Democracy Dies With A Whimper
To me, Hong Kong was more than just another Chinese city with a glittering skyline. It represented a haven, a refuge for the political freethinker, the alienated youth, and international vagabond alike. It was a bastion of liberal values, bolstered by a strong rule of law, an independent judiciary and principled, upstanding media willing to fight to preserve their freedom.
United Kingdom, Northern Europe
From childhood, we are taught by our parents not to take what we have for granted. Nevertheless, this pithy remark betrays a certain truth about our shared human nature: we often don’t fully appreciate the value of what is ours until we are forced to live without it.
To me, this aphorism is best exemplified by democracy. A lot of us seem to take our democracies for granted. We believe, perhaps wishfully, that democracies will prevail because they are good and just. Yet, as the pendulum shifts in favour of demagogues and despots, we must fight to preserve these basic values that we take for granted. Few things illustrate this sense of urgency better than the tragic decline of democracy in contemporary Hong Kong, the city I called home as a teenager and young adult.
I vividly remember the day the National Security Law was enacted by the Chinese Communist Party , breaking the long-held promise of ‘one country, two systems’ by criminalising opposition to the Party. I walked along the streets of Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island, consumed by a wave of bittersweet melancholy and resigned acceptance. Within a couple of hours, local media had already reported on the first arrest: a middle-aged man, peacefully sitting on a bench carrying a pro-independence flag was taken away by police, a portend of the nightmare to come. With tears streaming down into my already damp face mask I looked up from my phone and continued walking.
Soon, I found myself surrounded by processions of young Hong Kongers dressed in black and yellow, the symbolic colours of the city’s democracy movement. They walked together in silence amid the haze of the gruelling summer heat; a final act of defiance against the broken promises of their slavish politicians and a poignant plea for help to the West that had forsaken them.
Since then, Hong Kong has managed to outpace even the dystopian scenario depicted by Huxley . Free press has become de facto extinct, democracy activists have been arrested or exiled on charges tantamount to parking fines, and history has been rewritten according to Party lines. It is quite sobering to witness Hong Kong’s backwards slide from a relatively free democracy to a reign of terror that imprisons people for ‘secessionist’ social media posts and ‘colluding with foreign agents’ by way of newspaper interviews.
Many prominent media outlets describe the current malaise as the ‘death of Hong Kong’. I wholeheartedly reject this term. Memories of this liberal, bygone Hong Kong may have been airbrushed from official history, but not from thought: its spirit lives on in the memories of the millions of Hong Kongers that dared to defy China. Anyone who has met the average Hong Konger knows that the conviction to democracy runs too deep in their veins.
To me, Hong Kong was more than just another Chinese city with a glittering skyline. It represented a haven, a refuge for the political freethinker, the alienated youth, and international vagabond alike. It was a bastion of liberal values, bolstered by a strong rule of law, an independent judiciary and principled, upstanding media willing to fight to preserve their freedom. (Please do not misconstrue what I’m saying – the Hong Kong I grew up in was far from perfect as a society.) When I think of Hong Kong, I think of the annual vigils in remembrance of the
Tiananmen Massacre at Victoria Park, where Hong Kongers from all walks of life came together and lit candles in a poignant commemoration of life and human dignity. I think of the 1.4 million fearless individuals that marched in 2019 in the name of freedom. To me, these events better represent the authentic spirit of Hong Kong.
Despite it all, I will carry on believing in Hong Kong in its twilight.
As I walked alone towards my boarding gate in Hong Kong airport, my luggage seemed to get heavier and heavier as the floor beneath me began to feel like a quagmire. I never thought it would come to this. A one-way ticket in my hand, saying goodbye for the indefinite future.
As a reckless and inexperienced gweilo , I have no idea where my life will take me. But for now, I think Hong Kong is, and will be, the only place that I can truly call home. It was the city where I spent my teenage and early adult years, cultivated friendships and romances, where, inside the maze of street vendors and rustic back-alley restaurants, I finally found myself.
Author’s Note: Call to Action
There is no doubt that democracy is on a global retreat, with the systematic erosion of Hong Kong acting as a bleak warning to the world. And yet, despite countless lessons throughout history, we still fail to learn.
Nevertheless, there is still hope. Do not let the tragedy of Hong Kong be in vain. I implore you, fight, stand up for democracy. Shine bright in the starless night and defend the values that you take for granted, for you and your children. Live freely and be grateful for your freedom. Live up to the potential that your rights bless you with. Live with the liberty that others yearn for. While the flame of liberalism may have been extinguished in Hong Kong, our gratitude to democracy must be rekindled in each and every one of us. It must continue burning stronger than ever.
In 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China after over 150 years of British subjugation, China promised that it would operate under the constitutional principle of ‘one country, two systems’. That is, Hong Kong would formally be a part of China, but it could continue to enjoy its political freedoms and relative autonomy. Looking back, such guarantees seem to have been forever lost in the clouded annals of history.
However, over the years, as the Chinese Communist Party drifted towards an increasingly authoritarian stance, permitting the existence of a free, quasi-democratic Hong Kong right on their doorstep became entirely anathema. Despite the Party’s best efforts to undermine their democratic institutions, Hong Kongers valiantly resisted, through unfathomable resilience and sheer strength of will.
In 2020, after more than a year of continuous protests, China bypassed the Hong Kong legislature and unilaterally enacted the National Security Law. This Law criminalised all ‘secession and subversion’, umbrella terms that could conveniently be used to label anything and everything that opposed the Party’s hegemony.
 Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894 –1963) was an English writer and philosopher. He is the author of Brave New World, a dystopian novel set in a futuristic society where humanity is controlled by science and technology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldous_Huxley
 "Gweilo" is a term widely used in Hong Kong to describe a foreigner: https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/gweilo
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