How fares Hong Kong 3 years after China’s crackdown?

June 06, 2023 09:54
Photo: RTHK

Three years after China imposed a wide-ranging national security law on Hong Kong, the city looks like it has returned to normality, with its crammed malls and restaurants. The riots of 2019 are unlikely to be on the shoppers’ minds. But the lives of all 7 million Hong Kongers have been affected by the new political order.

According to Hong Kong government figures, 10,279 individuals were arrested in relation to the 2019 protests, of which 2,899 were charged with offences such as rioting, wounding, illegal assembly and arson by the end of last October. About 250 people were arrested under the controversial law and 29 convicted. More than 6,000 people have not been charged after investigations regarding them have concluded.

The South China Morning Post said in a May 30 editorial that those uncharged have been “left in a legal limbo.” But Chief Executive John Lee rejected calls for a deadline for the police to either prosecute or close the remaining cases.

Lee is likely torn between his desire to remake Hong Kong into a global financial hub that will serve China’s interests and his awareness of Beijing’s intense desire for safeguarding national security. That perhaps explains his support for such policies as culling books from public libraries, an action likely to please Beijing while drawing negative comments internationally.

The Lee administration’s policy toward its critics has led many to question whether freedom of speech is still a right in Hong Kong.

So harsh is this policy that one critic, Tim Hamlett, recently announced that he was “giving up on Hong Kong politics.”

In a column published in the Hong Kong Free Press on May 12, the British writer and commentator wrote: “I am still up for new experiences but the inside of a Hong Kong police cell is not on my bucket list.” But that, he explained, isn’t the main problem.

“Nowadays,” Hamlett wrote, “the government has its own facts and its own version of history. Any expression which does not actively subscribe to both is to be contested and condemned.”

Only four days earlier, a prominent Hong Kong political cartoonist, who goes by the name Zunzi, was told by the Ming Pao newspaper that, after 40 years, it would stop publishing his cartoons.

Before his termination, both Ming Pao and Wong Kei-kwan, the cartoonist’s real name, had been excoriated by the secretary for security, Chris Tang. He said that the cartoonist had “targeted the government more than once and made misleading accusations over the past six months.”

Other senior officials, including Chief Executive Lee and Chief Secretary Eric Chan, also criticized the cartoonist.

Subsequently, the Hong Kong Journalists Association issued a statement that said: “Backed by abundant resources and public power, the SAR [Special Administrative Region] government repeatedly targeted a mere [cartoonist], reflecting that Hong Kong cannot tolerate critical voices.”

The security secretary responded that the government was willing to accept criticism but such comments must be “based on the truth.” The government, he said, “must speak up, clarify and condemn” if someone makes misleading accusations, and “give the citizens the right to know.”

The expression “the right to know” is often used to assert citizens’ right to access government or corporate data. In Hong Kong, it seems, this has become the government’s right to censure its critics.

The government, it seems, is trying to reshape Hong Kong people, including wiping out their memory of the bloodshed in Beijing in 1989. On June 4, the 34th anniversary of the military crackdown, Victoria Park, where commemorative events were held each year until 2020, was surrounded by police. Several people who went to the park’s vicinity were apprehended.

Citizens are even told which words to use and which to shun.

When a reporter used the words “2019 protests” at a press conference May 2, Lee, before answering her question, upbraided her, saying that what happened in 2019 were not “protests” but “black violence.”

It is almost as if society had been turned upside down, with the government and the public changing places. The public cannot hold the government accountable. But if people make factually incorrect criticisms, the government can condemn them in public.

This recalls a comment made by Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright. Hong Kong officials may find it worthwhile to ponder his words. Brecht wrote that if the people had lost the confidence of the government, instead of trying to regain such confidence, “Would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?”

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.