News Editor Samuel Teale Chadwick interviews a leading student journalist at Hong Kong University (HKU) to learn what it’s like to be young and politically-engaged all while China imposes its authority on the city
The symbolism and significance are striking. On the campus of Hong Kong University (HKU), there are remnants of the latest, and perhaps last, wave of pro-democracy protests in the ‘semi-autonomous’ city-state of Hong Kong. ‘Lennon walls’ began in 1980s Prague, but re-emerged during Hong Kong’s ‘umbrella movement’ of 2014. In June 2020, China’s government suddenly imposed an oppressive and wide-ranging “National security” law (NSL), prompting HKU management to take the wall down and remove the writing.
These are photos taken on 25 September by a student there, ‘Alan’ (an alias, as requested). Now, these empty post-its are “like a silent protest”, he says over Skype from his family flat in Hong Kong. This contrast on HKU campus reflects before and after the “shocking” and “sudden” NSL. Although “not unexpected”, the move, at the behest of the Chinese government in Beijing, prompted a swathe of social media deletions from my source and his contemporaries in Hong Kong.
As he said in our second meeting: “This is some of the most visual self-censorship I have seen ever. And that experience for me was very depressing. It was not a good day to be somebody who sympathised with the protests or to be on the pro-democracy side. Over 12 to 24 hours there was a lot of scrambling to figure out whether or not they were violating [the NSL] because of how vague it was… eventually because of how big the provisions are most people just opted to wipe away anything they might have said.”
Tell me a bit about your journey so far
“HKU was an awakening. At high school I was ignorant, I was annoyed at being delayed on the school bus because of the first [pro-democracy] umbrella protests [in 2014]. At the [admissions] interview I really liked what the professors were selling to me; I realised I can learn so much more about the world. I emailed the person who does the admin and said ‘if you give me an offer I will take it right away’. And I got an offer.
“The benefit of journalism is that you get to talk to so many people and you just learn a lot. You’re driven by this curiosity to know more about the world. And when you read the news sometimes, it’s not always the full picture, there’s always this drive within journalists to be there, to see for themselves. I like to be there with the protesters and capture the footage of what’s happening.
“The media has a very incremental effect on people. My concern is that some people, even if they are aware, it’s like they don’t care, right? My remedy is to read newspapers. I appreciate how editors at the end of a long day sit down and think about [the layout], that’s important. Whereas on social media [as in Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’] everything is so polarised without you necessarily asking for it.
“Even before the protests, my grandmother told me to read news from both sides. She has some pro-establishment leanings herself, but every morning she’d read both Ming Pao [liberal-leaning paper] as well as Sing Tao [pro-establishment paper]. She’d be conscious of how each newspaper framed certain issues. And because of the 2019 protests [against the extradition bill], she actually started complaining about how Ming Pao was biased about certain issues, or that they weren’t portraying the truth, like ‘I can’t believe they’re framing it in such a way’. She wanted to stop reading Ming Pao. I then told her that she was the one who told me to read both sides, including Ming Pao… She was a bit taken aback”
How would you describe reporting and following what’s going on in Hong Kong?
“Seeing everything unfold is like a slow burn. When you read it from abroad, you don’t see the daily things we pick up on (like the arrest of pro-democracy figures, or people who support the movement financially) until major events like the national security law.”
So it’s a different sort of journalism in Hong Kong?
“Absolutely. The police recently arrested the producer of a documentary about the Yuen Long mob attacks. And after 53 pro-democracy activists were arrested [for violations of the national security law in June 2020], the editor of RTHK [the public broadcaster] told reporters for the first time not to interview any (ex) pro-democracy legislators or activists while they’re in the process of prosecution. There are a lot of topics people can’t touch.
“I think some pro-establishment people might say ‘oh but you still have a lot of freedom don’t you?’ but this freedom is being slowly encroached on, because they’re always thinking about the now but they don’t see many years later. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s type of rule has been different to his predecessors, he has been the most aggressive since Mao in cracking down on dissent and activism and free speech. So even if it’s not happening now, it will happen eventually.”
What is “it”?
