Mothers usually have an instinctive desire to shield their children from the horrors of the world, so the dethroned Marie Antoinette – at this point she was already locked up in a dark, damp prison with her two small children – was acting uncharacteristically when she let on to them the gravity of their situation: ”she sometimes looked at us with such an air of pity that we shuddered,” her daughter was to later recount as an adult.
I know one thing or two about the jitters that come from being an object of pity; it makes one wonder if one is doomed. When I notice veteran journalists in Hong Kong finding out about my writings and looking at me with pity – they were in the business long before the CCP virtually took over mainstream media, so they know how life used to be like – I realize they are sorry that unlike them, I may never know how it’s like to write without fear.
My curiosity naturally extends itself to the question of who should take the blame for Hong Kong’s deterioration. What I’ve discovered is the culprit is not so much a particular group of people as a deeply-held mindset shared across Hong Kong’s economic divide.
Chief executive Carrie Lam exhibited this mindset when she laughed off concerns that forcing students citywide to listen to a mainland official’s talk on the basic law would constitute brainwashing: “what’s the fuss? Just turn a deaf ear and tune him out (你瞇埋眼咪睇唔到囉),” she sneered.
Lam thought she was giving practical advice, but in making this offhand remark, she was exposing her belief that to get ahead in post-handover Hong Kong, one should turn a blind eye to Chinese communism’s underbelly and carry out its orders.
Lam’s creed is particularly common among Hong Kong’s so-called elite. Pro-Beijing legislator Chan Kin-por’s infamous censure of young protesters – “they have infringed upon my right to pocket the bounty my generation has spent a lifetime working for” – is another expression of the same mindset.
Lam and Chan didn’t conceive of this mindset on their own. The CCP had long wanted to control Hong Kong for all intents and purposes, yet it had to do so while preserving the facade of “One Country Two Systems”, so that the international community can persuade itself that Hong Kong is still a financial capital. The solution? Design a system whereby those who stand to gain the most are those who are most willing to act as the party’s proxy in chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy. This, by the way, is why it’s impossible to win an argument with many pro-Beijing people by pointing out the CCP’s evilness; it’s not like they’re unaware of its evilness, it’s just that they’ve chosen to ignore it. Chris Pattern was therefore very prescient when he predicted before the handover that it’d be Hong Kong people, not the communists, who would erode Hong Kong’s freedoms.
The CCP has had smashing success in instilling the idea that being part of the CCP gravy train is the loftiest position Hong Kong people can aspire to. How else can you explain the behaviour of that single mother who shunned her 19 year-old son after he was hit on the back by a tear gas canister while volunteering as a first aider at the 2019 protests? He had disappointed her by ruffling Beijing’s feathers instead of getting a high-income job. She’s far from the only parent to rue over her child’s life choice. A social media post titled “A society that devours its young” painfully documents fractured family ties resulting from political differences: parents banishing university-aged kids from home, students unable to obtain financial aid because parents were too angry to sign the application forms, just to name a few.
Perhaps the most piercing rebuke Hong Kong youths have fired against the previous generation is the graffiti one of them scrawled outside the family planning clinic in Wanchai during one of the 2019 rallies: “no one’s gonna have kids in this city!” Indeed, who wants to live in a place where we have to give up more and more of our freedom in exchange for less and less bread?
Late one night, I was feeling particularly disheartened by Hong Kong’s political situation when an older reporter whose column I’d read religiously when I was at university suddenly contacted me online to discuss a matter. I mentioned my mental state to her in passing. “I wish I were there to hug you,” she replied. Right then, I knew how the incarcerated Marie Antoinette felt when her long wished-for request for clean underclothes was not only granted – the added bonus was they also came in a box, which meant she didn’t have to place them on the grime-coated prison floor. The former queen “received the box as if it has been the most beautiful piece of furniture in the world,” according to an attendant. This is how life in Hong Kong has become: positive things, no matter how trivial, can have an outsized impact.