Closing Hong Kong

The people of Hong Kong have bravely defended their freedom. But they are losing an uneven fight.

The world’s only museum dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre sits in a single room, scarcely larger than a studio apartment, midway up an anonymous office building in Hong Kong’s bustling Mong Kok district.

The June 4th Museum, as it is officially known, dedicates most of its limited space to pressing an urgent analogy. Adorning a long wall are two timelines, one above the other: Beijing in 1989, Hong Kong in 2019, with the two moments matched up beat for beat. A few feet to the left are the self-authored wills of students, trying to explain to their grieving families why they had to risk their lives in Tiananmen Square. And, beside them, similar letters from protestors in Hong Kong, written late last year as tear gas filled the streets, university campuses were besieged, and police violence ran rampant. The overall message is clear: these two revolts should be spoken of in the same breath.

But over the past few weeks, another Tiananmen parallel has begun to suggest itself—one that you certainly won’t find celebrated in the June 4th Museum. In late June, the Chinese government imposed a National Security Law, which criminalizes “subversion”—carrying pro-independence stickers can mean jail time—and grants China’s notorious security services an open foothold in the city. If Hong Kong’s 2019 was like Beijing’s 1989, what does that mean for the Hong Kong of the 2020s and 2030s? Will Hong Kong, which has long cherished its boisterously free civic culture, come to look like Beijing in the years after the tanks rolled into the square?

Outside China, history mainly remembers Tiananmen Square for the protestors who were massacred and the intellectuals who spent decades in prison or exile. But most of those who were involved do not fit that description. Instead, gradually and often uncomfortably, hundreds of thousands of protestors slowly made peace with the status quo and found ways to accommodate themselves to the system. “I know for a fact that some of them are multimillionaires,” Tiananmen leader Chen Ziming has said of his former comrades. “They won’t even admit to having been student leaders.”

Wang Shi, the founder of one of the world’s largest real estate companies, once told the Washington Post that he was imprisoned for leading an employee march for freedom in 1989. Today, he denies that it ever happened.

Could the same cocktail of terror and self-interest that all but stamped out a nascent liberal moment in China succeed against Hong Kong’s more established civic traditions? The question has global resonance. As nations from Poland to Brazil grapple with whether the institutions of liberal democracy can survive an increasingly illiberal electorate, Hong Kong presents the inverse question: can a society’s liberalism survive a government determined to stamp it out?

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For many years, outsiders assumed that Hong Kong would always value economic growth over political freedom. But the 2014 Umbrella protests put this notion to rest. As Joshua Wong, the city’s most famous pro-democracy activist, told me in 2017, during the unsteady détente that followed the protests: “we proved to the world that Hong Kongers are ready for democracy.”

Last week, I repeated my question to Wong. Would the National Security Law finally push Hong Kong into fulfilling that old stereotype? As a politician in his position must, he remained hopeful. “They are unable to censor away all the memories of Hong Kong’s people in the past few years,” Wong said. In fact, he claimed, Hong Kong’s political resilience is tied to its economic vitality: “With [China’s] economic reliance on Hong Kong, Hong Kong people still have the leverage to fight for a greater degree of autonomy and choose not to kowtow to Beijing.”

But recent events belie Wong’s optimism. The day the National Security Law was passed, Wong and his allies quickly dismantled Demosistō, the pro-democracy party he led. Scores of activists fled Twitter in fear. Even the usually apolitical investment analysts based in Hong Kong began to wonder whether they might risk a visit from the police if they dared to criticize Chinese companies.

Most dishearteningly, the past weeks have made it clear that the National Security Law is pulling apart not only Hong Kong’s liberal political institutions, but also the wider constellation of organizations that sustain its civic culture.

One telling microcosm is the local high school debating scene. Hong Kong’s national team ranks among the best in the world. But that proud tradition may soon be coming to an end: the charity that runs the national team is closing up shop. “There’s no way we can continue under the present environment,” one insider told me. “But we can’t suggest that this is related to the National Security Law because that would bring unwanted attention to some of our teachers. We’re already seeing schools axe their debating programs out of fear, and presumably parents will also start withdrawing their children as the ramifications of the law sink in.”

Given the circumstances, few can fault parents and teachers for withdrawing students from an activity whose purpose is to discuss controversial topics. But the inevitable result is that Hong Kong’s local debating league, which has taught tens of thousands of schoolchildren to think critically and argue carefully, could soon be no more.

To better understand the situation in Hong Kong’s schools, I spoke to Raymond Yeung, until this summer a teacher at an elite Hong Kong girls’ school. Yeung was blinded in one eye by the police at a pro-democracy protest last year. Then he lost his job after his school cut back the curriculum for Liberal Studies, a subject designed to teach students civics and critical thinking.

Yeung’s summary was succinct: “The situation is quite grim.” Even before the National Security Law, pro-establishment groups regularly organized public denunciations of teachers deemed too sympathetic to the protests. Now, the future is even more uncertain. “We really don’t know what will happen in the next school year,” Yeung said. “The government is trying very hard to control the discussion of political issues in schools.”

Hong Kong’s authorities are currently reviewing the textbooks used to teach Liberal Studies. “Those books that have been reviewed will need to remove much information about the political situation in Hong Kong. We teachers dare not mention these issues anymore.”

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The leitmotif of Hong Kong’s future is becoming clear: spaces for discussion and debate continue to narrow. But the city’s underlying political, cultural and economic grievances remain unchanged. “In the end, the anger is still here,” Yeung stressed.

Decades of broken Chinese promises and the whiplash of the past twelve months will not be easily forgotten. Perhaps Hong Kong’s unique culture, binding together a powerful sense of Cantonese identity with decades lived under a free press and independent judiciary, will survive the current onslaught. But as those brave students in Tiananmen Square found out in 1989, hopes and hypotheticals offer scant protection against the raw power of the Chinese state.

Archie Hall is a writer from London and Hong Kong.