“The list of things we can talk about will become less and less. Perhaps sometime in the future we can no longer criticise the government. Maybe we can criticise something like land policy, but not the government itself. Your freedom of speech is continually encroached upon.”
Beijing knows that many will get on with their lives saying ‘I have nothing to fear’.
“That attitude goes against the very meaning of rights – from a very consequentialist point of view if this line keeps moving, this idea that [there is] nothing to fear is a very selfish thing too.”
After the 2019 district council elections Alan interviewed pro-democracy candidates who contested every area and won the majority of the seats.
“to tell people at HKU ‘look, these people are your seniors, and they’re district councillors now’. And I wanted readers and myself to know more about them, what motivated them, why are they so passionate to contest this seat, what sort of change do they think they can bring to Hong Kong society. I can’t imagine myself taking up that mantle. They were sent death threats by the triads or they were visited by gang members, being told to drop out of the race – death threats, as death threats go. As I say, I’m not even close to these people, they’re the ones treading the line. I’m personally quite far from the line, I play it quite safe.”
But that line is moving?
“That’s very true. The national security law is so vague, you just don’t really know what it entails, certainly so many people didn’t know what it entailed. That’s why you have this self-censorship in newspapers, in academia. I think a lot of journalists are trying to have that ‘business as usual mentality’. Obviously self-censorship is very difficult to spot. But now people are waiting to see how the judges rule and who the justice department’s going to go after next. It’s sad that the robustness of our legal system relies upon a small number of judges. There is an irony that the more cases the Justice Department loses, the more trust people have in our legal system.”
Alan then cites two of the many (between 30% and 50%) cases where the Justice Department lost. One where the police’s unsubstantiated claims were rejected by a magistrate; another that provided some “optimism” was a court ruling that police display IDs.
When ‘Alan’ and I next speak in January, it’s the day British barrister David Perry QC — following criticism from Lady Hale, Dominic Raab MP and others — quits the team employed by Hong Kong’s justice department to try to prosecute Jimmy Lai (founder of Apple Daily) and eight other pro-democracy activists. Whilst big news in Hong Kong, Perry dropping out is “not surprising” he says. “One of my friends said ‘thanks for doing the right thing’.” Nevertheless, he is less optimistic after a recent ruling against the journalists’ union, that the police’s treatment did not contravene the bill of rights.
This seems to be part of a wider crackdown…
“Everyone saw this coming. The weird thing is, by the next day a lot of them were allowed to leave on bail, so we don’t know if the department of justice actually has the evidence to prosecute them. Maybe they’re just doing to send a message, and if they’re doing it just to send a message then it’s quite effective. But I think a lot of these opposition figures, they’re resilient, you know. They’re still going to seek the court case at the end. They’re not going to leave like Ted Hui or Nathan Law [both currently in self-imposed exile in the UK]. The majority of pro-democracy activists tend to stay — well, some of them had to surrender passports, so they can’t go anywhere exactly.
“I had a conversation with my professor the other day, she teaches media law. She was complaining about how the justice department goes after people even if they have no evidence. It used to tout itself as having a 90% conviction rate, as they would only go after cases where they had substantial evidence and it was in the public interest to prosecute somebody…?”
And the National Security Law prevents you from criticising that very law?
“Well, not exactly. You can criticise it in a legal professional sense. Professor Johannes Chan talks regularly about the provisions of the NSL and whether some arguments have a legal basis. And also Professor Joseph Chan, one of the more vocal critics of HKU. We’re glad there’s someone like him who’s willing to lead by example. Last semester in class he would talk openly about the protests, or criticise the government. Then other students would be more open and willing to share their thoughts and ideas [about the inherent benefits of democracy, the module topic]. He would link some of these concepts with the protests. I’ve never shared in lectures because there’s too many people listening, only in a tutorial or a conversation with you.”
