No jackboots are to be seen marching through Hong Kong's sleek shopping malls, but a distinct whiff of totalitarianism is in the air. The tell-tale phrases are on everyone's lips: talk of the need for anti-subversion laws, press controls, strong leadership, of adjusting to Hong Kong's new reality. Everyone looks to the great northern neighbor for direction and mutters about expediency.
Most of the world lost interest in Hong Kong after 1997 when the Anschluss with China did not instantly deliver vast changes. Over the past year or two, however, the pace of integration into the PRC has quickened decisively.
Life at the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English-language newspaper, and so a visible political gauge, offers a window into what is going on all across Hong Kong's institutions. The atmosphere at the paper began to darken noticeably as one after another of its leading editorial lights was pushed out.
It would be an exaggeration to compare the situation to the way the Nazis took over institutions in Germany in the 1930s and to how people back then fell in line, because no one is disappearing into concentration camps. Hong Kong remains a rich and prosperous place. Yet the dictatorship in Beijing has made its presence felt, if only through proxies and collaborators.
Before I chose to protest to the editor who sacked me last month, I was guilty of complicity too. I stayed silent when the paper's popular cartoonist (Larry Feign) was unjustly dismissed, and remained silent even after its best satirical writer (Nury Vittachi) was sacked. I only became uneasy when the British editor (Jonathan Fenby) was fired and replaced.
"I am still OK," I reasoned. "They still let me write what I want ..." My job as bureau chief in Beijing isolated me from the struggles in the head office in distant Hong Kong. Besides, working in Beijing is itself a constant struggle of conscience and compromise. Foreign reporters are under constant surveillance and risk compromising their contacts. That means one begins to avoid tough subjects, like the repression of Falun Gong and its followers.
Gradually, you also noticed a change in the behaviour of your Hong Kong colleagues. As the government proposed to introduce an anti-subversion law and strengthened its control over the civil service, they became guarded in what they said and tightlipped about mentioning the pressures from above.
Whispered rumors of daily interference from management were only confirmed in private.
Some people responded opportunistically, seeing the way to promotion open as talented colleagues disappeared. So the internationally recognized editor, Willy Lam, was replaced by a Chinese, Wang Xiangwei. Those who organized this coup hoped that it would lead to greater things for themselves; those who signed a petition of protest were fired not long after.
Management then began to quietly spread word that the paper needed people able to "negotiate" with the sensibilities of the Communist Party. Curiously, some officials in Beijing complained about the crude tactics of those sent to run Hong Kong. It seemed the urge to collaborate actually ran ahead of the party's demands. The paper's tone began to change, becoming increasingly deferential toward China's rulers. Reporting became blander and blander. Management talked of the virtues of writing to allow readers to read between the lines. These changes speeded up over recent months. Even the office photographer began to notice different photographic choices.
The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office took charge of the paper's correspondents based on the mainland, demanding that they be replaced by ethnic Chinese. Then they began to offer guidance on reporting in ex-change for favors like access to officials. Despite the obviousness as to where all this was leading, individuals responded differently. Some continued to deny what was happening, and became indignant if the issue was raised. Others reasoned that if they kept their head down and compromised, the crisis would pass.
A sort of listlessness now grips Hong Kong, particularly the civil service. The business sector remains unaffected and continues to talk optimistically of the prospects opened up by closer integration with the mainland.
But Hong Kong is surrendering the uniqueness and exceptional position it once held in the Chinese world. As other Chinese cities become more free and more confident, Hong Kong is submissively abandoning the freedoms it once held with pride.
In 1997, China promised to preserve these freedoms for 50 years under the "one county, two systems" mantra. Now Hong Kong itself is undoing the system. Many of its tycoons (one of whom, Robert Kuok, controls the South Morning China Post) are jettisoning their autonomy for the sake of business -- even when such action is not requested. They seem blind to the value of what they are sacrificing.
The intangibles of freedom will determine the vitality and future of Hong Kong. Tragically, such losses never appear on the profit sheets measured by accountants.
Jasper Becker, the former Bei-jing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, is the author of Hungry Ghosts.
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