Hong Kongers Are Purging the Evidence of Their Lost Freedom

“What should I do with those copies of Apple Daily?”

Someone in Hong Kong who I was chatting with on the phone recently had suddenly dropped her voice to ask that question, referring to the pro-democracy newspaper that the government forced to shut down in 2021.

“Should I toss them or send them to you?”

My conversations with Hong Kong friends are peppered with such whispers these days. Last week, the city enacted a draconian security law — its second serious legislative assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms since 2020. Known as Article 23, the new law criminalizes such vague behavior as the possession of information that is “directly or indirectly useful to an external force.”

Hong Kong was once a place where people did not live in fear. It had rule of law, a rowdy press and a semi-democratic Legislature that kept the powerful in check. The result was a city with a freewheeling energy unmatched in China. Anyone who grew up in China in the 1980s and 1990s could sing the Cantopop songs of Hong Kong stars like Anita Mui, and that was a problem for Beijing: Freedom was glamorous, desirable.

When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the city’s people accepted, in good faith, Beijing’s promises that its capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years and that the city would move toward universal suffrage in the election of its leader.

Not anymore. Now Hong Kong people are quietly taking precautions, getting rid of books, T-shirts, film footage, computer files and other documents from the heady days when the international financial center was also known for its residents’ passionate desire for freedom.

I used to joke that I never needed to watch dystopian thrillers like “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “The Hunger Games.” As someone who has lived and worked for years in Hong Kong and China, I know what it feels like to descend into deepening repression, remembering our free lives.

Back to top button