That helps explain why China’s government is so determined to tighten its authoritarian grip on their cultural exports. In the past, it has even gone as far as making Hong Kong and Taiwanese artists sign a pledge that they will identify as “Chinese" and not engage in any “politically incorrect” activity while in the mainland.
The latest example of this trend is Beijing’s brazen decision to push through a “national security” law in Hong Kong in reaction to the city’s pro-democracy protests. In effect, the legislation criminalizes any action the state perceives as dissent. For the Chinese government, it’s one step closer to repairing a fractured ego and erasing the humiliation it faced in the past — better known as the “Century of Humiliation” — when China was overrun with foreign invasion from every corner of the world and lost Hong Kong to the British Empire. But it’s a nightmare come true for Hong Kongers — including the city’s writers, artists and entertainers, who are used to freely expressing their views through their mediums.
As I was growing up in the United States, the Chinese pop albums I listened to and movies I watched were primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan. While the mainland remained impoverished and closed off — thanks to a generation of controlling politicians traumatized by the past and willing to throw the collective traditions of the dynasties into a bonfire — neighboring Hong Kong and Taiwan started to thrive. They became epicenters for modern Chinese pop culture and gateways to how the rest of the world understood Chinese entertainment.
At its peak, the tiny island territory of Hong Kong alone had the third-largest film industry in the world, behind Bollywood and Hollywood, with the Shaw Brothers introducing the world to a genre of high-octane kung fu flicks and competitor Golden Harvest producing stars such as Bruce Lee. Later would come household names who got their start in Hong Kong and still resonate on the international stage, including Anita Mui, Stephen Chow, Maggie Cheung, Faye Wong, Wong Kar-wai and Michelle Yeoh.
As China started developing, creative exchanges flourished within the region despite political differences. Even today, Hong Kong artists and Taiwanese celebrities hold considerable cultural clout, working in the mainland and appearing and performing on variety shows and television dramas. On mainland singing competition shows, contestants often perform songs by Hong Kong or Taiwanese artists.
However, the Chinese government’s increasingly hostile political efforts are now eroding the collaborative efforts within the Chinese-speaking region, forcing artists to take sides and segregating both Hong Kong and China’s creative industries. This is furthering a cultural rift.
When I interviewed Anthony Wong — a Hong Kong civil rights activist, producer and electronic indie musician — during his U.S. tour last fall, he told me, “In a way, the Chinese government is starting a second Cultural Revolution, killing and sacrificing the culture for its own gain.”
“I think the most terrifying thing is that everyone is living in fear,” Wong continued.
This couldn’t come at a worse time. For years, China has been making huge headway not only as an economic powerhouse but also a cultural influencer — shaking the stereotype that modern China’s tendency is toward intellectual and creative theft. This is exemplified by legions of talented Chinese fashion designers showing at all the essential fashion weeks, Chinese filmmakers at all the major film festivals, and Chinese artists and musicians showcasing around international hubs. It was, and still is, a moment for China.
But all of that work to change China’s image is unraveling because of an unrelenting tyrannical government confusing unification with ethnic cleansing, surveillance and censorship. Instead of leveraging the unique diversity and creativity of the greater Chinese community, it aims to homogenize, sterilize and subdue it.
The tighter the grip of Chinese officials, the more they act like their colonial oppressors. But Beijing will never receive the respect it craves through fear and intimidation, no matter how economically or politically powerful it becomes.
This is why Hong Kong cannot fall. It is a custodian of the memories and traditions the Chinese government wants to erase. It is the home to the families that had to flee persecution. It is the sole territory that’s able to hold China accountable for the Tiananmen Square Massacre. It is the birthplace of the classic Cantonese dramas my parents watch and the songs they still listen to. And now, it’s the battleground for a young generation fighting for the freedoms they were promised. Beijing does not have the right to take that away.