Reading Hong Kong’s Mingpao newspaper just before Christmas last year, I stumbled across a profile of Connie Lo Yan-wai, a journalist-turned-documentary-filmmaker. Lo is the director of a new film called Vanished Archives that investigates how Communist Party leaders in Beijing worked behind the scenes to inflame riots in Hong Kong, then a British colony, in 1967. Lo told the newspaper she had stowed copies of her film in three locations in the city and left a full roster of her production crew with a trusted friend — all of this to ensure the film could see the light of day “even if something happens.”
A few short years ago, remarks like this one might have seemed like the ravings of a paranoid mind. Hong Kong is, after all, an open society, where we are free to speak our minds, to entertain the sorts of ideas regarded as dangerous just a short bus ride to the north. But Lo’s words were another reminder of the dramatic changes gripping this city. By stashing away her film, Lo had not simply done the cautious thing; she had done the necessary thing.
Ever since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, when the people of Hong Kong blockaded streets in the business district of Central and launched an almost three-month campaign of civil disobedience calling for greater democracy, pressure from China has intensified. One of the most worrying turns post-Umbrella came between October and December 2015 with the abduction from Hong Kong (and in one case from Thailand) of several local booksellers who had a track record of publishing scandalous titles about high-ranking Chinese political figures, including the president. (One book being prepped for publication around the time of the disappearances was 2017: Great Changes in China, which allegedly documented power plays at the highest levels of the Communist Party ahead of a crucial political meeting to be held at the end of this year.) For months, Chinese authorities claimed that the booksellers had voluntarily crossed the border to face various criminal charges. That fiction was unmasked in June last year as one of the men, Lam Wing-kee, escaped his Chinese handlers on a brief return trip to Hong Kong and revealed how he had been kidnapped and subjected to about eight months of psychological torture, and even forced into making a widely televised “confession.”
This is the Hong Kong in which we now live and work—a place we are no longer sure is all that different from China. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution hammered out in 1990, seven years before the United Kingdom handed the territory to the People’s Republic of China, guarantees freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.
But those guarantees rest uneasily now on the shifting sludge of politics in China, where President Xi Jinping has cracked down on freedom of expression and other civil rights to an extent unprecedented in the past quarter century. Xi Jinping has pursued a staunchly nationalistic and anti-Western agenda at home, characterizing values like freedom of speech as existential threats to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. And the leadership in China now seems to regard Hong Kong as a nettlesome source of disruptive ideas.
In many respects, Hong Kong remains a special place—one with a robust civil society, where people are free to express themselves, however critically. But we must now, more than ever, join together to defend our most basic values against the tide of fear and divisiveness creeping over the border. Which is why, last year, in the midst of the ongoing booksellers case, more than twenty writers, myself included, joined together to re-launch PEN Hong Kong, a local bilingual chapter of the international writers group that pledges to “oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong.”
All of us know that we must, like the members of Connie Lo Yan-wai’s production crew, stand ready to hold one another up — even if something happens.
As Lam Wing-kee said during the first press conference in which he discussed his ordeal: “We Hong Kong people are all in the same boat. It can happen to you, too, if I don’t speak up.”
David Bandurski is a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project and editor of the project’s website. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016).