It wasn’t a paradise of liberty, exactly. But Hong Kong was the most open part of China (not including the self-governing island of Taiwan). It showed that freedom and democracy could thrive on Chinese soil, challenging the Communist Party’s justification for one-party rule and perhaps setting a dangerous precedent for other Chinese cities.
Then, President Xi Jinping decided he had seen enough. In just 60 days this year, the Chinese government introduced, passed and implemented a law giving Beijing autocratic control of the territory. It took effect on the anniversary of the handover.
Hong Kongers now live under a pall of fear. They’re scrubbing their social media accounts of old posts critical of the Chinese government or supportive of the protest movement. Shops have scraped pro-democracy posters and stickers off their facades. Books by local democracy activist Joshua Wong have been removed from the shelves at public libraries. Some people have deleted the Chinese messaging and all-purpose app WeChat from their phones; many have switched to apps like Signal and Telegram, considered to have more secure encryption. “I just don’t like the feeling of being nervous using WeChat,” one resident told me.
These are practices common on the mainland, but I had always doubted they’d come here. What is most shocking is the speed with which everything changed. Hong Kong, almost overnight, has become like every other city in China.
Traveling from mainland China into Hong Kong always felt like lifting a heavy weight off your shoulders or taking in a breath of fresh air. Here was a prosperous, free and open place, but still Chinese — a harbinger of what China itself might one day become, if it chose. The territory was a stable business and media hub, with lively politics, a tough and critical press, an efficient, nonpartisan civil service, and a highly regarded police force and legal system that respected individual rights.
By contrast, I always felt stifled by the oppression on the mainland, particularly working as a journalist. My colleagues and I assumed every conversation was monitored, every meeting surveilled. The few sources who would meet with us spoke about sensitive topics in code or in whispered tones. Some interviewees insisted that we remove our cellphone batteries to guard against electronic eavesdropping. Many reporters blocked by the government from moving to China set themselves up in Hong Kong, where they could operate unhindered.
China experimented with a brief, tiny crack of openness, from late 2009 until 2012. Internet usage was expanding, and a new army of bloggers began exposing high-level corruption and malfeasance, holding local Communist Party officials accountable and giving ordinary citizens a way to talk back to power.
All changed after Xi came to power. He slapped strict new controls on the Internet. People who chose to speak their minds — dissidents like Wu Bin and many others — met grim fates: Many of the activists with whom I regularly met had their accounts shut down; some were detained; others like Huaguoshan Zongshuji, who exposed corruption, disappeared or, like artist Ai Weiwei, left the country. Sources I had developed over the years, chatting in coffee shops or their homes, were suddenly no longer available, sending the word that it was “not convenient” to meet a foreign reporter.
During a 2019 visit to the mainland, I spoke with a diplomat who described how, for ordinary people, surviving under a repressive, omnipresent Chinese government is like living in a house with a killer python curled around your chandelier: You know the python is there, and you tiptoe around gingerly, always terrified, never knowing exactly what loud noise or sudden movement might cause the python to come down and strike. You go about your everyday business, but you’re always conscious of the creature above you.
Now the python is here.
In the few weeks since the new security law was imposed, at least two dozen people have been arrested for violating it, including one who was carrying a furled pro-independence banner. Four young students — one just 16 — who were members of a group called Studentlocalism were picked up in police raids. International arrest warrants were issued for six activists outside Hong Kong, including Nathan Law, who was disqualified from his seat in the legislature and fled to London when the new law took effect. And police arrested prominent publisher and pro-democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, along with his sons and several associates; 200 uniformed officers raided the newsroom of his paper, Apple Daily.
Protests have been largely proscribed, ostensibly because of the coronavirus pandemic, but demonstrators trying to gather are warned that they may be violating the national security law. Phrases like “revolution of our times” have been declared secessionist and illegal. The popular songs of the protest movement have been banned from schools. People still find creative ways to voice dissent, like holding up blank sheets of white paper or buying up copies of Apple Daily.
The Hong Kong Immigration Department without fanfare also set up a secretive new national security unit this year to vet visa requests from foreign journalists, according to reports. Work permits for reporters from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the local South China Morning Post have been subject to delays. Suddenly I hear whispered warnings about my social media posts: “Do you really want to say that?” a friend asked after I tweeted about the police raid on Apple Daily and called it a dire assault on press freedom. “Aren’t you worried about getting kicked out?” Another feared for my independence: “Aren’t you worried about not getting your visa renewed?”
Citizens’ trust in their institutions is fast eroding. After a year spent quelling protests with force, the Hong Kong police have seen their approval rating plummet to just 36.8 percent this year from 62.5 percent in 2018, according to the Public Opinion Research Institute. (They are now even less popular than the People’s Liberation Army garrison in the city.) Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has an approval rating of 19 percent.
People here fear for the city’s once widely respected judicial system. The new national security law gives the chief executive (handpicked by a group of mostly Beijing loyalists) the power to choose judges to hear sensitive cases. Trials can be held in secret, and some provisions of the measure — like the denial of bail, an end to the presumption of innocence and the possibility of being shipped over the border to China for trial — contradict the rights and freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, called the Basic Law.
These days, whether it’s on the university campus where I teach, or the bars and watering holes where longtime expatriates gather, many conversations have turned to the question of where to go next. Young people — including many of the city’s best talents — are openly talking about moving to other countries. Some foreign residents who have called this home for decades are deciding whether to pull up stakes. The Hong Kong of old, the one where you could breathe freely, is never coming back.