Enjoying Hong Kong and denying the crackdown, with a colonial face

Oct 19, 2021
hong kong skyline
(Image: Unsplash)

Life might go on as usual for expats, but for native Hong Kongers, the new security law is having a real effect on their freedoms.

Bob Rogers’ article “What crackdown? Life in the Hong Kong ‘gulag’, 15 months on” published by Pearls and Irritations last week presents a one-sided and misleading perspective on the effects of the new security law on Hong Kong, and the reactions to it of many Hong Kongers.

Like Rogers, I landed in Hong Kong and lived there for many years as an expat. I was there for less time than he — between 2001 and 2018, to be precise — and I too benefited from the elevated status afforded an expat in Hong Kong both before and after the handover in 1997.

We expats dug our gold and accumulated our pensions. We revelled in Hong Kong’s seductive, cosmopolitan but exotic Chinese middle- and upper-class lifestyle. We enjoyed a special degree of privilege and a somewhat surreal detachment from the pressures of life for native Hong Kongers, who post-1997 were having to come to terms with being an integral part of communist China, having formerly adapted to living in a British colony.

Hong Kong peoples’ personal and family histories and identities are built in very large part on escaping the reach of communist China and building prosperous lives in Hong Kong. Many of the older generation were refugees and their children and grandchildren have absorbed their lessons about the value of economic and social freedoms. They are proud of their Chinese heritage but not of many of the contemporary forms in which Chinese power and culture express themselves.

Hong Kong jokes about “mainlanders” are even more biting than those about expats, and mostly less friendly. My Hong Kong friends frequently joked with me about the privileges that I enjoyed as a Westerner for having a “colonial face”. Indeed, I learnt how to exploit that face, because it brought me all sorts of social advantages — in the street, talking and sometimes negotiating with a policeman; in a crowded shop, jostling for service; in the workplace, pulling rank. It involved a front of sternness followed by — depending on the moment — anger or joviality (preferably in a loud voice). But this was just how the “gweilo” (Cantonese slang for Westerner) behaved — and despite all, they were mostly tolerated, often flattered, and always accommodated, because it was just too much trouble otherwise.

Rogers’ thumbnail that appeared under his article in these pages evokes that face perfectly. And his contribution expresses it eloquently if also, at the same time, insensibly. Don’t get me wrong: it is not I who suffers the offence. His offence, even after so many years in Hong Kong, is to be so insensitive to the feelings of many Hong Kongers confronting the imposition of the crackdown.

For “crackdown” it is.

That Rogers doesn’t experience it as such is part of his privilege. What he does and thinks is not of serious concern to the authorities, for he is a foreigner. He can toss off the strictures of the new security law because they don’t in practice apply to him. Nor do they apply (for the time being) to the free-thinking English language Hong Kong Free Press in the way they were applied to the widely popular Chinese language Apple Daily, which was hounded out of existence for resisting the crackdown (“those Free Press writers — that’s just the ‘colonial face’ again, let it pass”). To interpret, as Rogers does, the closure of Apple Daily as merely some cunning financial ploy by an indebted owner is bizarre.

The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities need first and foremost to achieve the consent, acquiescence, or submission of the native Hong Kongers, and this they are pursuing strategically and ruthlessly. It is of no import to argue, as Rogers does, that, for their own political reasons, various American or UK politicians exaggerated the situation facing Hong Kong, likening it to a “gulag” or projecting the exodus of millions. Nor does it serve his case that the internet is still functioning, or that commerce and banking go on as before. Of course, they do, because this is in the interest of Hong Kongers as well as of the Chinese government — on this, they agree.

Middle-class Hong Kongers continue to do what they have always done absent the benefits of secure self-government and the autonomy to defend their way of life — they look for possible escape routes in the form of foreign passports while continuing to participate in the benefits of the Hong Kong economy. In this way, Hong Kong people cope with and adjust to the Chinese government’s incursions on their freedoms and their powers of self-determination just as they did to those administered by the British colonists.

The accusations by Rogers of hypocrisy or double standards on the part of these Hong Kongers are completely out of place. This is still their economy of which they are proud (not his, nor Beijing’s), even as they reject an externally dictated authoritarian polity. Meanwhile, ordinary working-class Hong Kong residents battle on as usual, with little voice and no exit option.

It is also absurd to trot out the fact that only some hundreds (rather than thousands) have been prosecuted or imprisoned under the security law as evidence, somehow, of the lack of a crackdown. The carefully chosen targets, the calibrated degrees of severity, the extent to which the leading lights of resistance are treated the most harshly, are all calculated to scare off and silence everyone else. And it works.

So, life “goes on as normal”. But to treat this as a basis for denial that there is a crackdown, and that Hong Kongers are not being suppressed, is to misunderstand the forms which totalitarian rule takes.

Look, rather (among other things), to the re-writing of school curricula to ban liberal studies and to indoctrinate “patriotism” as programmed by the Communist Party; to the coerced disbanding of the teachers’ union with its affiliations to the democracy movement, and of student unions on university campuses; to the disqualification of political candidates who offer support for democracy other than in the forms professed by the party; to the forced closure of independent bookshops and the takeover of the media by interests sympathetic to the Chinese government; and to the slow but sure erosion of academic freedoms and university autonomy; then, you get a different picture of how Hong Kong is changing.

I understand Rogers’s anger at the fecklessness and extremes of the protesters and rioters in 2019. But I also understand the despair and commitment that drove them to these extremes, as they saw their promised liberal democratic future (however tenuous and imaginary) being denied through the betrayals of their political leaders.

Hong Kong identity for them was more than “East meets West” and moving seamlessly from dining in the Peninsula Hotel to sitting on a street stall stool. That their defence of it was futile and self-defeating is indisputable but labelling and dismissing them as “domestic terrorists” is not only facile but also disrespectful of the identity they fought for.

Bob Rogers and I both love Hong Kong. Under the tutelage of Beijing, and as Hong Kongers submit reluctantly to each new ban and constraint on the expression of their identity, I am sure that his expat lifestyle and state of mind will remain unruffled.

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