A 12th Procrastination: Black Friday

In which we wonder what just happened

Dear friends

In case you need a reminder: I am Antony Dapiran, author of City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, and this is A Procrastination, an email newsletter from Hong Kong.

If you are here for Hong Kong politics and human rights, read the first half; if you are here for literary and creative reflection, read the second half. (And all of you can read the shameless self-promotion in the middle.)

Hong Kong update

Where to start.

Friday was, for observers concerned about the state of human rights in Hong Kong, one of the most depressing days in some time, and also sadly symbolic of the New Hong Kong.

In the course of just one day, we saw: the education system under attack, the legislature under attack, the rule of law under attack and, finally, the truth itself under attack.

Without wanting to overwhelm you, it’s worth running through each of these developments one-by-one, all the better to hear the clang of the nails going into the coffin.

Education under attack

A question on the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education history paper made the mistake of touching the third rail of the Sino-Japanese War. The question was: “‘Japan did more good than harm to China in the period 1900-45’ Do you agree?” and asks students to refer to and analyse a number of contemporary sources in their answer.

Beijing, and its proxies, were outraged. A pro-Beijing Hong Kong union official said the question “guided students to be traitors to China” (汉奸). In response to the outrage, an EDB statement apologised for “seriously hurting the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people” and, on Friday, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung announced that the question would be withdrawn.

Choice quote from our Secretary for Education: “There is no room for discussion.” Because apparently the last thing we want our education system to be doing is encouraging Hong Kong youth to engage in discussion and critical thinking.

(Always good for a colourful metaphor, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs jumped in with: “Hong Kong's education sector must not become a chicken coop without a roof.” So there.)

Legislature under attack

The Beijing-led coup in our Legislative Council continued. Two Fridays ago saw pro-Beijing legislator Starry Lee stage a takeover of the chair of the LegCo house committee. Typical of Beijing’s modus operandi in Hong Kong, this was done by a combination of appeals to “rule of law” and brute force: Lee first obtained a friendly legal opinion from a QC who frequently represents the government, and then enlisted the support of LegCo security guards — a supposedly neutral service now evidently acting as Beijing’s enforcers inside LegCo — to physically muscle her way to the chair’s seat, from which she began directing proceedings.

Then this past Friday, LegCo president Andrew Leung ordered (pan-democrats say without proper legal basis) that the pan-democrat house committee chair Dennis Kwok — who had been accused by Beijing of facilitating a filibuster — be replaced with a pro-Beijing member, thus enabling the government to steamroller through its legislative agenda before the September elections.

Top of the government’s list? The National Anthem Law, which will make “insulting” or parodying the Chinese national anthem a criminal offence in Hong Kong punishable by up to 3 years jail. (And let’s read that “up to” bearing in mind the DoJ’s recent track record of demanding maximum penalties for offences committed by protesters/activists.) (For those 80s pop fans out there: this was clearly a law devised by Beijing after listening to too much Wa Wa Nee.)

Rule of law under attack

A 21 year-old lifeguard was sentenced to 4 years jail for riot on Friday, in connection with the 12 June 2019 protests outside LegCo. Recall this was the protest in which tens of thousands blockaded the LegCo building, preventing LegCo from meeting to begin debate of the extradition bill — the protest effectively stopped the bill.

The evening of the protest, then-police chief Stephen Lo described it as a “riot”. This prompted outrage from the protesters and led to one of their “Five Demands”: that the protest not be characterised as a riot. In response, the government first argued that calling something a “riot” in a press conference had no legal significance, and that only formal charges laid by the DoJ prosecutors following a police investigation are relevant. Lam later appealed to the “rule of law” when refusing to consider this protester demand, ignoring the fact that the prosecution decisions are always discretionary, and take account of many factors, including policy factors, as Bar Council chair Philip Dykes noted carefully in a speech marking the opening of the legal year this January:

“a decision to prosecute is not made just because the police have enough evidence to go to court and secure a conviction. Public interest plays a part in the decision-making process too so that individuals or some classes of cases will not end up in court, even though there is a strong case against them.”

Of course, prosecution decisions are made by Lam’s DoJ, headed by the Secretary for Justice, one of Lam’s own political appointees.

And so, finally, we come to Friday, with this young man sentenced to 4 years jail, after he threw other objects at the police line outside LegCo that June day. It is difficult not to compare his sentence — at 48 months — to that of a pro-Beijing antagonist who went on a vicious knife attack at a suburban Lennon Wall, stabbing and hospitalising three people, one critically injured. He was sentenced to only 45 months jail.

It is also difficult not to contrast the way in which the courts characterised the two cases: this protester was “attack[ing] doggedly and relentlessly”, while the pro-Beijing knife attacker was painted as an unfortunate victim of the protests.

This case was just the latest in a clear pattern of prosecution decisions being made such that protester defendants are given the heaviest charges and penalties, while pro-government offenders are treated sympathetically. The pro-Beijing antagonist was only charged with “wounding with intent” by prosecutors for his savage and pre-meditated knife attack, a charge carrying a lighter sentence, while protesters who accidentally killed an onlooker during a brick-throwing melee with pro-government supporters face charges of “attempted murder”. And our knife-attacker received a lighter sentence than a protester throwing plastic hard-hats. Such is the insidious nature of Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance and its use as a political weapon by the Hong Kong government.

There are currently hundreds of protesters awaiting trial on charges of riot under the ordinance. What kind of evidence will be used to seek convictions in these cases? Many of those arrested were simply wearing black outfits and tackled to the ground by police in the surrounding streets. As these trials unfold, bear in mind that bringing these cases is not free of costs for the govt. It has financial costs in terms of the salaries of prosecutors running the cases, costs in terms of time and court resources, and the opportunity costs of forgoing the ability to try other cases. Because of these costs, prosecutors are usually reluctant to press a case where they don’t have a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction. All of this suggests either that the government is determined to bring these cases regardless of the cost (with strong public encouragement from Beijing), or that they think today’s Hong Kong courts will be willing to convict on the basis of, at best, circumstantial evidence.

Truth under attack

One of the protesters’ other Five Demands was an independent inquiry into police behaviour. Carrie Lam had been resisting that demand on the basis that the Independent Police Complaints Council was carrying out its own investigation and we should all wait for that report. Well, the much-ballyhooed IPCC report was finally issued on Friday, and, to the surprise of precisely nobody, was a complete whitewash.

But most galling was the manner in which Lam presented the findings: in front of a vast backdrop of images of fiery destruction from last year's protests, emblazoned with the slogan “The Truth About Hong Kong”. (Paging Mr. Orwell!)

Was it any surprise that Lam then proceeded to spout a succession of untruths, half-truths and mischaracterisations?

Among all of Lam’s tosh, most concerning was her suggestion of future direct threats to freedom of the press and freedom of speech, foreshadowing such ideas as:

  • licensing of journalists (i.e. government deciding who can and cannot exercise the right to freedom of the press)

  • a “code of practice” between media and police (i.e. giving police an excuse to prevent media from being present on the front lines of protests)

  • a mechanism for police to monitor and correct online “rumours” (i.e. police exercising online censorship)

If these measures have a common theme, it is that they help the government and police to “guide public opinion” by preventing an independent media from properly functioning to hold the authorities to account. Truth will be the casualty.

Originally Lam had suggested that if the community was not satisfied with the results of the IPCC report, the government may consider additional steps (including an enquiry). But, with the report’s release, Lam shelved the whole issue of police misconduct, saying that the government will now be focusing on the coronavirus response and the economy.

The spirit of defiance

We are moving into another dark time for Hong Kong. The coming months will see a wave of repression similar to that which followed the end of 2014’s Umbrella Movement, but more intense: a relentless drip of government browbeating and disinformation, protester prosecutions and jailings, manipulation of the political and legal systems, attacks on the media, and of course police action on the streets.

The question is: what will be the reaction to all this from Hong Kongers? Will we see, like in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, a city-wide pall of depression, such that these encroachments on rights and freedoms are met with little resistance? Or will the spirit of 2019 endure?

By pure coincidence on Friday evening I was reading Mark Greif’s essay, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop”, originally published in the journal n+1 (paywall) and collected in his book Against Everything (HOT TIP: all Verso books are currently 50% off, with a free e-book!), when this passage jumped out at me. Pop music, Greif argues, is not “revolutionary”, but it prepares you for defiance:

Defiance...is the insistence on finding ways to retain the thoughts and feelings that a larger power should have extinguished. The difference between revolution and defiance is the difference between an overthrow of the existing order and one person’s shaken fist. When the former isn’t possible, you still have to hold on to the latter, if only so as to remember you’re human. Defiance is the insistence on individual power confronting overwhelming force that it cannot undo. You know you cannot strike the colossus. But you can defy it with words or signs. In the assertion that you can fight a superior power, the declaration that you will, this absurd overstatement gains dignity by exposing you, however uselessly, to risk. Unable to stop it in its tracks, you dare the crushing power to begin its devastation with you.”

I couldn’t think of a better way to summarise the spirit of the young Hong Kongers I have seen on the streets.

A little bit more Hong Kong

And all of that was just one day. Two quick items to fill the gap since my last update:

  • I wrote a piece on Hong Kong protest in the era of coronavirus, which appeared in Foreign Policy a couple of weeks ago, and is largely still relevant, I hope.

  • Notwithstanding everything that happened on Friday, the biggest news impacting Hong Kong in recent weeks has been the multiple statements from Beijing’s Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office and the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong. These statements have sought normalise and legitimise Beijing’s active participation in the governance of Hong Kong, effectively re-writing the Basic Law before our very eyes. More on this soon.

Book News

I am very excited to share the news that my book City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong has earned a highly-coveted and rarely-bestowed Kirkus “starred review”. Kirkus said of the book:

Excellent reportage that is of critical importance in understanding contemporary Chinese politics.

(And what is a Kirkus “starred review”, you might ask? In the words of Kirkus themselves: “One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit.” Thank you, Kirkus!)

It is always such a privilege and a delight to see my work reviewed by people whose own work I enjoy and respect, and I have been very lucky to receive a number of such reviews recently:

Finally, Hong Kong-based research academic Jane Richards interviewed me about the book for the New Books Network. Jane has followed events here closely, which made for a good in-depth conversation. You can listen via this page.

If you are interested in seeing “behind the curtain” to learn a bit about how I wrote the book, and in particular hear me wax lyrical about my love of the wonderful writing software Ulysses, you can read this interview on the Ulysses website, in which I also geek out a bit on my favourite apps, among other things. And if you write long-form prose on a Mac/iOS, I strongly recommend you check out Ulysses.

Nourishment & Consolation

I am admittedly very late to the Hannah Gadsby party, but finally watched the Netflix production of her 2018 stand-up show Nanette last week. It is stunning. I am still trying to figure out how a one-hour monologue can be so many things all at once: a deconstruction of the very art of comedy, a devastating social critique of homophobia and misogyny, an art history lecture, and a deeply moving personal testimony, all wrapped in a narrative structure as finely tuned as a Swiss watch. But for a piece of theatre — because it really is theatre, not just a standup routine — that exposes so much, Nanette also left hints of many things unsaid, so it is exciting to know that Gadsby’s follow-up show, Douglas, is being released on Netflix in just a few weeks’ time. So, if you haven’t already, watch Nanette now, and be ready for Douglas when it (he?) — as the parlance goes — “drops”.

I have found much consolation in musician Nick Cave’s email newsletter The Red Hand Files since it was launched some time ago. The premise is simple: fans write in questions, and Cave answers them. The result, as Cave describes it, is:

“a space in which I could offer dubious existential notions, religious meditations, unsound advice, millennial senilities and general annoyances, while hopefully simultaneously extending a little human kindness and compassion.”

Every issue is a gem, but for those of you feeling the pressure to “use” this time to create, I found this recent advice from Cave particularly consoling:

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime… Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is — what we, as artists, are for.

…An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together — throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all — so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

And finally

Thanks for reading. A friendly reminder that you can always write to me by replying directly to this email.

And now I think I need to go have a cup of tea.


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