I traveled across the city to Victoria Park earlier this month, just a few days before I packed up my apartment and left Hong Kong. For many years, thousands of the city’s citizens would congregate there on the evening of June 4 to remember the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This was a moment of widespread, collective remembrance for those killed by Chinese forces in Beijing in 1989, as well as, less prominently, a nod to the crucial role the crackdown played in the growth of Hong Kong’s own prodemocracy movement. The city’s more authoritarian turn this year completely put an end to the once-moving scene.
The heavily armed police outnumbered the journalists in the park, who in turn outnumbered the people coming to memorialize the Tiananmen victims. Together with two buddies and two other reporters, we were all standing. This exceeded the maximum number of persons that Hong Kong’s COVID regulations allow to congregate outside, which is four. After receiving a warning from the cops, I walked away while still using my phone to type notes. An officer informed me that all five of us would be required to show identification and respond to inquiries, therefore the effort was futile. She told me that despite my move, she had “saw me with the gang previously.” We were shortly encircled by around a dozen police officers and media liaisons. It almost seemed as though the interaction had nothing to do with public health at all. I pointed out the glaring discrepancy to the officer who was now standing only a few inches away from me as my information was being taken. He gave a flippant succession of yeahs in response before taking a few steps back.
Even though it was only a minor inconvenience, the incident perfectly captured the insanity of the evening. Police stopped and searched a car that was driving close to the park that evening in another part of Hong Kong. The license plate of the car read US 8964, which was the same as the date of the slaughter. For dispersing blank white sheets of paper, one woman was interrogated and warned. Another woman was instructed by police to switch off her mobile phone light after some individuals decided not to use the traditional candles to mark the Victoria Park vigil. The officer explained that she had to do this in order to conserve the battery life of her phone when she questioned why she had to. The administration simply provided that the police were reacting to online reports about a potential illegal assembly that needed to be prevented as an explanation for why hundreds of officers ringed the park.
The cowardice of those who participate in this insulting ruse, a contagious cascade of lies used by Hong Kong’s leaders and their overlords in Beijing to reimagine the past and justify the retooling of the city, is the only thing that rivals falsehoods, gaslighting, and endless fabrications like these in Hong Kong today. One would assume that the “patriots” who were chosen to rule Hong Kong and its growing band of supporters would be pleased with their part in eradicating the city’s liberties, imprisoning its opponents, and reforming its institutions. Instead, they treat Hong Kongers with visceral contempt, treating them like a pack of mindless goons incapable of agency and free thought, while concealing their true intentions behind absurd justifications and acting covertly.
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Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong are now telling the story of paid protestors, foreign agitators, and traitorous internal opposition as the 2019 prodemocracy movement, in which millions fought for more freedom and defended their rights, unfolded. The narrative being established in the city’s courts, where a large number of activists and former lawmakers are on trial for breaking Hong Kong’s national-security law, is that claims that once only existed in the minds of deranged propagandists and on the fringes of the internet are now accepted wholeheartedly in many areas of polite society.
The law was passed by Beijing a year after the protest movement began, and it was specifically designed to stop the tragedies of 2019 from happening again and to sever the ties and unity created throughout that year. The tale that Hong Kong officials appear to have willed themselves into believing is being used to retroactively replace the movement’s reality. The general outline of this falsehood is coming into form, with Jimmy Lai, the outspoken founder of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy publication that was shut down last year after being raided and having its accounts frozen, playing a significant role. Lai, who is presently incarcerated on a number of counts, is being portrayed as the leader of the pro-democracy demonstrations, a cunning propagandist with deep funds and international connections who duped a sizable population into rising up in a violent uprising.
This is a dishonest and purposeful tactic with a lengthy history that places all the responsibility on a few “black hands” or “hostile forces.” Beijing used the same rhetoric during the Tiananmen protests and more recently, in 2008, during the Tibetan uprising. The goal is to deprive Hong Kongers of their agency and place the responsibility on a small group of chosen individuals, ignoring the many valid complaints of city residents in favor of a more straightforward story. There is little doubt that Lai will be found guilty under the national-security law. As Scott Veitch, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, wrote last year about the city’s judiciary, “wound up like clockwork toys, they trundle off in whatever direction they are pointed.”
