Hashtag: I want freedom of speech

February 13, 2020 08:00

If Dr Li Wenliang could speak from his grave, this is likely what he will say: "Don’t cry for me. Use my death for a higher purpose." Li will forever be eulogized as the hero who was reprimanded for blowing the whistle on the Wuhan coronavirus. After an initial cover-up, China admitted an outbreak. By that time Li had contracted the disease and died last week.

When heroes meet tragic deaths, our natural instinct is to grieve. But there is consolation to be found in Li’s death. And for Hong Kong’s protest movement, there is vindication. The protests began as a movement against the government’s now-axed extradition bill but morphed into a cry for freedom.

After Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor ignored mass peaceful marches, some protesters used violence, resulting in over 7,000 arrests of mostly young people. The movement’s rallying cry was “five demands, not one less” but its core was a fight for democracy.

Hong Kong people wanted to protect their freedoms after seeing Beijing – using Lam as a proxy – erode freedoms by banning a political party, expelling a foreign journalist for hosting a talk on independence, disqualifying opposition candidates from elections, and refusing permits for protest marches.

Beijing and local government supporters vilified the protest movement’s fight for freedom as a Western-backed plot to destabilize China. But now, vindication has sprung from tragedy. Li’s tragic death has vindicated the protest movement like nothing else could.

His death caused an outpouring of grief by millions of courageous mainlanders who dared to attack Communist Party leaders for trying to cover up the epidemic. But more astonishingly, Li’s death sparked the social media hashtag “I want freedom of speech”, which went viral across mainland China. So did the song “Do you hear the people sing?” which Hong Kong’s protest movement also used as a rallying cry.

Millions across China viewed the “I want freedom of speech” hashtag. Predictably, mainland censors quickly removed it, as well as "Do you hear the people sing?”, from the internet. Hong Kong’s protest movement should take such censorship of free speech as vindication.

Not too long ago, Lam mocked the protest movement’s fear of losing their freedoms by rhetorically asking what freedoms Hong Kong had lost. There’s no need to again list the freedoms we have lost. Lam already knows what they are.

What I will instead do is to explain why Beijing, Lam, and her predecessors have all failed to instill patriotism in Hong Kong, especially among young people. More than anything, Hongkongers care about free speech, freedom of thought, and an uncensored internet.

Now they have seen first-hand an authoritarian regime reprimand a heroic whistle-blower, cover up a killer epidemic, and censor its citizens just for mourning the whistle-blower’s death. How do you expect them to be patriotic to a country that goes against the values they so cherish?

Li lost his life to a killer disease he tried to sound the alarm about. He is a true patriot. Mourn his death, but mainlanders should also seek consolation from his heroism, and from the bravery of Chinese academics who published an open letter urging the central government to protect free speech, which is guaranteed by China’s constitution.

Mainland leaders, Lam, and Hong Kong’s Beijing loyalists seize every opportunity to condemn the protest movement as unpatriotic. Opposition leaders who seek Western support in their democracy fight are branded as traitors.

Healthcare workers who went on strike to pressure Lam to close the border with the mainland were mocked as cowards for violating their moral duty to help the sick. Here are some facts: about 40 percent of those infected in Wuhan were infected in hospitals. At least 500 medical workers in Wuhan were infected as of mid-January.

Hong Kong’s healthcare workers were only trying to protect local patients and themselves in demanding a total border closure. Even top microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said Hong Kong should have minimized passenger flow from the mainland much sooner.

But we have a leader whose leadership style is to always go against the will of the people. She alone knows what’s best for Hong Kong, ignoring advice even from top medical experts. She alone carved out the Hong Kong we have today – a deeply-divided city with a panicked population living in fear.

There is now a community outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus. Thousands line up overnight in the hope of buying facemasks. Panicked people fight to buy rice, bleach, hand sanitizers, and even toilet paper, ignoring government assurances that there is no shortage of food and other daily necessities.

The people’s trust in the government has completely broken down. They know their only choice is to help themselves as they look with envy at Taiwan, Singapore, and Macau whose governments have done a stellar job in reassuring the people.

Even as fear sweeps the city, our government is still running propaganda announcements on TV and radio urging the people to say no to violence. Frankly, I am lost for words. But then Carrie Lam knows best.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.