Beyond What Lies in Darkness: The Fight for Freedom in Hong Kong

Hong Kong, dawn. The last day of October. The late summer heat lingers here yet there is a sense autumn is coming to the city, cooling the air and casting the sky in crisp oranges and blues. In Causeway Bay, financiers with shirt-sleeves rolled up in the dawn humidity, tourists clad in sunglasses and backpacks walk past each other in shuffled throngs on the street, already busy at the early hour. Some are aware and some are not of the morning break of fin de siècle upon the city. Tightly wedged between two neon strawberry pink storefronts selling cheap makeup and face-masks, an inconspicuous doorway with a faded red graphic of the revolutionary Mao Zedong printed on the signboard inviting you up the stairs and into a small, cramped bookshop tucked away from prying eyes. 

Today, the bookshop is shuttered, lights turned off and dirtied in the early morning light. The People Book Café, owned and run by Paul Tang, was in the business of selling literature banned by the Communist Party of China from their historic Causeway Bay location. They will never reopen again, nor will any of the other bookshops who had their stock seized and owners sent into exile, or worse. This is the end sign of the last chapter of Hong Kong’s independent publishing scene, and to those who live within its borders, the final toll of democratic freedom of speech in Hong Kong. 

Image Courtesy of Leung Ching Yau Alex via © Flickr, 2014, some rights reserved  

The People Book Café was the last of its kind, the only remaining source in literary contraband in what had been the world’s ‘window onto China, a sanctuary for books that tell the truth about the mainland,’ as Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chair of the NGO Hong Kong Watch, told The Guardian on Wednesday. Its closing largely concludes the censorship regime of the China Communist Party (CCP) which, according to a New York Times inquiry published in April, began in 2013 with the start of the inconspicuously-named Southern Hill Project. This began the process of complete suppression of censored material entering the mainland from Hong Kong via Chinese visitors, many of whom were low-lying party members themselves, coercing buyers to pay extortionate fines as well as the confiscation of the material that might have been too salacious, invited too much introspection, or brought too much damage to CCP ideology.

In 2015, the sensational and abrupt disappearances of five Causeway Bay Books booksellers –owned by the tenebrous Mighty Current publishing company, responsible for between 30% to 60% of market share of the publication of ‘racy Chinese political books’ – skyrocketed the CCP censorship regime unto the front pages of international news. In his January 2016 report, UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond cited the disappearances and corrupt detainments as ‘a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of one country, two systems.’ In the eight months following the sensational arrest of Lam Wing-Kee, the owner of Causeway Bay Books with two decades of contraband smuggling charges under his belt, China has engaged in a  saga of despotism that would hardly seem out of place in one of Lam’s political thrillers: CCP officials abducted a Hong Kong billionaire from the über-wealthy stronghold of the Four Seasons Hotel, an event that grainy photographs depict as a limp body carried out in a wheelchair, face hidden by a blanket, blocked a pro-independence activist from entering an academic conference in Thailand, and forcibly repatriated and imprisoned Muslim Chinese students who were traveling in Egypt. Two years down the road has brought growing reports of human rights violations in the Xinjiang reeducation camps on the western frontiers of the Chinese state, the banishment of the Hong Kong National Party on grounds of sedition, and the denial of a visa and the expulsion of British Financial Times editor Victor Mallet last month after hosting the aforementioned party’s founder –Andy Chan Ho-tin– at a controversial event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

Where is the global North amidst the cries of injustice bleeding out of Hong Kong? Where is the liberal Western international society, the self-pronounced bastion of democracy, in the countering of this slow death of freedom? Foreign reaction to ‘Hong Kong’s problem’ is lukewarm in its empty discourse by heads of states and international bodies, peaking every so often when it is a a stern cautionary mention is required, but idle enough to not threaten Chinese supremacy in the region. For governments with heavy stakes in Chinese trade policies and economic cooperation, a gentle slap on the hand is all that appears can be done in fear of exclusion from the increasingly hegemonic Asian-Pacific region. The push for oversea companies to hold bases in Hong Kong is showing no signs of slowing down, with the number increasing to an excess of 8,700 this year. It is the direct evidence of China’s intention to make Hong Kong the financial beating heart of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative that will do much to thrust Sinicisation policy deep into the soft centres of states.

And where is Great Britain? In 1984, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sat down to argue for the inclusion of the Basic Law, a set of fundamental rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, as the very essence of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Today, these rights are being threatened, sooner than her government must have thought. Twenty years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, the region has still not enacted Article 23 of the Basic Law, the CCP-pushed national security law to prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion in what may be seen as brazen defiance of Chinese rule. There is growing fear that even these core indivisible rights may be stripped from Hong Kong in retaliation, or ignored altogether outright as seen in the forcible ousting of the Hong Kong National Party and the visible interrogation of loyalty to CCP policies in candidates running in local free elections, despite a young generation still seething in the aftershocks of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution calling for transparency of civil rights. The Beijing appointed Director of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMA), Zhang Xiaoming, told a delegation of international media last month that the recent debates on Chinese sovereignty within Hong Kong crossed a ‘red line’ and both the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government and Beijing will operate with ‘zero tolerance,’ citing the late Deng Xiaping’s 1987 warning to the CCP members to not allow Hong Kong to be turned into a Western base of ‘opposing the mainland under the cloak of democracy.’ ‘Or else’, is heavily implied here. 

It’s easy for those who have felt firsthand the violence of repression — the ‘disappeared’ booksellers, students who tangled with police on the streets during the Umbrella Revolution, those who have toed the line of Hong Kong independence perhaps a bit too earnestly — to provide a prophetic ‘I told you so’ regarding the truthfulness of China’s promises made in 1984. Perhaps even Thatcher herself, who was quoted that she believed China genuinely wanted stability and prosperity for Hong Kong but they simply, dangerously couldn’t grasp what those concepts meant in the greater landscape of humanitarianism. The international community may choose to momentarily set aside the value of freedom and human rights for contained prosperous financial engagement with the mainland –and encompassing it, the world’s second largest economy– but I fear that the end of free speech will be the resounding end of Hong Kong as an globally significant economic centre in turn. Who wins then? Certainly not the founding principles of democracy, which may have been forgotten already. As The Washington Post’s revised tagline says, ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness.’ For Hong Kong, there is little light left that may offer a glimpse at truth as the quiet shuttering of the People Book Café signifies, leaving a city with no more inner conduits that can challenge the rising tide of censorship. 

When interviewed in 2016 by the New York Times, Bao Pu, founder of the exiled New Century Press, said that ‘what you’re doing is writing an obituary,’ in response to international human rights reports on Hong Kong. Lam Wing-Kee himself, knows ‘Hong Kong will return to China. They have the guns, the jails. We have nothing here in Hong Kong. All we can do is protest peacefully and try to make the world pay attention.’ In the past, China has attempted a pleasant veneer of compliance in the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, but the lesson that is becoming increasingly clear to those that live and die in darkness in Hong Kong is that China will not continue its masquerade in protecting democratic rights any longer. There is no protection at all. 


Banner image: Image Courtesy of Edmond Chung via © Flickr, 2014, some rights reserved