Photo by Robert Bye
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.—George Orwell, 1984
Last November, Hongkongers got a glimpse of their future. Protestors had fortified the city’s campuses. Polytechnic University was besieged by police forces. A subdued protestor, lying on the ground, was stomped on the head by riot police: boot to face to concrete. Unlike O’Brien’s vision in 1984, it was over in an instant, but that instant was an image of Hong Kong’s future. Commenting on the incident, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Police Force said that its officer had used strictly “appropriate level of force” and that that the public should not “worry about why the police do this or why the police do that,” but simply “trust and support us.” There was no accountability. No apology. This is Hong Kong in a microcosm.
The curb stomping in itself was nothing special. These kinds of police attacks are routine nowadays. In a recent collection of essays entitled Aftershock, Holmes Chan writes about a man who was beaten by three police officers outside a shopping mall in Causeway Bay. The man was thrown down and pinned to the ground. Then one officer struck him twice on his head with a baton, bloodying both his face and the concrete. “Even my front tooth has been knocked out,” the man spluttered. As Chan notes—and as Orwell knew—language matters: these are police attacks. Chan writes that, “if you ask the Hong Kong Police Force, they will claim that their use of force (and it is always ‘use of force,’ never ‘violence’) follows a ‘continuum’ of gradual escalation.” Language like this flattens and rationalises violence, making it seem as if it were the logical outcome of tit-for-tat encounters with protestors. In reality, however, the HKPF’s violence is sheer intimidation. They do it because they can. Hong Kong is in effect run by a group of uniformed thugs: this is the image of Hong Kong’s near future.
I arrived in Hong Kong last summer to study at HKU. Over the course of my academic year, I have seen optimism turn to pessimism. The extradition bill was killed, but the new national security law, which is so broad that it effectively criminalises dissent, is even worse. Days after Beijing passed it, a Hongkonger told me that he was expecting the coming years to bring Pinochet-style rule to Hong Kong. But he was perhaps too optimistic. The Chilean regime lasted less than two decades and in the end Pinochet was arrested. Will the same be said of Xi Jinping one day? I doubt it.
The passage of the national security law changed the imaginative landscape: repressive measures that had previously felt possible now felt plausible. Last Sunday, the Secretary for Security said that the Hong Kong government is setting up a new secret police unit, tasked with enforcing the security law. He also said that it is up to Beijing to decide whether PRC security services will operate in Hong Kong. In this environment, is it strange that some Hongkongers now talk about acquiring a foreign passport? The security law feels like the beginning of the end for Hong Kong as we have known it. Wilfred Chan writes that what has been lost is neither democracy nor autonomy, because Hong Kong has never has either of those: “What’s lost is the feeling that Hong Kong’s future could be an open question.” The future is now closed. As in O’Brien’s metaphor, the security law feels final.
In 1996, Clive James travelled to Hong Kong to meet the then Governor Chris Patten and ask whether China could be trusted to uphold its side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration: “Aren’t you really taking a punt; you are making a bet that in 1997 they will have changed?” Patten replied that there is only one statistic you need to know about Hong Kong: it has an economy worth about a quarter of China’s. That was before the handover. Today, that share has shrunk to less than three per cent. Following the enactment of the security law, the United Kingdom is promising to give Hongkongers an expedited path to citizenship. Beijing has replied by calling the Joint Declaration “a unilateral policy announcement by China,” which can be unilaterally revoked. Hong Kong’s economic stature was supposed to guarantee its liberties—instead, it is now losing both. Meanwhile, the United States has said that it will revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status because it no longer enjoys a high degree of autonomy. Hong Kong in decline feels like the Venetian republic in its last years: menaced from outside and crumbling within, losing its economic importance and looking to the past because it has lost hope in its future.
The slogans of the protest movement reflect this pessimism. You can’t kill us all, one reads. But they could kill quite a few. Then there is Patrick Henry’s Give me liberty or give me death. Yet the American revolution liberated the colonies from Britain, while the Hong Kong revolution has no chance of securing liberty for Hong Kong. So if it is not liberty, is it give me death? Another slogan, taken from The Hunger Games, reads If we burn, you burn with us. But this amounts to a one-sided suicide pact: if Hong Kong burns, China will not burn. This is becoming increasingly clear. It is a matter of sheer size difference. The latest—more optimistic—image is that of a phoenix rising from the ashes. The meaning is obvious: if Hong Kong burns, it will rise again. But I can think of a few cities that have burned without rising from the ashes: Vesuvius is all ash and no phoenix.
But there is still hope for Hong Kong in the long term. Orwell famously wrote that he who controls the past controls the future. Politics, in other words, arises from our shared memories. This should give Hongkongers some encouragement. For, unlike Shenzhen, the neighbouring city to the north, Hong Kong has a past of its own.
Shenzhen is as close to a blank slate as a city can be. It was a mere village in the seventies. Today it has more inhabitants than London. There is nothing in it that predates the Party. It is a city without history, without a past. The idea of a clean start has always appealed to totalitarians. Mao wrote that a “blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.” Of course, no slate is ever truly blank, but Shenzhen comes near. It is at least a palimpsest. It is a city that has no memories and therefore no politics.
But Hong Kong is not a blank slate nor is it a palimpsest, whose history can be partially erased and replaced. Hong Kong has its own separate identity. Its sense of apartness has only strengthened during the last year, and that will perhaps be the most salient result of the protest movement. Hongkongers have a long history of resisting imperialism, both British and Chinese, and they will continue that tradition in the future, albeit in more underground forms. This year’s Tiananmen vigil was banned—and perhaps next year’s will be too—but Hongkongers nonetheless remember. Tens of thousands of people showed up at Victoria Park, despite the ban. On walls across Hong Kong, there are squares of grey paint covering protest posters and graffiti. But although the signs of protest can be painted over, the memory of them will not be forgotten. Hong Kong has now entered a holding game: if people’s memories outlast the Party, then something of Hong Kong’s spirit will survive.