That ferry was a fitting entryway to the subtropical island metropolis and the cultural hodgepodge that nurtured my father’s spirit. And it is that cultural independence that is at risk in the dramatic conflict in Hong Kong now stretching into its third month.
Though Hong Kong has been part of China since 1997, its residents enjoy much more cultural freedom than their compatriots on the mainland because of the “one country, two systems” policy that governs the relationship between the two entities.
In mainland China, a strict censorship regime prevents the publication of any book, film, song, news article or blog post that is remotely critical of the Communist Party regime. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Google are all blocked. Chinese citizens cannot put images of Winnie the Pooh into a Weibo post, and they have had to come up with creative workarounds to say #MeToo as government censors crack down on discussions of sexual misconduct in China. State regulators allow foreign books and films into the country only if they are deemed anodyne, and insufficiently bland music acts can’t perform on the mainland. Jay-Z was banned because censors considered his lyrics too profane; Katy Perry sinned by wearing a Taiwanese flag; and Justin Bieber was blacklisted after visiting a controversial Japanese shrine.
In Hong Kong, the people don’t elect their leaders, but they can read, watch and listen to whatever they want. The vibrant film industry produces the world’s best cops-and-robbers movies, many of which feature story lines of corrupt police officers and government officials that would put mainland censors in fits. In Hong Kong, you can still be a Belieber. And you can read, or write, any book you want. “The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People — In Their Own Words” will never be available to the 1.3 billion people who live in mainland China, but the 7 million citizens of Hong Kong can read it on their lunch breaks.
The authors and publishers of controversial, even salacious books with titles such as “On the Eve of Collapse” and “The Lovers of Xi Jinping” used to consider Hong Kong a haven . But Chinese security forces have developed a nasty habit of arresting them on the mainland on bogus charges. In 2015, they even dared to abduct a publisher who was on vacation in Thailand, and British officials said an editor was “involuntarily removed” from Hong Kong to the mainland later that year. This year, Hong Kong’s China-backed legislature pushed forward an extradition bill that would allow Beijing to force Hong Kong to arrest and hand over people who have violated Chinese laws, which would have made it easier for China to crack down on these literary dissidents. This bill ignited the protest movement that has cast the city into turmoil and captured the world’s attention.
On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally withdrew the bill, but as the conflict has escalated, the protesters have broadened their demands to include her resignation, as well as an independent investigation into allegations of police misconduct, amnesty for arrested protesters and greater political freedom. Meanwhile, the mainland Chinese authorities have rotated fresh troops into their Hong Kong garrison, threatening a military crackdown. The tense standoff between two proud and intransigent forces is certain to either reinforce or obliterate the cultural freedom that lies at the core of Hong Kong’s identity.
When my father’s family left Shanghai for Hong Kong, they became refugees who didn’t speak the language or have much money. My father honed his English by watching American movies. He slumped down in his seat so he couldn’t rely on the Chinese subtitles. He couldn’t afford to buy books, so he rented them from street vendors. In this way, he read graphic-novel versions of Dickens and Dumas translated into Chinese. His favorite was “The Count of Monte Cristo” — the story of a peripatetic man of mystery who was wrongly imprisoned by a corrupt magistrate.
Twelve years later, my father immigrated to the United States, where he grew a mustache, learned to dance and started wearing paisley shirts. He met a Jewish woman at a folk-dancing party in California and persuaded her to travel around the world with him. I was born 10 years after that, and this year, I published my novel, a globe-spanning tale of corruption, redemption and revenge. The unconventional story of my family could have taken place only in the United States, but the path my father took to get here is quintessentially Hong Kong. If the regime in Beijing has its way in Hong Kong, these stories won’t be possible for much longer.