Is Hong Kong still Hong Kong? - SOAS China Institute

//Is Hong Kong still Hong Kong?

Is Hong Kong still Hong Kong?

Photo credit: Samuel Fu (Unsplash)

By Vaudine England | 03 October 2023

In a sign of how Hong Kong has changed, everyone’s name in this story will be obscured. Bank managers or journalists, hotel managers, professors or elected legislators — all would have been happy to be quoted until a couple of years ago. No more.


Depending on where one stands, this is a mark of just how far this once feisty Asian port city has fallen since the Chinese government took more control following the huge anti-government protests of 2019.


Or it is a satisfying touchstone of success. The Chinese Communist Party leadership said they wanted to change the way Hong Kong behaved, and indeed they have done so.


Revisiting Hong Kong 20 months after moving to a new home in Europe offered a dizzying ride through coded converse and roller-coaster emotion. Questions resonate as to what its mainland-shaped future holds.


A breakfast meeting was with one of the few democrats not yet jailed; her day-job is visiting former colleagues and friends in either remand centres or prison. She knows just what gifts are allowed and how to moderate her conversation according to audience, be it at home or overseas.


Coffee with a retired bank manager saw the pendulum swing far, to be told that Hong Kong is so much better nowadays, after the ‘rioters’ were caught. He was glad that Jimmy Lai was getting what was coming to him. And he insisted that all those ‘rioters’ (one million on 9 June 2019 and two million of them the next weekend) were ‘paid by the Americans’.


The conversation was an illustration of how language now requires signposting. As soon as rioters are mentioned, the side of the fence of the speaker is known. It is far more loaded than mere ‘protestors’ or ‘demonstrators’ as a ‘rioter’ if convicted, faces a ten-year jail sentence. Jimmy Lai used to publish Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspaper, the pro-democracy Apple Daily, since closed by the government’s grasping of its assets. He now faces charges which could see him jailed for life.


A history professor assured me he could still teach that Hong Kong was once a British colony. Government strictures to the contrary have it that Hong Kong was simply occupied territory never deserving of the name (or UN decolonisation procedures) of a colony, despite treaties signed in which China ceded it in perpetuity. Such strictures, he claimed, were local over-reach by officials eager to please their Beijing masters.


But Chinese translations of the professor’s work have contentious content – such as the view that the National Security Law has affected the rule of law – deleted. School curriculums have had courses promoting independent thinking replaced with instruction on ‘national security’; libraries have been purged of books deemed subversive — a term now used so loosely as to allow great room for cautious self-censorship.


Another friend offered the view that anyone who has a choice to leave Hong Kong and stays, is complicit. They are supporting the lie, he said, that Hong Kong is getting back to ‘normal’ after Covid, and everything is now much better than before, being tidier and calmer.


Should one leave a place that for many has been home for generations, just to deprive the Chinese leadership of those educated, privileged classes who might see their continued presence in Hong Kong in this way?


Utter nonsense, says another, whose business requires a Hong Kong presence. So what if the main newspaper’s daily cartoons are now but shadows of their formal selves! A hotel manager insisted that ‘Nothing has changed – well some people say they have friends in jail, but it’s still the same city!’ No doubt we all have ways to convince ourselves of whatever position suits us best.


Perhaps Hong Kong is a marvel of modern Chinese thought – insisting that an economy can buzz and bustles while its public discourse is controlled.


Or is it a kind of Vichy? Those who saw what was happening, if not jailed on the spot, ran to join the overseas resistance. Others jumped enthusiastically onto the bandwagon for jobs, money and attention. Yet others told themselves they could keep their heads down, behave, and survive; they could insist, it’s still France isn’t it?


What is clear from Hong Kong’s close up and personal history is that it was quite literally made by people coming from all over the world. They were able, in Hong Kong, to mingle and make love, to trade and share customs and cultures, mix gene pools and adapt diverse ideas and ways of life. Hong Kong grew off the back of hard-working peoples not only from China but from the world.


Can that cosmopolitan throb survive the current clampdown on freedoms of assembly, speech and the right to a fair trial? Perhaps once more, Hong Kong is the petri dish in which such a grand experiment will succeed. Or perhaps, like Trieste, it will fade away, as the tectonic plates on which it grew have shifted; the empires around it changed, so it did too.

Vaudine England was a journalist for three decades in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong for the BBC, Reuters, the Far Eastern Economic Review and several London newspapers. She is the author of several books: The Quest of Noel Croucher – Hong Kong’s Quiet Philanthropist, Kindred Spirits – a History of The Hong Kong Club, Arnholds – China Trader, Empire’s Children – A Hong Kong Family, and Hari Harilela – Made in Hong Kong.  Based in Amsterdam, she is completing a PhD in Asian History through Leiden University. She is also a co-founding director of the archives and history-making consultancy, History Ink Limited. Her latest book, Fortune’s Bazaar – The Making of Hong Kong, explores the individuals and neighbourhoods, the world trades and intrusions, and the diverse peoples who went into making this great Asian port city in its first century.


Her talk “Rewriting Hong Kong History” will take place at SOAS on 16 October 2023.


The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.