When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1987 as a ObserverSoutheast Asia correspondent, the foreign editor said he saw it as a base, not the kind of territory that would generate a lot of news, but it was a safe place, communications were good and I was unlikely to have a visa issues. I thought I could stay a few years and move on. Thirty-five years later, I have moved on, with great sadness, and no one in their right mind can say that Hong Kong is a safe place for journalists.
White terror – the term used to describe the ruthless elimination of opposition in Taiwan following the imposition of power by the Kuomintang and more recently taken up by the opposition in Hong Kong to describe similar events in the city – is relentless , targeting not only journalists, but also opposition leaders, teachers, lawyers and, recently, speech therapists who had the temerity to write a children’s book about sheep who dared to respond; they were accused of subversion.
It has been said that Hong Kong is the only part of China where no citizen has to fear the midnight knock on the door by the secret police. Things have changed: The new division of the Hong Kong National Security Police prefers dawn raids to midnight arrests, but what has changed more fundamentally is that the Party’s infamous means of control Chinese Communists are becoming routine in a place where freedom was the norm. More than 10,000 people have been arrested for political crimes, a staggering number out of a population of just over 7 million. The electoral system has been undermined; even the banks were complicit in the freezing of dissident accounts. There has been a widespread purge of teachers and teaching materials, and closer to home for me, the media have become prime targets for repression. Even the support for the exceptionally successful Hong Kong team at the Tokyo Olympics has come under criticism from those intending to win the favor of the Beijing masters, who are only interested in to the China team.
The judiciary, whose independence has been the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success as a global business center, is changing. Judges in national security cases are handpicked by the head of government, the constitutional right to a jury trial has been abolished, and mind-boggling sentences are handed down to those convicted of political crimes.
Crackdown apologists say this never would have happened if Hong Kong people hadn’t dared to challenge the world’s biggest dictatorship by taking to the streets by the millions in 2019. For months, the protests dictated the news as the Government officials retreated to their fortified offices, letting the police take control. The truth is, China has never been comfortable with relinquishing control and did not need many excuses to renege on Hong Kong’s promises of autonomy.
As someone who has not only been a journalist but has also founded several businesses in Hong Kong, it seemed to me that this place had a unique ability to bounce back and survive the fiercest storms. The realization that, at least in the short term, that resilience has been decisively crushed made me consider the unthinkable before – leaving.
Can Hong Kong survive this rampage that erases the vestiges of freedom? The answer is almost certainly no, unless survival is seen through the eyes of Chinese leaders who really don’t care whether Hong Kong remains an international business center. They don’t care because they think Shanghai can do the job much better and is not marred by Hong Kong’s colonial past.
The leaders are not bothered by the growing exodus of people from Hong Kong because, as they point out, there are plenty of people on the mainland to replace them. Indeed, this replacement policy is widely observed in other “troubled” regions of China, notably Xinjiang and Tibet, where the local population has been overwhelmed by Han Chinese from other parts of the country.
The worst of the local sycophants, who leap a little higher to please their masters in Beijing, are meanwhile busy advocating for the removal of Cantonese, a language with deeper historical roots than Mandarin, now officially called Putonghua (the language People). They have successfully argued for greater censorship of films and the theater to purge them of any unduly Hong Kong-oriented content and, like all apologists for an authoritarian regime, they are obsessed with symbolism, deeply concerned about how whose national flag is hoisted and insomniacs at the idea that Hong Kong’s regional flag could be seen flying higher than the five-star red flag.
As the host of the latest news TV show produced by Radio Television Hong Kong, the public broadcaster, I had the misfortune of witnessing growing censorship. A new broadcast director was installed, which brought in a stratum of commissioners who censored our program at the planning stage, from the start of filming and sometimes made cuts a few minutes before going on the air. There were so many red lines to observe that, as one commentator put it, they looked more like the Red Sea.
In the past, people fled from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong in tiny boats; now the flow has reversed. Heartbreakingly, 12 youths were arrested and severely punished for attempting to reach Taiwan. A major online media organization just announced that it is leaving Hong Kong to seek refuge in Singapore – yes, the same Singapore where media censorship was the subject of stories I used to file for the Observer.
With the tide turning so fast, my departure does not matter, but it is carried away by waves which rise day by day.