not end there – independent book publishing has all but been extinguished in Hong Kong and even printers shy away from handling material that is likely to be criticized by officials. Even the film world is under pressure; indeed the pressure comes from every angle from production to exhibition. Venues that were once open to critical events have now closed their doors and so on.

Yet the Hong Kong SAR, perhaps remarkably, still retains significant pockets of autonomy and the level of freedom far exceeds that on the mainland. What is so depressing is that those seeking to whittle away this difference are to be found right here in Hong Kong and include most of the community’s most prominent leaders who simply will not stand up for Hong Kong and defend its values.

Those who disdain comparisons between Hong Kong in 2018 and the fictional world of George Orwell may prefer a comparison closer to home, i.e., that of the 1960’s Chinese Cultural Revolution where those found guilty of "incorrect thinking", the Chinese version of thought crimes, faced horrendous punishment.

Take your pick; either comparison is far from comforting.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author