Covering Hong Kong in a Darker Era

Special Edition


This is Wilfred Chan, a contributing writer for The Nation and a Hongkonger in New York City. 

Beijing is set to enact a national security law that will effectively criminalize dissent in Hong Kong. It is not just the content of the law that is stunning, but also the way it is being passed. The Chinese Communist Party bypassed its local “partners” — the city’s corporate pro-establishment politicians led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam — and approved the law through its own National People’s Congress (NPC). By choosing this route, the central government has sent a clear message of total authority over Hong Kong — and signaled to the ongoing protesters that they can soon expect to be crushed. Likewise, the dream of Hongkongers democratically electing their own leader, originally promised by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, appears all but dead.

The stakes have now been raised through retaliation by the United States government: last Friday, President Donald Trump announced his administration would begin the process of ending the U.S.’ special relationship with Hong Kong, including on trade and travel, as well as sanctioning some Hong Kong and Chinese officials. For a city that has long justified itself as a middle ground between China and the West, the loss of confidence from both sides spells a new era of existential crisis.

Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when both Chinese leaders and Hongkongers imagined the city playing a leading role in 21st-century China, Hong Kong’s defining characteristics no longer make it indispensable. It is no longer strictly necessary as China’s primary outlet for capital; for that there are cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, not to mention the Belt and Road Initiative. It is certainly no longer needed as a testing ground for democracy, under Xi’s dramatic consolidation of authoritarian power. Where, then, does Hong Kong go from here?

Hong Kong’s struggle reflects the painful ambivalence in Chinese modernity itself, which has thus far failed to incorporate Hong Kong into its project. But it is also a reflection of the disintegrating appeal of Western-led neoliberalism, which has designed Hong Kong in its own image.

What happens to Hong Kong from here will directly reflect the negotiation — and conflict — between these two systems. For better or for worse, there will be no shortage of stories to tell.

Wilfred Chan

Chinese Storytellers is an inclusive community of media professionals. This newsletter features some members’ personal testimonies and opinions, which do not speak for the community as a whole.

(Photo by Joshua Chan on Unsplash) Thousands of demonstrators in Wan Chai, Hong Kong on May 24, 2020.

“We Don’t Know Which Story Might Be Our Last”

Selina Cheng, investigative reporter at Hong Kong-based HK01 (香港01)

One night, I was at a protest during Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. A policeman handed me a tissue when he saw me cry because I was overwhelmed with emotions at my first reporting job. These days, that image has been replaced by that of a fellow journalist squirming in pain, face covered in pepper spray. Masked riot police had ordered us to crouch on the ground in a group and called us “dirty reporters.”

Last year, when we learned that Chinese paramilitary troops closed in near the mainland-Hong Kong border, I gathered my hard drives and notebooks to stash them in a safe spot, worried our homes and offices might get raided. We took out a stack of foreign currency from the bank and discussed places we could flee to with our pets, should an arrest become imminent. Hong Kong reporters have long been used to informal censorship — having our stories suddenly retracted, headlines changed, or pitches dismissed by editors. Still, we were not prepared for the new reality of possibly losing an eye, being physically assaulted, or getting arrested for doing our job.

Hong Kong used to be the place where stories, books, and publications otherwise banned in the mainland found refuge and flourished. But with the National Security Law, we may be forced to follow the path of our mainland peers and forerunners who, over the past 30 years, have been sentenced to years in prison for endangering national security.

While press freedom is so far still intact, we joke that perhaps we no longer have to prepare for the Hong Kong legislative election coverage in September. We also cherish every story we report on together because we never know which might be our last.

“I’m Ready for What Is to Come”

Mimi Lau, senior reporter at Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post

I reported from mainland China for over seven years, from 2010 to 2017. For a Hong Kong journalist without prior mainland China reporting experience, the learning curve was steep at the beginning. Everything felt like a fog. Privacy was a luxury, and being tailed was a daily reality.

But gradually, I managed to outgrow the anxieties from all the surveillance and fell in love with the people who shared with me their stories and struggles. Their resilience in the toughest circumstances, their creativity and audacity to find ways to speak up, and their never-extinguished hope for a better future never failed to inspire me, even in the darkest times.

I have also encountered many brilliant mainland journalists throughout countless reporting trips across China. I was often stunned by just how far some of these journalists at domestic media would go for a story at their own personal expense and safety. They outran official gag orders and stared down threats of assault. I remembered asking them when covering the Wukan protests, Yunnan's Qiaojia suicide bomber investigation and in other strikes and unrest: "Why are you here even though there is nowhere for you to publish your work?" And they'd always answer: "Someone has to witness and remember what has happened — for the people."

So today, I ask myself: How do I honor my calling as a journalist like my mainland counterparts do when the night falls on Hong Kong? How will I respond to Hong Kong's predicament today as a journalist and as a citizen?

