In 2021, President Biden offered a safe haven to Hong Kong residents in the U.S., which allowed them to prolong their stay for up to 18 months. This year, Biden extended that offer for an additional two years, calling Hong Kong’s policies a “significant erosion of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” To understand these policies better, here’s a brief look into Hong Kong’s recent history.
In 1997, Hong Kong was handed over or returned (depending on whose narrative gets told) to China by Britain. A treaty signed by both countries included the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly. In 2014, when China wanted to pass a very non-democratic law in Hong Kong, more than a hundred thousand people took to the streets. The demonstrations gained massive global attention as the ‘umbrella movement’. In 2019, the government introduced another unpopular bill, which allowed arrested demonstrators from Hong Kong to be prosecuted in China. This time, nearly two million people, that is almost ¼ of the population, demonstrated for democracy and against reoccurring police brutality during the protests. They successfully prevented the bill.
However, in June 2020, amidst the chaos of the Covid pandemic, Hong Kong silently passed the National Security Law. Among other things, it criminalizes acts such as “undermining the power or authority of the central government” and “promoting Hong Kong’s secession from China.” It opened the door to the arrest and prosecution of many more protestors, and for many, the National Security Law marked the end of everything people were willing to fight for, the end of Hong Kong.
But what does being in Hong Kong actually feel like now? Do people seem cautious, scared, silent? In 2022, I was lucky to spend four months studying in Hong Kong and see for myself. Would anyone dare criticize the government at the university? What would the dynamics between professors and students be like?
Before I get to some of my observations, I want to be honest with you. You can imagine why I rarely went up to local students and directly asked them about censorship. It didn’t seem fair (let alone polite) to treat their political situation as a thrilling little anecdote for me to bring home – while they are the ones risking their safety.
So let me begin with my class “The Press and Public Opinion in China: Past, Present and Future.” It was the class I was most curious about. To my surprise, one of the main topics was activist journalists. They’re known for their hands-on approach (e.g., attending protests) and reporting on non-traditional outlets like social media. Each group in class had to present a case study in which a company’s or politician’s corruption in China was uncovered by an activist journalist. We talked freely about their importance and ways in which society could support them. In my group’s presentation, I specifically criticized China’s media manipulation. I felt nervous and bold at the same time. Minutes later, these feelings seemed quite ridiculous. No one looked bothered. After all, it was just a classroom. Right? Still, even as a foreign student, it felt like the censorship was lingering in the air at all times. I can’t begin to comprehend how the local students must feel. In my WhatsApp group, one student warned another, “There are national security laws in Hong Kong now, please watch your words.”
My friend attended a course about cultural landscapes. One time, she mentioned the significance of city squares as places to gather and used Hong Kong’s protests as an example. She then went on to talk about a pro-democracy statue that another university had taken down in 2021. After class, her teacher took her aside. She said she appreciated her active participation, but my friend’s statements endangered both of them. This was a great reminder that anything I had previously thought about relative safety in the classroom was nothing but an illusion.
My class “Hong Kong: Past and Present” coincidentally stopped right in 1997. The professor had previously published papers about the democracy movement in German, his native language. No one seemed to have noticed or cared. Justin Wong wasn’t as lucky. Wong was also a professor at my university, who had analyzed the movement’s symbols. In January 2023, just two weeks after I had returned home, Wong’s publication had allegedly been reported to the police. He immediately fled to the U.K. Many Hongkongers (including the friends I made there) plan to work or study in the U.K.; they have easier access since Hong Kong used to be under British jurisdiction. One of the symbols Wong talked about in his publication were the masks from the movie V for Vendetta. The same symbol was also (faintly) drawn next to the elevators in the university’s student dorms.
I noticed that people were much more prone (although still careful) to criticize the government when they specifically talked about Covid. On more than one occasion, students came up to me and asked why I would choose to go to a country that still enforced such harsh measures. Multiple people stated their dislike of wearing masks. When people started to demonstrate in China, my Hongkong friend hoped that the outcome would positively affect her city as well. Discussing the Covid restrictions with local students gave me a chance to gain more insight into other topics such as surveillance, personal freedom, or cultural differences – topics that coincided with what protestors were fighting for and what the National Security Law is trying to condemn.
And before we get on our high horses, let’s stop to think about freedom of speech for a minute, which is not only endangered in Hong Kong or China, but, according to Jacob Mchangama – writer of the 2022 book Free Speech – also at risk in the U.S.
As a German who has spent time in Hong Kong, I can only hope that people stay vigilant. Under the wrong circumstances, freedom of speech can be threatened in the blink of an eye. If you are able to voice your thoughts freely, please keep supporting those who can’t.
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