Today’s surreal Hong Kong: Be careful what you say or do

January 28, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong politics is now surreal. Think twice before you say or do anything. Forget about Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s assurances that free speech still exists. It does not. Expect a 6am knock on the door by national security police if you exercise free speech in its true meaning.

Using free speech is now a Damocles sword defined by Beijing’s many vague red lines. Read George Orwell’s 1984 to understand that. It’s not me describing our new national security law as a sword. Senior mainland official Zhang Xiaoming called it the Sword of Damocles last year after Beijing imposed the law on Hong Kong. Don’t waste time understanding the red lines. There are so many they will blur your eyes.

Lam’s definition of free speech is don’t ask her tough questions if you are a journalist. Nabela Qoser of RTHK learned that the hard way. She effectively got fired. Avoid investigative reporting that embarrasses the government. RTHK’s Choy Yuk-ling investigated the 2019 Yuen Long MTR thug attack against passengers and protesters. Police arrested her.

As I write this, I have to second-guess what Lam means by free speech. She said it was free speech for Beijing mouthpiece People’s Daily to use its understanding of the law to criticize Hong Kong judges for granting bail to Next Digital boss Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who is accused of violating the national security law.

By that same principle, it should be free speech for those who peacefully chant the protest slogan “five demands, not one less” based on their understanding of the national security law. Nowhere in the law does it state the slogan itself is illegal.

But my advice is don’t test Beijing’s Sword of Damocles. There are so many red lines, it is child’s play for the security police to find one and come knocking on your door at the crack of dawn. They did just that earlier this month by arresting 55 opposition figures for being involved in an unofficial primary election.

Last week, the newly-elected chairman of the Bar Association, Paul Harris, said the arrest of the 55 showed the security law was being used to intimidate Hong Kong’s democracy movement. He suggested amending the law and rebuilding ties between the association and Beijing.

Is it free speech under Lam’s definition to suggest in good faith amending the security law? After Harris made the suggestion, Beijing’s Ta Kung Pao slammed him for having a political mission to fulfil. If I were to second-guess Lam, my guess is she would say Harris was out of line for suggesting amendments to the security law but it was free speech for Ta Kung Pao to attack him.

In today’s surreal Hong Kong, there are suggestions by Beijing loyalists to place cameras in classrooms to spy on teachers and for committees to monitor oath-taking by opposition district councilors. Doesn’t that remind you of the Red Guards?

Numerous media reports say Beijing intends to overhaul Hong Kong’s political system to neutralize the opposition through oath-taking, disqualifications, and lessening the role of district councilors in the 1,200-seat Election Committee that selects the chief executive.

Opposition candidates won the lion’s share of district council seats in 2019. That gives them a kingmaker role in choosing the next chief executive in 2022. No wonder Beijing wants to change the rules.

It can’t get more surreal than neutering the power of opposition district councilors who won almost 1.7 million votes in the 2019 election compared to the 1.2 million Beijing loyalists won. It would be like neutering the power of Hong Kong people to have a say in the selection of the chief executive.

But who cares about the people’s say anymore. Ordinary Hongkongers are expected to keep their mouths shut, accept new red lines on free speech, consider Western democracy as undemocratic, move to the Greater Bay Area, and treat what Beijing and Lam say as the truth.

One way Hongkongers can do that is to shun Britain’s offer of eventual citizenship to British National (Overseas) Passport holders. Beijing has threatened to retaliate by not recognizing the BNO passport. If Beijing believes in the superiority of its authoritarian system, it should not stop those who don’t.

Hong Kong surrealism in its most bizarre form is former chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s assertion that the next chief executive should be chosen by consultation rather than selection by the Election Committee.

Most Hongkongers believe a Beijing-anointed leader selected by an undemocratic Election Committee has no legitimate mandate. What mandate, therefore, can a leader chosen by consultation have? That’s for Leung to answer. He should come clean if he aspires to be chief executive again.

My own view, which I believe is shared by most Hong Kong people, is that the only way a chief executive can have legitimate mandate is through fair democratic elections. That, sadly, is a fool’s dream.

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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.