Things have changed so much since I left Hong Kong in 2019 that even writing articles like this one could preclude me from returning to the territory.
Living there for 18 years from 2001, I worked as a high school history teacher at an international school and as a part-time current affairs presenter with the city's English-speaking state radio station. I was never limited in any political way in what I could teach or say in the classroom or on air.
But in a matter of months, Beijing has turned up the totalitarian dial, upending norms in Hong Kong, with both education and media as obvious front-line targets.
Last month in Hong Kong, 47 people were charged with "conspiracy to commit subversion" for their involvement in organising primary elections within the pro-democracy camp last year. Under the National Security Law (NSL), hastily instigated during the middle of 2020, the maximum term for such a charge is life imprisonment. A 69-year-old American lawyer, John Clancey, who was also arrested but not charged, referred to the broader context in the territory: "There is less freedom, may it be education, or newspapers, or many other things, the freedom and rights are being tightened."
Soon after I arrived in Australia in 2019, in a radio interview here I was probed and baited about what it was like teaching history and presenting a current affairs radio show in a "totalitarian" place. But during my time in Hong Kong, from 2001 to 2019, the city was not controlled in anything like a totalitarian manner.
The National Security Law is so deliberately vague that any lawyer seeking respite in sub-clauses would miss the big picture: a totalitarian regime will arrest, charge and sentence whomever it wishes.
Contrary to many outsiders' understanding of Hong Kong, news outlets and social media platforms were never curtailed in any way - unlike across the border in mainland China. My former employer, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), was as unbiased, balanced and objective as other state broadcasters, such as the BBC or Australia's ABC. Indeed, I once received more direction regarding what not to say concerning local politics when appearing on a regional ABC radio station than I ever did in my years in Hong Kong.
Now, however, governmental control of the media is strengthening apace. Jimmy Lai's independent pro-democracy media empire has been targeted through the arrests of its owner, and outlets where pro-Beijing forces had already increased their presence - such as the South China Morning Post - are further shifting their editorial lines. In January, RTHK staff were issued with a declaration of allegiance to the government for them to sign. Several executives have since resigned, and a government figure has been appointed to head up the public broadcaster. Among colleagues who remain, morale is low.
In education, pro-Beijing proponents have blamed the system for fomenting pro-democracy protests, hence the need for "reform" - or censorship. Hong Kong's literal rewriting of history and new curriculum guidelines, announced earlier in February, clarify that much of what I used to say in the classroom could now be construed as illegal. At least one teacher has already been sacked for allegedly promoting Hong Kong independence within the classroom. Amnesty International said the sacking sent an ominous message - which, of course, was the intention: the anti-democratic authorities ruling China and Hong Kong simply need to make an example of one or two in order to send that message.
Teachers, among others across society, have to toe the line - or leave. Although local Cantonese-speaking schools face the greatest pressure, even inside international schools self-censorship - that ubiquitous hallmark of totalitarianism - is becoming all-too normal. Many of my former colleagues have resigned, with the greatest exodus expected at the end of Hong Kong's academic year in July.
The National Security Law is so deliberately vague that any lawyer seeking respite in sub-clauses would miss the big picture: a totalitarian regime will arrest, charge and sentence whomever it wishes. When it comes to political "crimes", Hong Kong must now be considered to be like the rest of China, where guilt is determined more by the Party than by the evidence. From the Chinese Communist Party point of view, what would be the point of going to extraordinary lengths to control 1.4 billion Chinese if you're going to allow a few million Hong Kong Chinese to say and do as they wish?
Furthermore, you can see that principle extends beyond Hong Kong, as the National Security Law also claims to include the actions of the Chinese diaspora abroad. Indeed, it claims to encompass anyone at all who the Chinese authorities deem to have spoken out or acted against their national interests. Hence China-watching journalists based in Australia will think twice before planning a visit to Hong Kong.
For a minority of Hong Kongers - including a few expats - the shift that the NSL heralded is welcome. For them, stability and prosperity trump democracy and freedom. Indeed, we have seen the world's leading democracies on the back foot - both under the strain of a global challenge such as COVID-19, and also in facing difficulties in their democratic processes, from the ordeal of Brexit to the debacle surrounding the US presidential election. By contrast, the apparent stability and efficacy of undemocratic China gives reason for the restricted-freedom model to appeal to powerbrokers within other states, such as Myanmar.
What's happening under the world's gaze in Hong Kong has an impact far beyond China's borders.
- Paul Letters is a journalist and novelist who lived in Hong Kong for 18 years, where he was a presenter for state broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong. His most recent novel, set in wartime Hong Kong and China, is The Slightest Chance. paulletters.com