I didn't expect June 30, 2047, to come so soon. Today I thought of a conversation I had two years ago with an old friend in Beijing, who asked me if I would prefer a gradual or overnight shift into Hong Kong under China in 2047. Back then, I was just as oblivious and in denial as many other Hongkongers. I said, "I choose neither. Let's hope that China in 2047 will be closer to Hong Kong and so will the rest of the world that the shift won’t be such an agonizing one."

Although the reality is grim, I will not wallow in anger and frustration. Looking back at the seven years I spent in China, I know I’m ready for what is to come. 

(Photo by Li Lok) Overnight clashes between protesters and police on the No.2 bridge at CUHK on the night of Nov 12, 2019.

“No One Knows Where the Red Line Lies”

Li Lok, a mainland Chinese journalist working in Hong Kong

As a mainland Chinese journalist who has worked in Hong Kong for over five years, I've enjoyed a level of press freedom unattainable for journalists back in mainland China. Self-censorship is almost like an instinct to mainland-based journalists because your career could end if you cross the “red line,” and no one knows where the “red line” lies. 

For a long time, the Hong Kong government has adhered to a “big market, small government” vision. It has remained one of the world’s freest economies for 25 years. Following this principle, the government should do very little to the economy and ensure enough freedom to build up a sustainable social and economic environment. Right now in Hong Kong, I can interview anyone and work on any story of public importance without worrying about retribution. But under the National Security Law, I worry that journalists like myself will become easy targets. It’s almost a Taiwan-like “white terror” for everyone living in the city: should I begin to self-censor like our mainland-based peers out of the need for self-preservation? Do I need to be concerned more about my personal safety than the public interests in my future reporting? Will the Chinese government prohibit me from going back to the mainland if I continue to do my job? However, despite these concerns, I will take up the challenge and make my work meaningful to society. 

“I See It as My Duty to Continue Reporting”

Rosemarie Ho, a Hong Kong journalist based in New York

For the past two weeks, I have been shoring up security protocols for all my online accounts and scrubbing and deleting my Facebook posts so that when the National Security Law is implemented back home, there is at least one fewer link between myself, my family, and Hongkongers who are still resisting the Chinese state’s encroachment. I am obviously not alone in this: many friends are deleting their accounts and anonymizing themselves on the internet, fear lacing every post they make. As a journalist abroad, I see it as my duty to continue reporting on and raising awareness about police brutality and authoritarian state incursion; as a Hongkonger, I am terrified that anything I write that is critical of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments will lead to my being barred from going home, or worse, harm to my loved ones who are still living in Hong Kong.

Not a single government or international entity has done anything to help Hongkongers who don’t already have foreign passports — as in the case of British National (Overseas) passport holders — or to help people who don’t have the inclination or resources to flee the city. Using Hong Kong as a pawn in its game of capitalist hegemony, the U.S. government is instead fomenting a new cold war with China.

Now that rage is boiling over in the U.S. about police brutality, the racist criminal justice system, and general economic inequality, I suspect that Donald Trump and his ilk will have no qualms about stoking anti-Chinese sentiment to fuel their cold war in an attempt to distract the rightfully enraged American populace. But if the past year of global unrest has taught us anything, it is that policing is structurally unjust everywhere, and provides all of us a foundation from which to build a truly international coalition against oppression.

“I Feel the Need to Give Voice to Hongkongers”

William Yang, East Asia correspondent for Deutsche Welle News

I’m too young to remember the era when “retaking the motherland” was the national slogan in Taiwan. Growing up as a Taiwanese, threats of being “reunified by force” with China are such a common occurrence that I eventually grew emotionally numb about the idea.

Fast forward to June 2019, I was standing on the streets of Hong Kong, witnessing the historic moment when millions of Hong Kong people marched to protest against a controversial extradition bill. At that moment, I was reminded of the collective fate that connects Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the face of an ever-encroaching Chinese government, the level of civic engagement has also been on the rise in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

As a journalist from Taiwan, this connection allows me to frame my questions while keeping in mind how I would answer similar questions if Taiwan were to face what Hong Kong is going through right now. That empathy helps me build an invisible bond with each interviewee whom I meet in Hong Kong.

News of the proposed National Security Law once again reminded me of the collective fate of Hong Kong people and those of us in Taiwan. China’s growing aggression has created an alliance that will bond Taiwanese and Hongkongers for years to come. To me, that bond creates a sense of responsibility that I attach to news coming out of Hong Kong. I feel obligated to share Hong Kong people’s voices with the world through my reporting, and I understand the importance of helping the world understand their stories.

Taiwan and Hong Kong are stronger when their people join forces. As a Taiwanese journalist, I feel the need to give voice to Hongkongers, who are struggling to preserve the very essence of their way of life.

Writers: Wilfred Chan, Selina Cheng, Mimi Lau, Li Lok, Rosemarie Ho, William Yang; Editors: Shen Lu, Isabelle Niu, Xinyan Yu; Copy editor: Daniel Mejia.

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