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Brave new city: the once fictional dystopian future of Hong Kong is now a reality

Writer and human rights activist Jason Y. Ng writes for PEN/Opp about how the long arm of the Chinese mainland stretches ever further into Hong Kong. Since the handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the relative freedom of Hong Kong has been gradually circumscribed and the promise of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle seems to have been broken. But there is also hope, writes Jason Y. Ng. In this text he emphasizes the importance of the work of various PEN organizations to reverse this negative trend.

Credits Text: Jason Y. Ng August 08 2019

Bookshop owners go underground to evade state censorship and harassment by the Red Guards. Government officials orchestrate a fake assassination to drum up public support for a national security law. To keep his job, a taxi driver struggles to memorize street names in Mandarin, as Cantonese—the city’s lingua franca—is being phased out.

These are three of several versions of Hong Kong’s future as imagined by local filmmakers in the 2015 movie Ten Years. Despite its low budget and largely unknown cast, the dystopian film was a runaway hit, touching a raw nerve among citizens who had long been wary of Beijing’s extensive reach. In a case of life imitating art, the film sparked such intense public debate that commercial cinemas pulled it for fear of upsetting the authorities.

Four years since its release, Ten Years now feels dated and clichéd. It isn’t because the subject matter is any less relevant or pressing—the same political and existential issues foreshadowed by the filmmakers continue to keep the city on edge. But the movie has lost much of its currency because, on many levels, the Hong Kong we once thought was years away is already here.

All downhill from there
After 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework. Designed to stem the exodus of nervous citizens fleeing from communist rule, the framework promises the “special administrative region” a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the handover. 1997 also saw the birth of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution that safeguards fundamental rights such as freedom of the press, academic freedom and freedom of assembly and publication.

Less than halfway into the 50-year grace period, however, Hong Kong people already feel like an endangered species struggling to assert their existence in the shadow of a superpower. Once thought to be ironclad and taken for granted, the freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law are not only being chipped away by Beijing, but also ceded by the city’s own ruling elite who are eager to prove their loyalty to the Chinese leadership.

The Occupy Movement in 2014 remains a dividing line in Hong Kong’s history. Dubbed the Umbrella Revolution in the West, the peaceful mass protests—the largest political upheaval in our history—paralyzed large sections of the city for 79 days, until the movement fizzled out without achieving its stated goal of universal suffrage.

As far as Beijing is concerned, the popular uprising delivered both bad news and good news. Much to its chagrin, Hong Kong has proved that it is more than an economic city and that citizens won’t take communist bullying lying down. But at the same time, the Chinese leadership was relieved and delighted to learn that even when Hong Kong people do rise up and rebel, a prolonged street occupation is as aggressive as it gets.

Those revelations have given Beijing renewed impunity to accelerate its political agenda for Hong Kong, which in turn explains why the pace of rights regression has picked up markedly since 2014. Incident after troubling incident in recent years has put our way of life under threat and, in doing so, not only made “one country, two systems” look more like a broken promise than a silver bullet against communist intervention, but also exposed the inherent contradiction of a totalitarian state pretending to tolerate a quasi-democracy.

Free expression under siege
The most brazen example of rights encroachment is perhaps the abduction of the Causeway Bay Booksellers. Writers and publishers of ‘tell all’ books about mainland officialdom have long been a thorn in the sides of the Chinese leadership. In 2015, five members of Causeway Bay Books were kidnapped by mainland law enforcement agents before the captives reappeared on Chinese state television making scripted confessions to various crimes. Among them is Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen who remains in mainland custody today.

The booksellers’ disappearances had an immediate chilling effect on the entire book industry in Hong Kong, from writers and publishers to printers and retailers. It happened at a time when local publishing was already hard hit by a lack of distribution channels, as popular bookshop chains have been gobbled up one after another by Chinese interests since the handover.

When my book Umbrellas in Bloom, which chronicles the Occupy Movement, was ready to go to print in 2016, my publisher was turned down by multiple printing companies on the grounds of political sensitivity. Since then, similar stories of self-censorship across the publishing food chain have been reported in the local media, calling into question whether our constitutionally guaranteed “freedom of publication” exists beyond the letter of the law. The prophecy in Ten Years about booksellers being snuffed out of existence no longer seems far-fetched.

In the name of national security
Many young protesters who came out of the Occupy Movement empty-handed have channelled their frustration into a pro-independence movement. Despite being small in number and more talk than action, these young people and their cause have given Beijing a convenient excuse to clamp down on free expression on the pretext of national security.

Six months ago, the Hong Kong government made the unprecedented move to outlaw a political party. The target was an amateur, largely dormant pro-independence group called Hong Kong National Party founded by university students. After the Foreign Correspondents’ Club invited the group’s convener Andy Chan to give a lunch talk about the ban, the Hong Kong government took it out on the event’s moderator, Victor Mallet of The Financial Times, by refusing to renew his work visa. It was the first time in the city’s history that any foreign journalist was expelled for any reason.

