Several of us in Marcellus were stockbrokers before we could afford to become investors. As stockbrokers, Hong Kong was one of our favourite cities to visit, ranking alongside vibrant financial centres as New York and London and offering people like us not just the chance to make money but also to enjoy delicious Chinese food, visit pulsating marketplaces selling everything from fresh fish to fake Gucci products and meet people from all over the world. As Cold War II ramps up, Louisa Lim’s heartbreakingly beautiful article helps us realise what the world is losing as Hong Kong gradually becomes part of the empire controlled by the Communist Party in China.
Lim, a former resident of Hong Kong, now lives in Melbourne and is the author of ‘Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong’. She begins her piece by describe how migrants from Hong Kong who now live in Melbourne reminisce and grieve about the lives that they left behind: “After lockdown ended, one Melbourne cinema showed a series of films by Hong Kong’s arthouse director Wong Kar-wai. Night after night, I went. Almost immediately I realised I could identify the Hong Kongers in the audience. Often, like me, they came alone. They chose seats that were slightly apart from other people. Once the film started, you could hear them weeping quietly in the dark, mourning the lost city on the screen in front of them.” (In case you would like to get a flavour of what makes Hong Kong special, you might want to watch, Wong Kar-wai’s turn of the century classic, ‘In the mood for love’.)
Lim then explains how Hong Kong is now witnessing rapid mass emigration: “The city’s population of 7.4mn is shrinking, fast. Some residents are leaving so suddenly they are abandoning their expensive cars in car parks. Almost 150,000 residents have left (in net terms) since the end of 2021, including more than 50,000 people in the first half of March alone. According to Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Research Institute, almost a quarter of the city’s residents have plans to leave.”
So why are these people exiting what is still one of the world’s most prosperous cities and will soon be run by the world’s second most powerful country? “One impetus is Hong Kong’s draconian Covid regulations. Until recently, Covid-positive people were sent to isolate in quarantine camps, while a Hong Kong charity estimates that up to 2,000 infected children have been separated from their parents in hospital.
The bigger factor remains the political climate in the aftermath of the massive 2019 protests. In June 2020, Beijing imposed national security legislation on Hong Kong, outlawing secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. These crimes are so poorly defined that clapping during a court hearing now apparently constitutes a seditious activity, as does criticising the government’s Covid response on social media, or wearing a T-shirt or possessing stickers bearing the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”.
One database counts 183 people arrested under the national security law since its introduction, a third of them for speech crimes. Vibrant civil society organisations have been forced to disband and the city’s feisty legislature was transformed beyond recognition into a patriots-only body after 47 political activists were arrested for subversion for holding a primary poll.”
Lim then recounts a tale how some of her friends in Melbourne – who are like her students who have come to Australia from Hong Kong – are being called up by their parents in Hong Kong and are being told not to return to Hong Kong. Lim then describes her state of mind as she tries to come to terms with the new realities facing people like her: “Despite my former existence as a journalist in China for the BBC and NPR — negotiating Beijing’s shifting political sensitivities every day for a decade — I had no useful advice. The unpredictability of Hong Kong’s national security legislation means its red lines are in constant motion, stretching and bleeding into a red sea that swamps an ever-lengthening list of activities. In some ways I am an interloper in this community; I am not a Hong Kong native, though I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s with a Chinese father and an English mother. Yet I shared their fears, both diffuse and specific….
The national security legislation was administered by an Orwellian body called the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which had arrived suddenly in Hong Kong in the dead of night, commandeering a hotel for its use a week after the law was enacted.
It soon became clear that the contours of the national security legislation would only emerge after they had been contravened, leaving silence as the only guarantee of self-preservation.”
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