The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How jailed Hong Kong protesters are subjected to ‘thought work’

Protesters march on the streets against an extradition bill in Hong Kong in June 2019. (Vincent Yu/AP)
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Perry Link is professor emeritus of East Asian studies at Princeton University.

As the political system of the People’s Republic of China continues its takeover in Hong Kong, local officials in the city sometimes seem only too eager to please their Beijing masters. An official in Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department has recently, and with evident pride, explained how the department uses brainwashing techniques that have long been standard on the mainland.

In the past three decades, the Chinese Communist Party has spent immense sums on “stability maintenance,” a budget item for funding not only police and prisons but also a legion of “thought workers” who blanket the country to nip in the bud any possible threat to CCP authority. A comment that isn’t “correct” can trigger an invitation for a “chat”: Are you sure you want to say that? Wouldn’t your life be better if you did not? You do want your little daughter to get into that neighborhood school, don’t you? And so on.

Mainland dissidents, accustomed to such chats, can become adept at sparring with thought workers. But they need to learn the rules of the game as they go; the regime does not publish them. In Hong Kong, the Correctional Services Department does.

In a budgeting document for the fiscal year ending in 2023, the department describes how prison authorities work on “persons in custody” (abbreviated as “PICs”), who are not famous dissidents but ordinary protesters, most of them young, who have been charged with political offenses.

At the end of 2021, Hong Kong prisons held 1,787 PICs between the ages of 18 and 30 and nearly 200 more under 18. They have been subjected to standard CCP thought-work techniques such as these:

We are pinning a negative but unclear label on you. During huge street demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019, some young protesters began wearing black outfits; this led the Correctional Services Department to inaugurate the term “black-clad violence.” The color black has a storied CCP history. During the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the most politically despised people were classified into “Five Black Categories.” In 1989, leaders of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations were labeledblack hands.” There are many other examples. And what exactly are “black” characteristics? You needn’t ask. All you need to know is that black = wrong and that you are on the defensive.

If you oppose us, you are by definition a minority. PICs are described in the Correctional Services document as “radical” lawbreakers who are “extreme” in their “anti-social” mind-set. Never mind that they marched in demonstrations that brought more than a quarter of the city’s entire population into the streets. In police rhetoric, they were at the fringes. During the equally immense demonstrations in Beijing in spring 1989, CCP media stalwartly held that “a tiny minority” was causing all the trouble.

The regime occupies the moral center. The question for “extremists” is always whether they will choose to return to the mainstream. It is the right thing to do. Just as the words black and wrong have no specifiable empirical content, the word right has none, either. The Correctional Services Department wishes that young Hong Kongers will take the “right” path and set the “right” goals, but what does right mean? The government knows.

Your family is in the mainstream, not with you. In one sense, there is sometimes truth in this claim. Families, even while privately sympathizing with their PICs, often play it safe. Dissidents in mainland China have often observed that relatives are the first to criticize them, since a brash dissident can endanger an entire family. Accordingly, in Hong Kong, the Correctional Services Department touts special family programs that are aimed to help PICs “form stronger determination to turn over a new leaf through family support.”

You must be clear on history. It is both essential to Marxism-Leninism and deep in Chinese cultural tradition that the legitimacy of a ruler depends upon a correct view of recent history — as determined by officials. The department provides “Virtual Reality history learning activities” for those who need it because a “sense of national identity” helps “build positive values” and will steer PICs “back on the right track.”

Your government is here to help. It knows that PICs have “special rehabilitation needs.” Case managers “adjust [prisoners’] rehabilitation programmes as and when necessary” to account for changing “psychological and emotional disturbances, difficulties in controlling impulsiveness, etc.” Special programs include an Information Literacy Group to teach prisoners “to judge the authenticity of online information”; and a Zen Photography Workshop to “help them think over their problems from a different perspective.”

Government care follows a PIC out of prison. It begins with “Project Landing,” which has a mission to help them “de-radicalise, cultivate multi-perspective thinking, develop empathy skills and rebuild family relationships.” Next comes a police-sponsored “Walk with YOUth Programme” that helps PICs to “re-establish correct values … with a view to reducing ... recidivism.” A psychological service center called “Change Lab” aims to build up “psychological resilience” and help “resist temptations.”

In mainland China, it is well known that punishments are reduced for people who show gratitude for psychological help. Similarly in Hong Kong, according to the Correctional Services Department, “de-radicalisation rehabilitation programmes have received positive and favourable response from participants.”

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