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Hong Kong’s Memory Is Being Erased

By Louisa Lim

Ms. Lim, who was a journalist in China and Hong Kong for 13 years, is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

April 25, 2023

Jerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock

The group of about 80 protesters wore numbered lanyards around their necks and cordoned themselves off with tape as they marched, like a crime scene in motion.

This odd spectacle last month was Hong Kong’s first authorized protest in three years — highly choreographed, surveilled and regulated, even though it was not an explicitly antigovernment demonstration, and a world away from the crowds that thronged streets in 2019 to protest China’s tightening grip on the city. One participant said the protesters, who were opposed to a land reclamation project, were “herded like sheep.”

It was just one example of how Hong Kong, a global, tech-savvy city whose protests were once livestreamed around the world, is being transformed. But authorities aren’t merely choking off future protest; they are attempting to rewrite Hong Kong’s history.

Revisionism — with its ancillary altering or obliteration of memory — is an act of repression. It’s the same playbook China used after violently crushing the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. Then, state-induced amnesia was imposed gradually. At first the government churned out propaganda that labeled those protests as a counterrevolutionary rebellion that had to be suppressed. But over the years, the state slowly excised all public memory of its killings.

In Hong Kong the silence has set in much more quickly. The gagging of dissenting voices and editing of the past has happened at warp speed, mirroring the blink-and-you-miss-it modern news cycle. This has its own logic; the faster the blanket of silence is thrown over Hong Kong, the less time there is for criticism to take root, and the faster the next phase of transformation — whatever that may be — can be introduced. The cycle of unmaking accelerates.

I worked in Hong Kong’s once-cacophonous newsrooms and covered its boisterous protest rallies. Now most Hong Kong journalists I know have fallen silent. Some are in jail, some are in exile, and some no longer write, as no publications are left that will publish them. After a draconian national security law was imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, at least 12 news outlets closed down, including the popular, pro-democracy Apple Daily. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, could face life in prison on national security charges, and six of its executives have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, a vague charge introduced with the new security law. Some of the shuttered outlets pulled their archives from the internet. This is how history is erased, both virtually and literally.

Those who continue to publish are under scrutiny. One of Hong Kong’s best-known political cartoonists, Wong Kei-kwan, better known by his pen name, Zunzi, has been repeatedly criticized by top officials, including one who chastised him for “serious deviation from the truth.” His plight recalls George Orwell’s comment that “every joke is a tiny revolution.” In this climate, the only guarantee of safety is silence. The amnesiac playbook includes mass indoctrination through “patriotic education.” New school textbooks state that Hong Kong, which Britain handed back to China in 1997, was never a British colony, because Beijing does not recognize the 19th-century treaties that ceded Hong Kong to Britain, even though some roads and parks are — for now — still named after British colonial figures.

History is identity, and to challenge this foundational tenet of Hong Kongers’ experience is to assault their identity. Britain did not establish full electoral democracy in Hong Kong, but it left behind a stubborn respect for civic values, a free press and a desire for political participation that fueled the huge protests of 2019. The act of rewriting history whisks away the cornerstone of that legacy, recasting Hong Kongers as victims of an occupying force rather than as agents of their own fate.

Hong Kong’s memory is not being reformatted in one fell swoop. People cannot be forced to believe what they are told, but they do need to salute the new order in acts of performative obeisance, like recently introduced flag-raising ceremonies in schools and oaths of allegiance for civil servants. Forgetting is a process of many steps.

Another is to purge those who will not forget. More than 10,000 people were arrested during the 2019 protests. An action as minor as throwing a water bottle at a police vehicle or wearing black clothes and goggles can bring a jail term. Some people were convicted on the grounds that they facilitated, assisted or merely encouraged rioters. Words are used as weapons, and in Hong Kong the repeated use of the word “riot” obliterates one version of the past — that many protests were peaceful — while creating a retrospective alternate reality that serves the politics of the present.

In 2021, 47 pro-democracy figures were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit subversion merely for holding an unofficial primary to decide which candidates to field in an election. Most remain in custody; those out on bail are barred from speaking about the case. Hong Kong is being remade almost faster than the changes can be reported, as if the whole city had suddenly been unzipped to reveal a shadow society lurking beneath.

Many key institutions — civil society organizations, political parties and trade unions — have dismantled themselves in the ultimate act of debasement. In 2016 elections, pro-democracy or other nonestablishment figures won about one-third of Hong Kong’s legislature. After a drastic overhaul of election rules and a resulting boycott by democratic parties, a 2021 vote returned just one nonestablishment lawmaker out of 90 seats. Hong Kong’s population shrank for three years in a row because of emigration and a falling birthrate.

Friends who are still there tell me they no longer talk politics, even with family or close friends — this in a city that was once defiantly political. One friend spoke of wanting to like a Facebook post of mine but not daring to. In that tiny nonaction, a failure to click, the individual becomes complicit, accelerating the degradation of memory.

In a sly comment on censorship, a digital art installation by the Los Angeles-based artist Patrick Amadon included hidden references to the Hong Kong 47. It was shown on a giant screen over a busy Hong Kong street once packed with black-clad protesters. Predictably, it was removed last month; those glimpses of memory threatened the fragile exoskeleton of propaganda being constructed. Mr. Amadon messaged me that that was his intent all along. “The work needed to be taken down for the art to be complete,” he said. “The art needed the government to paint the final brushstroke.”

Despite this, the Communist Party won’t be able to completely erase Hong Kong’s collective memory. There is a growing Hong Kong community overseas, and rallies are being held around the world for the 47 facing trial.

Even overseas, people are not safe. A student who posted political messages on social media while in Japan was reportedly arrested last month after returning to Hong Kong, in the first known case of the national security law being applied outside the territory.

But Hong Kongers don’t easily forget.

When the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen movement could not be publicly commemorated in China, people in Hong Kong took it upon themselves to hold annual vigils for those killed and imprisoned in Beijing and elsewhere. Now it falls to a new Hong Kong diaspora to keep alive the memory of what happened to their own city.

Louisa Lim (@LimLouisa) is a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her books include “Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong.”

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