Show caption Illustration: Dominic McKenzie/The Observer Opinion I covered Hong Kong for decades. Now I am forced to flee China’s ‘white terror’ Steve Vines After 35 years, the Observer’s former correspondent is leaving as what was once a haven of liberty and peace is transformed into a police state Sun 8 Aug 2021 08.00 BST Share on Facebook
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When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1987 as the Observer’s south-east Asia correspondent, the foreign editor said he saw it as being a base, not the kind of territory that would generate much news but it was a safe place to be, communications were good and I was unlikely to have any visa problems. I thought I might stay a couple of years and move on. Thirty-five years later, I have, with great sadness, moved on and no one in their right mind can possibly assert that Hong Kong is a safe place for journalists.
The white terror – the term used to describe the ruthless elimination of the opposition in Taiwan following the imposition of Kuomintang rule and more recently taken up by the opposition in Hong Kong to describe similar events in the city – is relentless, swooping down not just on journalists, but on prominent opposition leaders, teachers, lawyers and, recently, speech therapists who had the temerity to write a children’s book about sheep that dared to answer back; they have been charged with subversion.
It was famously said that Hong Kong was the only part of China where no citizen need fear the midnight knock on the door by the secret police. Things have changed: Hong Kong’s newly formed national security police division prefers the dawn raid to midnight arrests, but what has changed more substantively is that the Chinese Communist party’s infamous means of control are becoming routine in a place where liberty had been the norm. More than 10,000 people have been arrested for political offences, a staggering number in a population numbering just over 7 million. The election system has been undermined; even the banks have been complicit in freezing the accounts of dissidents. There has been a widespread purge of teachers and teaching materials and, closer to home for me, the media have become prime targets for suppression. Even support for the unusually successful Hong Kong team at the Tokyo Olympics has been the subject of criticism by those intent on currying favour with the masters in Beijing, who are only interested in team China.
The judiciary, whose independence has been a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success as a global business centre, is being transformed. Judges in national security cases are hand-picked by the head of government, the constitutional right to trial by jury has been abolished and mind-blowing sentences are being doled out to those found guilty of politically related crimes.
Apologists for the crackdown say that it would never have happened had Hongkongers not dared to challenge the world’s biggest dictatorship by pouring on to the streets in their millions in 2019. For months, the protests dictated the news as government officials retreated to their fortified offices, leaving the police to take control. The truth is that China was never comfortable with relinquishing control and didn’t need much of an excuse to renege on promises of autonomy for Hong Kong.
As someone who has not only been a journalist but also founded several businesses in Hong Kong, it seemed to me that this place had a unique ability to bounce back and survive the fiercest of storms. The realisation that, at least in the near term, this resilience has been decisively crushed made me contemplate the previously unthinkable – leaving.
Can Hong Kong survive this rampage obliterating the remnants of liberty? The answer is almost certainly no, unless survival is seen through the eyes of China’s rulers who really do not care whether Hong Kong remains as an international business centre. They don’t care because they think that Shanghai can do the job much better and is not tainted by Hong Kong’s colonial past.
The rulers are not bothered by the mounting exodus of people from Hong Kong because, as they point out, there are plenty of people on the mainland to replace them. Indeed, this policy of replacement is one widely seen in other “restive” regions of China, notably Xinjiang and Tibet, where the local population has been overwhelmed by Han Chinese from other parts of the country.
The worst of the local sycophants, who are jumping that bit higher to please their masters in Beijing, are meanwhile busy advocating the suppression of Cantonese, a language with deeper historical roots than Mandarin, now officially called Putonghua (the common people’s language). They have successfully advocated greater censorship of films and theatre to purge them of unduly Hong Kong-oriented content and, like all apologists for authoritarian rule, they are obsessed with symbolism, deeply worried over how the national flag is raised and sleepless over the idea that Hong Kong’s regional flag might be seen flying higher than the five-star red flag.
As a presenter of the last surviving current affairs TV programme produced by Radio Television Hong Kong, the public broadcaster, I had the misfortune to witness the growing censorship at first hand. A new director of broadcasting was installed, who brought in a stratum of commissars who censored our programme at the planning stage, as soon as filming began and sometimes made cuts minutes before going to air. There were so many red lines to be observed that, as one commentator put it, they more closely resembled the Red Sea.
In the past, people fled the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong in tiny boats; now the flow has reversed. Heartbreakingly, 12 young people were caught and given heavy punishment for trying to reach Taiwan. A prominent online media organisation has just announced that it is quitting Hong Kong to find refuge in Singapore – yes, the same Singapore where media censorship was the stuff of stories I used to file for the Observer.
With the tide turning so rapidly, my departure hardly matters, but it is carried along by waves that are rising by the day.
• Steve Vines has reported from Hong Kong for the Observer and other news organisations since 1987 and is the author of Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship