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Image: © Andrew Hardacre, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Hong Kong has slipped out of the news and I am filled with a rage and sorrow that I feel I have no claim to. This feels like a eulogy. For a place I love. For the future. For myself.

*

‘Country of birth’ should be an easy question to answer, but I wasn’t born in a country—I was born in a ‘Special Administrative Region’. The first time a form demanded a response from me, I was stumped. Britain? China? My pen hovered over the page until I made a decision. H O N G K O N G, I wrote in careful block letters. It’s what I’ve been writing ever since. One day, someone will pull me up on it, and I’m not sure what I’ll do.

*

There’s always a moment, within an hour or two of landing, where I’m sitting on a train, taxi or minibus, and out the window I’ll see the lights, a building covered in bamboo scaffolding, tropical plants encroaching on an urban landscape and I’ll think, just for a moment, I’m home. It doesn’t make sense—I left when I was two. My claim feels weak, undeserved. Nonetheless, there it is. Sometimes I wonder if there is something in the blood, in the soul, that recognises where it first met the world.

I grew up in Australia but we never stayed away for long. I’m five, and my cousins and I are running through the park dotted with fountains that look like dandelions. I’m nine, and my aunt buys me egg puffs from a street stall as we wait for my uncle to finish work. I’m twelve, and we spend the next few weeks visiting the tuberculosis ward I didn’t know still existed. I’m fifteen, and my friend and I are giddy about being left unsupervised in the city—I look at my watch and it’s 9pm, the building lights so bright we didn’t notice the sun go down. I’m seventeen, and my friend lets me tag along as he tours universities he’s thinking of going to. Years later I’ll recognise one of those universities on the news—student protesters have holed up there, archers lined up around the walls, stockpiles of Molotov cocktails neatly arranged in boxes.

Sometimes I wonder if there is something in the blood, in the soul, that recognises where it first met the world.

I’m ashamed that for most of my life I’ve only had the vaguest sketch of knowledge about Hong Kong’s history. It became a British colony in the mid-1800s, given over in the wake of the opium wars. The arrangement wasn’t permanent, however, and in 1997 Hong Kong was handed back to China as agreed. From there the clock started—a 50-year countdown. Hong Kong would be a part of China but remain independent, with its own government and laws and economy. ‘One Country, Two Systems’.

Except that’s not what is happening. What will happen after 2047 has never been clear, but in the interim Hong Kong is supposed to retain control and autonomy. Instead things have gone from a gentle background hum of uncertainty and unease, to a low dread, then to a sudden and accelerated horror that feels difficult to believe.

*

In 2014 Hongkongers took to the streets to challenge a rule change that said while citizens could still vote for who they wanted as Chief Executive, the pool of candidates would be limited to two or three people, pre-selected by a nomination committee with strong ties to Beijing. I get into a heated argument with a family friend who thinks it isn’t that bad, really.

In 2015 a dystopian film called Ten Years is released. It has a low budget and a simple premise—five filmmakers put on screen what they think Hong Kong will look like in 2025. When I finally get to watch it—on a burnt DVD furtively passed around between Chinese families in Melbourne—it simultaneously feels like a punch to the gut and a grim affirmation. There’s ‘Self-immolator’, where an old lady who looks like anyone’s ah poh quietly and calmly sets herself on fire to protest police brutality and a harsh National Security Law. Then there’s the softer, more insidious ‘Dialect’, which sees a taxi driver get shunned and condescended to because he can only speak Cantonese—the main language used in Hong Kong—instead of the now-dominant Mandarin. Every second of the film hurts but I feel less alone. I’m not the only one feeling the pessimism and dread. Against all odds, Ten Years is nominated for (and ultimately wins) best picture in the 35th Hong Kong Film awards—and as a result, China Central Television refuses to air the ceremony.

What will happen after 2047 has never been clear, but things have gone from a gentle background hum of uncertainty and unease, to a horror that feels difficult to believe.

In 2019 a controversial extradition bill is proposed, and once again Hongkongers take to the streets. One march sees two million people take part—more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s population. The bill is eventually quashed, but the protests have developed into something bigger—an outcry against the disproportionate police violence that protesters were met with, against the encroaching rule of Beijing on Hong Kong’s autonomy. They stretch on all year and into 2020, and are only slowed when the COVID-19 pandemic hits.

*

On a Friday at the end of May I wake up early. I make a tea. I switch on my computer. There’s a small news article about a piece of proposed legislation in Hong Kong. Details are scant but the gist is this: Beijing is putting forward a national security law targeting ‘secessionist’ and ‘subversive’ activity. Hong Kong’s own government is being bypassed—it may as well not exist.

I read it again. I click every link. I check Twitter for what Hongkongers are saying. Then I close my computer, curl into a ball on the couch, and cry.

*

May and June feel like death by a thousand cuts. It seems like every day brings a new story that chips away at Hong Kong’s independence and rights.

A report is released clearing Hong Kong’s police of any misconduct during the protests, despite Amnesty International previously requesting an independent investigation and condemning the police’s actions. Macau, which also operates under ‘One Country, Two Systems’, bans an annual exhibition commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong passes a bill that makes it a crime to insult China’s national anthem.

A week after the national security law is floated, China’s parliament takes another step towards approving it. The legislation is passed on the last day of June, to come into effect on the 23rd anniversary of the handover.

How to put into words why this all feels so awful, like a part of me is being carved away?

*

The national security law is built around criminalising four main things: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion. They’re broad words, whose definitions could be twisted and bent, whose tendrils could wend through the smallest cracks, and strangle anything that doesn’t quite fit a desired picture. What counts as subversion? A protest? A tweet? What does this mean for a place where 2 million people took to the streets to fight for their freedom and independence?

Now, Hong Kong will be subject to the rules of a country that makes it a punishable offence to so much as poke fun at the national anthem. It’s a broken promise; it’s ‘One country, One system’, when Hong Kong was supposed to have at least another 27 years.

It feels wrong to go about my normal life. And it feels wrong to be so gutted about it when I’m so far away; insulated. Safe.

*

I saw a friend posit a hypothetical on social media, wherein a ‘New Hong Kong’ could be set up in another country and all current citizens be given the option to move there. But Hong Kong—or any other place—isn’t simply the people who live there; nor are they economies first and homes second. Those things are vital, yes, but it’s also humidity making your dress stick to your back; it’s a double decker bus going fast around a rocky mountainous road; it’s tree roots growing into concrete; it’s grandparents sitting outside an apartment building, passing the time quietly and companionably. Places are complex, multilayered, unique—a back and forth between environment and the people who live and have lived there. You can transplant the community elsewhere, but a new Hong Kong would only be a Hong Kong in name, not truth.

May and June feel like death by a thousand cuts. It seems like every day brings a new story that chips away at Hong Kong’s independence and rights.

It made me so furious I wanted to do dramatic, theatrical things: sweep everything off my desk onto the floor. Flip a table. It was entirely irrational; emotions instead of brain. Their post was fair enough. I felt the same way when I read that Boris Johnson would allow 3 million people to move from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. In my mind, I know it’s a good thing. But it hurts to see people planning for the worst; that they are ready to pick up fragments of something I don’t want to see as broken; irreparable.

*

Hong Kong has slipped out of the news in Australia, and I hate that it has taken a story that hits home for me to realise just how truly devastating that is—to watch as a critical chapter in your life plays out silently off-stage.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live there; to see it unfold up close.

From afar, I don’t really know what else to do other than to keep talking about it, keep reading about it—keep trying to stop one more story disappearing into the sea of horror that is 2020.