The Guardian view on Hong Kong’s freedoms: gone, but not forgotten

Show caption ‘Some are determined to speak out, like the activist and lawyer Chow Hang-tung.’ Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters Opinion The Guardian view on Hong Kong’s freedoms: gone, but not forgotten Editorial China has silenced dissent in the city, but exiles are finding ways to keep its spirit alive Fri 3 Jun 2022 18.25 BST Share on Facebook

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Three years ago, Hong Kong rose up in an extraordinary defence of the freedoms that had been promised to it until 2047 on its return to China, but which were fast vanishing. The one in four people who protested were under no illusion that they would win. Yet nor did they anticipate quite how swiftly and ruthlessly the authorities would crush them and impose a draconian national security law.

Matters have only got worse. The judiciary, media, academia and civil society are under unrelenting pressure. Last month, John Lee – the security chief who oversaw the crackdown – was voted in as Hong Kong’s new chief executive by the city’s election committee, made up of about 0.02% of the city’s population. He was the sole candidate. Days later, 90-year-old Cardinal Zen, Hong Kong’s most senior (and beloved) Catholic cleric, was arrested for his involvement with a fund that had provided legal and financial assistance to people prosecuted over the protests.

Activists and others now face a bleak choice, suggests one historian: exile, self-censorship or jail. Many are not eligible for the British national (overseas) scheme or similar opportunities, cannot afford to go, or have been barred from leaving. Some are determined to speak out, like the activist and lawyer Chow Hang-tung, jailed for her involvement with the 4 June vigils commemorating Beijing’s bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square’s pro-democracy protests in 1989 – who has used her trials to keep memories of the massacre alive. Others will mourn in Hong Kong privately, or in their new homes many miles away.

Tens of thousands have moved abroad, many to Britain, and some are consciously working to rebuild the city’s civil society overseas, with a film festival in the UK, and a Hong Kong fair in Vancouver. In exile, they are “imagining our own small Hong Kong into being”, writes Louisa Lim in Indelible City, one of a cluster of new works by authors who grew up in the city. These books, too, are keeping Hong Kong alive. Though saturated with loss, Indelible City and Karen Cheung’s memoir The Impossible City strive to be love letters, not eulogies. They longingly evoke the smell of hot peppers fried with fish paste, the shabby bookstores and seaside villages, even as they acknowledge the gross inequalities.

Above all, they capture the remarkable, creative resistance of a city which most had previously regarded as apolitical, conservative and motivated largely by money. Though a substantial part of the population sided with Beijing, support for protesters remained astonishingly widespread even when some turned to violence, with their actions seen as a response to the authorities’ escalating aggression.

In fact, Hong Kong has a rich history as a liminal space “of outcasts and rebels”, as Lim’s book and Ho-fung Hung’s academic analysis, City on the Edge, demonstrate. These books not only challenge the Chinese Communist party’s narrative, but also, importantly, the attitudes of Britons who saw only a “barren rock” to colonise, were interested in controlling the people rather than governing them, and remained ignorant of and indifferent to the lives and wishes of those they ruled until it was much too late. They lament the Hong Kong that might have been, and – as grim as the situation looks – ask what it could be again one day: “The struggle for the future of Hong Kong did not end … It has just begun,” says Hung.