The transformation of Hong Kong from an imperfect yet reasonably liberal and livable society to a lawless tyranny that locks people away for thought crimes, all in the span of just over a year, is one of the great conundrums of our times.
Hong Kong has long been a place that valued a diversity of political opinions, where honesty and thoughtfulness were valued, and where people could contribute to and improve society.
This created a unique environment in today’s China. Speaking solely from my own experience, just two very long years ago, a person like myself, openly critical of and thus strongly disliked by the sad, old, and invariably Han men of Zhongnanhai and Sai Wan, could still travel freely to Hong Kong, speak with media, engage with civil society, and meet friends without too much difficulty.
Sure, I might be followed and harassed by Liaison Office minions (notably far less adorable and fun than the minions in the movies). They might write a sensationalist cover story about me in their newspapers that no one even reads, much less takes seriously. Yet in exchange for the ability to engage with a dynamic and hopeful group of people whose lives transcended the mind-numbing orthodoxies of the Party-state, such inconveniences were a very small price to pay.
This price has only come to seem ever more negligible, barely even meriting mention, in comparison to the unthinkable sacrifices that people in Hong Kong have been forced to make since the implementation of the National Security Pseudo-Law in June 2020. The tragedies unfolding under this law are already too numerous to count, so let us take a quick glance at developments of recent weeks.
In early November, Tony Chung pled guilty to secession charges for Facebook posts: a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The jarring juxtaposition of twenty-first century technology and stone age speech crimes, intersecting in the formerly robust legal system of a place that puzzlingly still markets itself as “Asia’s world city” leaves me at a genuine loss for words. Might we replace this dated Tourism Board motto with something more current? Perhaps “Pyongyang with sun.”
A few days later, Ma Chun-man was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for chanting slogans. Yes, you read that correctly. Slogans! The “illegal” slogans Ma chanted included “Hong Kong independence, the only way out” and “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Anyone who happens to have passed through the city at any point in 2019 undoubtedly heard tens of thousands of people shouting these slogans. Now, anyone who utters these words risks imprisonment.
And as these tragedies unfold, Apple Daily colleagues remain in custody under this farce of a law. Jimmy Lai, Fung Wai-kong, Cheung Kim-hung, Tat Kuen-chow, Ryan Law, Cheung Chi-wai, Chan Puiman. Each of these names represents a living, breathing human being suddenly snatched away from their lives, their loved ones, their family, and their friends, imprisoned for their legally protected thoughts and words, all under the false pretext of “the law.”
Seeing all of this, I find no comfort in the fact that I accurately predicted the total eclipse of Hong Kong’s rule of law system by state-sponsored stupidity in my Apple Daily column on the eve of the NSL’s implementation in June 2020.
In a piece entitled “I’m not reading the stupid National Security Law, and neither should you,” I posited that the NSL was not in fact a law but rather the end of all law, and thus merited no close nor careful reading.
Just a little over a year later, hundreds are held in arbitrary detention, and the paper where this prediction was printed has been shut down. Any reading of the NSL and its implementation must acknowledge that such developments violate the city’s rule of law tradition, as well as being in open contempt of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Hong Kong is a signatory) and the rights ostensibly guaranteed in the Basic Law. At the same time, any honest reading would at the same time need to acknowledge that this pseudo-law renders such logical arguments futile.
This crusade against basic reason has transformed Hong Kong from a place where a diversity of political opinions could coexist to a place where there is one “proper” viewpoint repeated ad nauseam in an attempt to cover over its own hollowness; from a place where honesty and thoughtfulness were valued to a place where such values, besieged by arbitrary red lines and lengthy prison sentences, must retreat inward; and from a place where people could contribute to and improve society to a place where society and politics feel increasingly hopeless.
This sudden shift, I propose, can only be understood as the forceful importation of a foreign political culture into Hong Kong. It is not “the death of Hong Kong” that has been announced countless times, but rather the occupation of Hong Kong. This political model is not only foreign but also inevitably failed: life may look unbearably grim in the short term, but we can find a glimmer of hope in knowing that such control-obsessed political models always collapse under their own ever-expanding weight.
We can also find hope in knowing that the people of Hong Kong who face this jarring reality are the same people who built the dynamic and open society that made this city great. I remain confident that they will one day find a way to end this unlawful occupation masquerading as a “return” and recapture their own future.
This moment of liberation will truly be the revolution of our times.
Kevin Carrico is a former columnist at Apple Daily.