These events suggest that a political ‘red line’ has been drawn around the subject of independence. Since then, posters and banners on university campuses in support of Chan have been unceremoniously removed by school administration. A prominent law professor who broached the subject of independence at an overseas academic forum was severely censured by high-ranking communist officials. In an article about a pro-independence Taiwanese lawmaker who was denied an entry visa to Hong Kong, a local newspaper added a disclaimer declaring itself a non-supporter of Taiwanese independence for fear of being “guilty by reporting.”

As a columnist, I too find myself looking over my shoulder from time to time to check whether my writing has crossed any red line or, out of an abundance of caution, I steer clear of touchy subjects altogether, such as sovereignty issues concerning Taiwan, Tibet and Uighur-Xinjiang. Each time an opinion piece I submit gets shortened, held up or its wording altered by my editor, I can’t help but wonder if I’m being bowdlerized or outright censored.

The most troubling thing about red lines is that they can be redrawn at the whims of the ruling class. Emboldened by the National Party ban, the Hong Kong government has moved on to political parties that advocate much milder forms of self-determination and barred them from running in elections on similar grounds. By making an example of Chan and the like, the authorities have managed to introduce national security—a powerful political tool and one of the oldest tricks in the communist playbook—without so much of a new law or a staged assassination.

Erasing cultural identity
Last autumn, the Hong Kong Education Secretary Kevin Yeung made several remarks about Cantonese that stunned the city of 7.5 million—90% of which are native Cantonese speakers. In a radio programme, Yeung questioned how long Cantonese could remain the teaching language in Hong Kong and advised the public to speak more Mandarin in daily conversations, noting that “the future development of Chinese language learning around the world will rely mainly on Mandarin”. The education chief’s warning came less than six months after the Education Bureau published an article suggesting that Cantonese is a mere “dialect” that falls short of a “mother tongue.”

In Hong Kong, the marginalization and diminution of Cantonese cut to the heart of our existential crisis. If there is one thing in our collective identity that we hold the most sacred, it would be our spoken language, which is witty, unique and indispensable to the survival of other aspects of our proud culture, from Cantopop to Canto-cinema and Cantonese opera.

As a lawyer who advises clients in the finance industry, I have witnessed a changing business environment that increasingly disfavours Cantonese as the working language. Nowadays, conference calls and client meetings involving Chinese clients—which account for the majority of commercial transactions in the city as cross-border economic integration intensifies—are conducted exclusively in Mandarin. Most job postings list Mandarin speaking skills as a “must” while Cantonese proficiency is “optional.” I’ve heard anecdotally that many international law firms have adopted the unwritten rule that only Mandarin-speaking associates will be considered for partnership.

But that’s not all. Traditional Chinese characters (used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) are gradually being replaced by simplified characters (used on the mainland) not only in the workplace but also in restaurant menus, hotel signage and billboard advertisements. A wholesale effort to supplant our spoken and written languages is afoot, not unlike the predicament confronting the linguistically challenged taxi driver in Ten Years.

Tip of the iceberg
These are but a few examples that offer a glimpse of the political and existential climate in Hong Kong. But I have barely just scratched the surface—recent examples of incursion into both our basic rights and core values are too many to enumerate, from the government’s selective prosecution of protesters on dubious charges like “incitement to incite public nuisance” to the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers simply for failing to properly recite their oath of office.

Since the handover, Hong Kong’s international standing has taken a beating. The city’s rankings in major global indexes, such as freedom of the press, rule of law, ability to attract talent and general livability, have plunged and continue to fall. A second wave of exodus is already underway, as both expatriates and locals with the means to leave are voting with their feet.

“It’s not too late”

It was against this dire political backdrop that PEN Hong Kong was founded in 2016. Troubled by the shrinking space for free expression and outraged by the abduction of booksellers, a number of like-minded writers, poets, journalists and academics decided to revive the Hong Kong PEN centre (which went dormant in the 1980s) to join in the fight to slow down the regression. Since our inception, we have published reports, hosted talks by renowned human rights authors, and issued public statements to speak up against violations of free expression.

In 2017, we invited the city’s leading writers and opinion leaders to contribute to an anthology to comment on the state of Hong Kong as we marked the 20th anniversary of the handover. Titled Hong Kong 20/20, the volume has been translated into Chinese in an effort to bridge the city’s English and Chinese writing communities. Last year, we collaborated with PEN International and the University of Toronto to produce a freedom of expression report for the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review. Our report was cited in a joint submission to the United Nations to which the Hong Kong government was compelled to make an official response.

Like other civil society organizations in the city, PEN Hong Kong has its work cut out for it. This work is challenging, perilous, and sometimes feels futile. But every day we are reminded of and humbled by the tremendous work done by our counterparts operating in far more treacherous corners of the world, where their work is infinitely more challenging and perilous than ours. Despite the different challenges we face, the one thing that connects all of us is hope—the belief that no matter how bad the circumstances look, there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

The film Ten Years ends with a simple but powerful message: it’s not too late. That is the premise on which we will and must proceed.

Jason Y. Ng is a lawyer, civil rights defender, and the author of three books that all describe the postcolonial developments in Hong Kong: Hong Kong State of Mind (2010), No City for Slow Men (2013), and his latest: Umbrellas in Bloom (2016). He was President of PEN Hong Kong, 2016-2019.

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