The ongoing threats to free expression in Hong Kong

tags: Hong Kong

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. His latest books are, as author, Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (published next month by Penguin China), and, as editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China (published this summer).

The ongoing threats to free expression in Hong Kong, which are again in the headlines, need to be placed in a long-term historical context. To understand them fully, we must go back at least as far as the 1997 Handover, which transformed a British Crown Colony into a specially administered part of the People’s Republic of China. It is thus something of a surprise that the most powerful recent statement on the topic takes the form of a video created by a local woman who has no memory of a time before the Handover.  How could she? Agnes Chow is only 19.

Chow may be young, but she is no political novice.. Along with Joshua Wong, she is among the key figures in Scholarism: a grassroots student organization that played a pivotal role in the 2014 Umbrella struggle to expand democracy and protect civil liberties. Chow’s video, “An Urgent Cry from Hong Kong,” focuses on the mysterious disappearance of Lee Bo, a local bookseller whose company drew the ire of the Chinese Communist Party after publishing gossipy works on the private lives of Beijing leaders. Some think that Lee, a British citizen, was spirited across the border and is being detained on the mainland. Chow is among them. Chow views Lee’s disappearance, and the disappearance of four other members of the same company, as part of a disturbing recent trend in Hong Kong: people involved in activities of which Beijing disapproves are being threatened, hassled, physically assaulted, or arrested.

To increase global attention, she created her cri de coeur for the city she loves. At one point, she gives a local twist to a series of famous lines about the Nazis, which originally came from a sermon and later evolved into the poem “First They Came…” She refers in her version to the state moving first against activists, then against journalists, with the poem’s narrator saying nothing in each case, due to not belonging to either group.. “Then they came for the bookseller,” she continues, “and I did not speak out — for I was not a bookseller.” After that comes the familiar ending: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

This use of a Holocaust-related text adds poignancy to Chow’s video, especially given the personal risks she has taken.

As someone who first visited Hong Kong a decade before Chow was born, though, a different German historical phenomenon strikes me as at least equally as useful for illuminating Hong Kong’s predicament: how the two halves of Germany’s most famous city differed while the Berlin Wall divided them; how the once utterly dissimilar entities of East Berlin and West Berlin have grown more entwined and more similar since that barrier came down. ...

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books

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