Lai will provide authorities with their perfect villain. The supporting cast in this farcical theater will be filled out by some of the 47 activists and former lawmakers who were arrested after taking part in an unofficial primary in July 2020 in which an estimated 600,000 people cast ballots. The majority have shown a desire to enter a guilty plea. This decision’s justification is clear. The majority of them have been detained without bail for more than a year and are requesting that their sentences be lightened.
Nearly 150 pages make up the case’s summary of the facts. However, the length must not be confused with depth. The information in the document is nearly exclusively taken from social media posts and open interviews; no concealed plot has been found. According to the story, once Lai incited the protests, these activists and lawmakers intervened to carry out the next stage of the big scheme and remove the government forcibly. Once more, this is untrue: Ingeniously, if they took over the legislature, which has never had a majority of pro-democracy lawmakers since the transition in 1997, they planned to use the laws and procedures already in place to compel a political impasse. Many of the primary winners were disqualified from participating in the election, which COVID had already postponed. Nothing of the sort will ever occur thanks to new election laws.
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As her term in office draws to a close, Carrie Lam, the departing chief executive of Hong Kong, has started making her own initiatives to repair her reputation of haughtiness and bad leadership. Her schedule is packed with formal occasions like tram excursions and ribbon-cuttings at museums. She has spent a significant amount of time during her final days in office trying to convince Hong Kong residents that everything is fine in their city, amidst the clichéd picture ops. In a recent interview with CNBC, Lam stated that “Hong Kong is as free as ever, whether it’s in the freedom of expression, in the freedom of assembly, in the media, and so on.” In addition, she has cleared herself of any wrongdoing and reiterated her conviction that the legislation that provoked the widespread protests was a good idea and that the only problem was bad communication. Lam said that a summons from God five years ago was the catalyst for her campaign to become Hong Kong’s chief executive. Lies thrive at the conclusion.
Even from pro-Beijing figures who are eager to blame her for their own shortcomings, it is not entirely unexpected to see Lam put on such a cold-blooded, embarrassing performance. Because of how she handled the protests in the past and because her government mismanaged the pandemic, thousands of people died. Given the political sensitivity, a former pro-Beijing member who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity said, “I think the public would consider her as the worst CE ever.” He continued mockingly, “Poor Carrie.” She cannot easily travel abroad due to U.S. sanctions, he claimed, but “she cannot walk on the streets of Hong Kong either.”
Trying to keep up with the lies, which come at a tremendous volume and velocity, is difficult: For instance, recent school textbooks assert that Hong Kong was never a British colony, and earlier this year, extensive editing was used to make a set of postage stamps seem more nationalistic. All of these myths are used by the city’s politicians and leaders to further one of the biggest and longest-lasting misconceptions about Hong Kong: that its residents have no interest in politics. To see that this is inaccurate, one merely needs to look at the city’s recent happenings. Few localities in recent years have done more to defend freedom and democracy against an ongoing totalitarian onslaught than those that did before Russia invaded Ukraine.
A faded yellow raincoat stenciled on a back alley wall, an orange-colored cartoon pig cutout hanging in a café window, and a wireless internet network name filled with cryptic numbers are just a few examples of the prodemocracy movement’s telltale signs that are harder to see now than they were three years ago. Spotting them offers a brief moment of reprieve from the maddening daily exercise of being constantly told that what you’ve seen and experienced is not the truth. I witnessed the inventiveness and tenacity of Hong Kongers and assisted in the investigation of police abuse of force as 1 million, then nearly 2 million people, sought reform from the government. All of that happened. Many Hong Kong residents seen and experienced much more.
Later on June 4, after police had moved everyone to the edge of the pavement, I sat in a small bar next to Victoria Park. A woman and her partner were enjoying beers at the table next to mine. I caught a glimpse of a tattoo on the back of her arm that said, in part, “Fight for Freedom” and peeked out from beneath her shirt sleeve.