Letter from Hong Kong
June 29, 2020
It’s easy to gripe about being a writer in Hong Kong.
The city is, after all, the most expensive place on the planet to live in. Traumatized by life’s many demands and intense peer competition, most citizens are hard-pressed to find the time, much less the mood, to pick up a book and read. And when they do read, it’ll be wholly utilitarian: for exam preparation, career advancement or other pragmatic ends. The only books that sell well in Hong Kong are textbooks, investment manuals and the occasional travel guide. Over time, reading has been relegated to an agenda item to be ticked off.
Being a writer in this “cultural desert” (one of many self-deprecating bynames for our economic city) may feel like tossing a bottle into the ocean. Authors can publish all they want but may never reap the fruit of their labor. Telling strangers that I’m a writer often draws confusion and condolence—a combination of furrowed eyebrows and scratching at the chin. I often joke that we can count the number of homegrown Chinese-language writers with two hands and English-language writers with one.
But those complaints pale in comparison to the way our publishing industry has been crippled by the gradual erosion of free expression since the Handover in 1997, when the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule. In the twenty-some years since, Chinese businesses have been gobbling up local bookstore chains, magazines and newspapers, and diverting their advertising dollars to Beijing-friendly media outlets. Reading the writing on the wall, publishers and editors shy away from subject matters that are deemed politically sensitive. Writers of all stripes from novelists and essayists to academics and journalists learn to cope by self-censoring to different degrees.
We used to liken this climate of quiet suppression and steady curtailment of civil liberties to the proverbial boiling frog—the idea that if a frog is put in a pot that is slowly brought to a boil, the critter will be cooked to death without noticing the rising temperature. After a series of pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement paralyzed Hong Kong in 2014, I wrote Umbrellas in Bloom, the first English-language book to chronicle what was then the largest political upheaval since the Handover. I was blessed to have an audacious publisher, Pete Spurrier, who dared take on the project, although he wasn’t nearly as lucky with the rest of the publishing food chain. Pete was turned down by multiple printing companies before finding a small shop that accepted the job on the condition of anonymity. He had to fight tooth and nail to have the title stocked in bookstores and is still fighting that uphill battle today.
But you can’t blame people for being squeamish. In 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers who wrote and published tabloid-style political books about the Communist leadership were abducted by the Chinese authorities. Some of them reappeared on Chinese state television confessing to dubious charges, including Gui Minhai (桂民海) who was recently sentenced to ten years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence to overseas entities.” Just a few months ago, the owner of the last remaining pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong was arrested by the local police on flimsy public order charges. Attempts to silence dissent by both Beijing and a local government that acts at its behest have gone from discreet and measured to brazen and in-your-face. The boiling frog metaphor is so five years ago.
For over a decade, I juggled my day job as a corporate lawyer at a European bank and an outside career as a writer and social advocate. In 2016, I co-founded PEN Hong Kong, the local chapter of a global network of writers, and served as its inaugural president until early 2019. Since then, I’ve taken up the mantle as leader of an advocacy group to defend the city’s rule of law and other democratic rights. Perhaps not surprisingly, my civil society work caught up with me last September, when Hong Kong was in the middle of yet another round of mass protests—this time sparked by an unpopular extradition arrangement with mainland China. A comment I had posted on my personal Facebook page in support of the protest movement set off a vicious doxxing campaign on Chinese social media against me, which precipitated the end of a twelve-year relationship with my employer. The fallout, which was widely reported in the international press, happened just weeks before the U.S. National Basketball Association found itself embroiled in a similar political quagmire—caught between commercial interest and free speech.
What my peers and I have experienced over these past years is by no means an isolated incident. It epitomizes the systematic attack against writers and opinion leaders in Hong Kong—those who care deeply about their craft and feel duty bound to defend their fundamental right to free expression. Since Xi Jinping ascended the throne as Paramount Leader of China eight years ago, Beijing has been tightening its grip on Hong Kong and the creative space in which we operate has been narrowing at a quickening pace. These seismic political changes have triggered a fight-or-flight response, as many in the city’s literary circle decide to vote with their feet and move overseas. Every week, I get invited to farewell parties for publishers, novelists, translators and the like. My dance card fills up quickly and my social life has blossomed for all the wrong reasons.
Those who choose to stay or lack the resources to move abroad are caught in an existential struggle. When your enemy is the world’s most powerful totalitarian regime, it’s tempting to fall into a state of abandon and powerlessness. But that’s precisely what the authorities aim to achieve and the more defiant among us refuse to play into their hands. Determined to beat them at their game, we plough ahead on the basis that we’ll do as much as we can until we can’t do it anymore. Writers in Hong Kong are increasingly realizing that we can no longer work in isolation or watch the slow death of our city from the sidelines. There’s an unspoken consensus that we must work with other civil society groups and take on the roles of activist and dissident.
Both the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the anti-extradition bill protests that flared up last year have encouraged citizens from all walks of life to speak up and speak out. Doctors and nurses, lawyers and accountants, reporters and teachers have formed trade groups not to demand higher wages and better work conditions but to give voice to their respective constituents on important political issues. Likewise, literary organizations like PEN Hong Kong provide a platform for writers to stand in solidarity in the fight for free expression. Anti-extradition bill protesters have a slogan on the frontlines: “They can’t kill us all.” Writers unite on a less chivalrous but equally tenacious belief: “They can’t silence us all.” To be sure, we’re louder and stronger together.
I recently returned from a trip in Europe. I was invited to give a series of talks and press interviews in Barcelona and speak at the Bergen International Literary Festival in Norway. Although most of the speaking engagements and media events during my visit were literary in nature, both the topics of discussions chosen by the moderators and the questions from the audiences and journalists were manifestly political. It became clear to me that as a Hong Kong author, I was expected to put on an activist’s hat, whether I signed up for it or not, and regardless of the genre I write in. I am and must be a Hong Konger first, writer second.
As I’m writing this in the quiet of the night, Hong Kong is still a city on edge. We have been wrestling with the Covid-19 outbreak that has all but brought public activities to a standstill. Sporadic anti-government protests continue to erupt on the streets from time to time—signs that the anti-extradition bill movement has been slowed down by the epidemic but is far from over.
The city is on a simmer: it’s one political fallout away from boiling over again. Already, the Hong Kong government has hinted at the idea of enacting an anti-subversion law in the coming months, a thinly-veiled attempt to tighten the chokehold on civil society, on the pretext of social stability. For writers, it means the path ahead will get more perilous and our resolve will be tested more than ever. While we’ll never stop griping about our lackluster reading culture and how hard it is to make a living as a writer, we know just as well, at a deeper level, that if we don’t band together to defend our creative space, it won’t be long before there isn’t anything left to complain about.
This article was first published in the summer 2020 issue of The Author.