April 15, however, was not a normal Thursday. That occasion, the first “National Security Education Day” since China imposed a tough security law in June, was the most visible display of Hong Kong’s fall from a relatively free, boisterous territory to an Orwellian place that resembles the repressive mainland.
The propaganda scenes were a contrast to 2019, when reporters documented Hong Kong’s largest revolt against Chinese rule since the 1997 handover by Britain. Directed at children and designed to rehabilitate the image of the Hong Kong Police Force, last week’s campaign showed how the authorities are enforcing a single narrative of the protests — meddlesome foreign forces stirring up trouble — and how no expense will be spared to fully integrate the financial center into China’s authoritarian system.
With space for dissent closed by the security law — which, with terms like “separatism,” “subversion” and “terrorism,” proscribes actions previously considered free expression — many who were part of the 2019 uprising have no choice but to adopt a hushed compliance.
The day started with flag-raising ceremonies at most schools and the singing of the Chinese national anthem, the “March of the Volunteers.” Many schools also organized national security puzzle games and asked students to write “wish cards” pledging support for the new law — the resulting works resembled the message-covered “Lennon Walls” synonymous with the democracy movement.
One elementary school teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said she had to play a cartoon for her students about “national security,” featuring an owl in a scarf, and distribute a booklet explaining the new law. Teachers were told to make the point, she said, that adhering to the national security law is as simple as following school rules.
Hong Kong’s best legal minds continually tell me the law is a vague catchall, creating broadly worded crimes that could land people in jail for playing a song or uttering a slogan. They call the law “one of the greatest threats to human rights and the rule of law” in Hong Kong since the handover; it has already driven out thousands of people and led some companies, most notably the New York Times, to move employees elsewhere. Now, it was being portrayed to youngsters as something universal and compliant with human rights.
The teacher said her 10-year-old pupils can’t comprehend this nuance — and so have become part of a “brainwashing” campaign. “Students will completely believe this and aren’t thinking critically about our past,” she said. “We feel helpless. It is a job under the system, and so we can only follow the rules.”
Kindergarten students as young as 3 had to participate in various National Security Education Day events, including smiling for photos that would fill a mosaic wall of those dedicated to protecting national security. Because they cannot read, they were spared the booklets. The mosaics appeared at locations across the city; throughout the day, small groups of Beijing supporters turned up to add photos of themselves in hues of blue, the color of the establishment. One supporter, Shirley Lee, said she accepted the law’s restrictions on freedoms and believed it was necessary.
“If people are given too much freedom or indulgence, they can do anything they want,” she said. “There is a Chinese saying: A country has its laws, and a family has its rules.”
Hong Kong’s law enforcement agencies also arranged an “open day” for the public. At the Hong Kong Police College, the visuals were a mix of cute and cuddly, dark and authoritarian.
Reporters and photographers were led to a courtyard where, under a light drizzle and dark clouds, we would watch Hong Kong police officers goose-step for the first time. This is the marching style of the People’s Liberation Army, which Police Chief Chris Tang said was fitting for the occasion, a day to mark how proud the force was to be Chinese. Also for the first time, commands were given only in Cantonese, not English.
The goose step is also used by North Korea and was performed by the military in Nazi Germany. George Orwell described it as “one of the most horrible sights in the world,” a deliberate “vision of a boot crashing down on a face.”
On the way to take our positions for that display, we were greeted by officers wielding balloons fashioned into a cutesy smiling police officer. There were commemorative items: a cuddly plush bear wearing the uniform of the Raptors, a tactical unit known for some of the most brutal operations against protesters — including one in which officers chased commuters and protesters onto a stationary subway train on Aug. 31, 2019, beat them with batons and pepper-sprayed distraught, cowering people in the face.
Children and their parents posed and took selfies with crowd-control and riot-control weapons, including a tear-gas launcher and a water cannon. I spent hours in late 2019 watching clips of police officers using these weapons, in breach of their own guidelines, for an award-winning investigation The Washington Post produced. No one has been punished.
As officers handed out ponchos and bags of national security memorabilia, and even guided me to the bathroom, it was hard to connect them to the force that subjected reporters to tear gas, pepper spray, intimidation and threats when we covered the 2019 protests. I thought of Veby Mega Indah, a journalist who permanently lost sight in an eye after she was hit by a rubber bullet while covering a protest. The Hong Kong police have declined to identify the officer who fired the projectile, and so she has had trouble seeking compensation or justice.
Sitting in a taxi on the way back from the Police College, I gazed across Aberdeen Harbor and saw three blue banners — two on buses and one draped across a building — urging people to “Uphold National Security” and declaring that “patriots” must rule Hong Kong.
It wasn’t too long ago that my conversations, including with pro-Beijing establishment figures, covered a spectrum.
They, too, wanted reconciliation and criticized Chief Executive Carrie Lam for missteps. They, too, sympathized with Hong Kongers as the space for democracy closed.
But as opposition leaders are marched off to jail, memories of the 2019 protests are being erased, leaving only a narrative of violent rioters deceived by foreign forces and the imposition of laws designed to eradicate them. And, as a friend who recently left Hong Kong wrote to me, this place is now “unrecognizable.”
Theodora Yu contributed to this report.