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Words matter in Hong Kong – perhaps more than human rights

“Hong Kong’s human rights – we have already ditched democracy – are in the hands of people who know little and care less of what they mean and what they require,” writes Tim Hamlett.


Sometimes it’s the little things that give you away. Lurking in one of the chief executive’s recent announcements regarding new measures to control Covid was this: “every measure that we now introduce has been undertaken in other jurisdictions, including some places and countries which are very proud of their human rights, their democracy and so on.”

Now it would perhaps be unfair to infer from this that Carrie Lam now realises that Hong Kong is no longer a place which is very proud of its “human rights, democracy and so on.” That is, after all, not the line our leaders have been pushing to the foreign press, which is routinely chided for suggesting that things have changed in the last year or so.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets the press on February 8, 2021 to announce new Covid-19 social distancing rules. Photo: GovHK.

What got to me, though, was that little bit on the end: “and so on.” This is not the way you conclude a list of things you care about.

Lam would not, for example, enumerate the purposes of compulsory national security education as being to inculcate “patriotism, respect for the law and so on.” This would be disrespectfully casual.

The US Declaration of Independence does not start with the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and so on.” The Pope would not urge priests to strive for “poverty, chastity, obedience and so on.”

This is an ending reserved for things you don’t take very seriously, or even don’t believe at all. Donald Trump, for example, believes that in the last US presidential election Joe Biden hacked voting machines, Mike Pence neglected his duty, millions of votes were fraudulent and so on.

That works.

A photo taken in late January shows Hongkongers wearing face masks on the street in Central. Photo: GovHK.

This is not a criticism of the government’s latest anti-Covid measures. Having wasted the long months in which cases occurred only in single figures or not at all, we now have to undertake a frantic effort to get elderly folk vaccinated. In the meantime, there are no good choices.

What bothers me is the knowledge that Hong Kong’s human rights – we have already ditched democracy – are in the hands of people who know little and care less of what they mean and what they require.

Which brings me to my esteemed former employer, the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). So far, it must be said, HKBU has avoided the worst excesses of the territory-wide clampdown on student representative bodies.

It has a long tradition – rooted, I suppose, in its origins as a post-secondary college with a religious inclination – of paying rather more respect and interest to the needs of undergraduates than other local institutions.

Elsewhere teaching is regarded as an irritating distraction from the real function of universities, which is to produce research which boosts staff prospects and pushes the university up ratings tables … which for all their pretensions measure little else.

Hong Kong Baptist University. Photo: GovHK.

However, Baptist University still has a student union, and consequently still has a student newspaper, or had until January. This publication is or was called Jumbo – a play on the university’s Cantonese name, which is Jumwui.

The latest edition, according to now former assignment editor Alex Chan, caused problems with the university, which told the editors it had received complaints about it from “people outside the school”. Unfortunately the university was not forthcoming about who or what these people were, an interesting question.

After all Jumbo is not exactly a mass circulation publication. It is produced by students for students. Hawkers do not stock it. Why would anyone outside the university be reading it? With all due respects to the editors’ efforts we can, I think, exclude the possibility that there is a secret cabal of connoisseurs who regard Jumbo as the unappreciated Chateau Lafite of student journalism.

The sexual urge takes a wide variety of forms but we can also, I suppose, exclude a kinky erotic enthusiasm for amateur editorial output.

Jumbo’s 2021 January edition. Photo: Jumbo via Issuu.

This leads me to speculate that the elusive reader was not seeking interesting information about the views of Baptist University students, but was hoping to extend to the student press the purge which has already decimated the adult media. In this, they succeeded.

Problematic content, apparently, included an editorial which included the phrase “Rule of law is dead, the student union is dead, Hong Kong is dead, freedom is dead. News is merely an anthology of obituaries.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but in its essentials a widespread view.

There was an article about a dead actor, and an interview about elections with a live member of the HKBU staff. The term “Wuhan virus” did not go down too well, apparently, and the school wanted “clarification” of a report about a flag-raising ceremony on campus.

The university ordered the January edition withdrawn, and also instructed the board to remove calls for submissions from its social media outlet.

The HKBUSU Editorial Board’s Facebook page. Photo: Screenshot via Facebook.

The editorial board got the message when its email account was closed and office emptied. The board then resigned en masse, not a huge sacrifice as they only had a month to go. The new board, supposing some masochists can be recruited, will have to decide what to do with the January issue.

The university, meanwhile, has been told by its lawyers to report the issue to the national security police as a possible violation of the national security law.

This is not surprising. My experience of lawyers evaluating newspaper copy is that they never tell you confidently that the story is OK. You always get a fence-sitting “might be this, might be that” and so on, for anything more innovative than the stock prices.

Then we come to the most exciting bit. “HKBU also said it could not ‘promise to guarantee’ student safety if the newsroom chose to publicly attribute its decision to resign to the actions the university took against the magazine’s January edition,” Chan said.

I hope, I really hope, that there has been some misunderstanding or mistranslation here. If Chan finds a horse’s head in his bed next week we shall all know that matters are worse than we think. And so on.


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