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Hong Kong's Death by a Thousand Cuts

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

This week's blog is authored by Jemimah Steinfeld, Editor-in-Chief for the Index on Censorship and Author on China.

I always assumed one day I would live in Hong Kong. I had visited the city several times, the first on holiday with my family. Coming from the UK, the city's Hello Kitty-kitsch vibe against its verdant hills and turquoise beaches was like a drug to my 15-year-old self.

Then later, when I lived in Shanghai and Beijing, I'd go on visa runs. Hong Kong was where I'd breath. It was free! I'd go to the cinema and enjoy a movie I could never watch in China because the censorship board wouldn't allow it. I'd meet up with a commissioning editor, someone I'd write for when I had a story that would never be published in China due to its sensitivity. I was working in the media and the view was – go to Beijing for the hardship years and then work your way down to Hong Kong – close enough to the China story but without the challenges.

I'm now in the UK and not only have I done away with my assumption that I'll one day live in Hong Kong, I've done away with any dreams of revisiting the city.

My disappointment is nothing on the anguish of Hong Kongers. I've watched from the sidelines and reported on the rising censorship for years now, taking deep inhalations at both the audacity of the authorities and the bravery of the millions who have kicked back. The readers here are most likely au fait with what has happened, how a small creep – changing what is taught in schools, self-censorship at media organisations – became larger – diktats on how the national anthem should be sung, academic tenures denied to the more critical. They're likely au fait with how this creep became more brazen and disturbing – missing booksellers for example.

And then how it reached a climax in the summer of 2020 when the National Security Law (NSL) was passed. It was death by a thousand cuts and one massive blow at once. It was devastating.

The NSL might be the most damning piece of legislation in terms of free expression I've seen, which says a lot; as editor-in-chief at Index on Censorship I am served a daily bread of draconian legislation. Certainly its extra-territorial element is a one up on legislation passed by other authoritarian states.

The NSL has done exactly what it intended – it has paralysed pro-independence and pro-democracy advocates in the city, and even made those outside the city question how vocal they should be. Straight after it was passed Hong Kong resident Tammy Lai-Ming Ho wrote in a letter published on Index’s site that "we only have the worst case scenarios to look forward to". She was, sadly, right.

I've gone from having a little black book heavy with contacts in Hong Kong to a few on the ground who will talk to me, but only under condition of anonymity and only on Signal.

It's strange to think that Hong Kong is still not behind the Great Firewall. But does that matter in a place where you can now be arrested for simply possessing a children's book?

The great Chinese novelist Ma Jian wrote in a 1997 Index special on Hong Kong that "from 1 July, the drift begins: Hong Kong becomes a floating island, migrating on the map". It has migrated. Will it come back? I hope so. In the meantime, we must all remain united.

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