It would be great to be able to have you named and on record, but I would understand if not because you’re being so open…
“I might have some reservations regarding that. Of course I trust you’ll be careful with what I say, I’ll have to think about it… probably not… I think that’s one of the main concerns people have, even if you’re going into commerce. A lot of these big corporations are supported by the government – obviously in part because the protesters did go after these corporations for siding with the government, or siding with Beijing. If you want to remain in Hong Kong, you sort of have to compromise your morals in a way, because to be realistic, I have to make a living. So I have to compromise my beliefs, my morals, political stances, just to have a career in the field I am studying. That links to one of your questions about do people actually intend to leave Hong Kong.”
My source took down interviews with journalists who had been on the front line of the protests, as he had worked on the project with a friend from mainland China, and wished to protect them. He takes precautions in any case, for example not asking the name of an interviewee he met on reddit, addressing them instead by their online username. “For their safety, the less I know, the better for them” he said.
“Most [of the journalists I met] were quite sympathetic to the protesters – not necessarily because they believe in their cause (although for the most part they do) but really because the protesters are outnumbered and on the losing side. There’s a phrase in Cantonese – 食花生 — to eat peanuts, to sit back and watch something unfold in front of you. Some journalists were unprepared and had to be pulled back from the front lines, senior journalists said they had to keep a look out for the younger journalists, because they had no experience but were nevertheless trying to document the scenes happening before them. I never went, only when it was calm.
From your perspective and your reporting, what would you say the point of the protest movement is now, other than to galvinise and satisfy people so they feel like they’re doing their bit? You once told me how people have spirit – and you love this city for that.
“Well there isn’t a protest movement anymore. It’s been dismantled and picked apart, so it’s quite hard to say if there is one left. And no, I feel like people genuinely want democracy and they want their freedoms preserved. People care about rights, freedoms, liberties, and the state of their society. I don’t think it’s something people view as just a trite justification for violent actions. I do think there is a virtuous and good end goal. Obviously there is a segment of people who believe that’s the solution to getting rid of this bad government that doesn’t listen to the people. But there is still a substantial group of folks who are looking at the big picture. It’s not just a matter of believing there are instrumental benefits to democracy. There are also inherent benefits to democracy.
“The government now claims there is no separation of government, that our system is executive-led., which is not what’s taught to students. And now the syllabus will be changed to accommodate this apparent change in the system.
“Now, there is more to it than the Five Demands. It’s become clear that for Hong Kong society to not continually backslide into authoritarianism, other democratic institutions need to be strengthened. But they are being slowly picked apart now. [As representatives could not vote on it], the NSL is being used to bypass the legislature [but not the ‘presumably independent’ judiciary, as cases are still being heard by Hong Kong courts]. This is something that people care about. Democracy is not just about voting, it’s about having the right to a free trial. Unfortunately the means through which you can do that has been restricted. We may never see a mass mobilisation of people for a cause (like we did in 2019) ever again. Frustratingly, high profile figures, including the dean of social sciences at HKU, said it was paramount we have a Reconciliation Commission, so that people can get along with one another again. But it’s fallen on deaf ears and I don’t think it will ever transpire.”
Certainly in the UK there’s a strong argument to let Hong Kongers settle here. How is that perceived?
“People my age would leave if they could because these are values we hold dear and believe are very important.”
But democratic values are those you want for Hong Kong itself rather than values you want to live by?
“They’re values of the Hong Konger. It depends on your perspective. My mother’s generation down to my generation believe, or our perception of the Hong Konger is of freedom and democracy, whereas the older generation only focus on stability and security. I suppose that’s why there’s this age gap between pro-establishment and pro-democracy people. It also so happens all these big corporations are owned by the elites in my grandparents’ generation. The environment they grew up in was under the very repressive British government, and at the time Hong Kong wasn’t prospering.
“There’s a lot of scholarship money if you work in China from Hong Kong. It doesn’t tempt me though. I think people my age would leave if they could because these are the values that we believe are important.”
A self-defined political observer, reporter, and Hong Konger, he has recorded some of the first drafts of its history. “That phrase is so trite” he laughed modestly during our first sitting in November. And yet, admirably and pragmatically, he is convinced by both the value of journalism amidst an anxious and polarised atmosphere, and by the vision for a democratic Hong Kong. For now, for our generation in Hong Kong, this ideal is confined to (just about) living memory.