An open letter to the 53 Hong Kongers arrested due to last year’s primary election

Shortly after Katherine Anne Porter published “Ship of Fools,” a nun approached her and asked “you look like such a nice woman, how could you have written that dreadful book?” Porter replied “sister, this is a perfectly dreadful world, don’t you know that?” Later, Porter had an epiphany when she reflected on this exchange: “it is a horrible world. But sometimes I have found little bits of time when you couldn’t believe that everything could be so nice.”

As you remain marooned in the maze that passes itself off as the legal system of an international finance capital, I want you to know how you’ve left an imprint on my world: Hong Kong is currently in a horrible state alright, but thanks to your bravery in putting yourself out there, I can still find little pockets of hope where humanity is at its finest.

Lately, people have been asking me how I can still summon up the readiness to think uninhibitedly and write candidly. It’s actually due in no small measure to people like you. Even though I work on my own as I put my political thoughts on paper, I’ve been observing from afar your unceasing effort to make Hong Kong less unfree, and I’ve derived so much of my motivation to write from you that I can honestly say except in the physical sense, you’ve been keeping me company.

I’ve had Apple readers writing to tell me my columns have given them the motivation to go on, so chances are your reach is extending to corners so far-flung that it’s beyond your imagination.

I’ve talked about how you’ve made it possible for me to find human goodness in unexpected quarters. Now that Hong Kong is even more at the mercy of Beijing’s whim, it is again in unexpected quarters that we can find hope. Take for example Ta Kung Pao’s recent denunciation of that senior civil servant who wore a mask bearing “SW”; ”SW” is the logo of the mask’s manufacturer, but the paper insisted that the stamp was a veiled reference to “51,” the abbreviated form of the protest slogan “five demand, not one less.”

While some Hong Kong people may view the Ta Kung Pao editorial as yet another sign of Hong Kong’s descent into totalitarianism and feel even more downcast, I have it on good authority that the mouthpiece’s antics may indicate that Hong Kong is close to hitting rock bottom, which in turn means it’s only a matter of time that the winds will blow in our favour. An elderly lady from a grand family in Old Shanghai who managed to survive the Cultural Revolution once told me even at her nadir – she was forced to labour in a factory where her arms were frequently scalded by boiling water – thoughts of suicide never crossed her mind. “I knew at the beginning that the Cultural Revolution was completely preposterous, and the world doesn’t operate preposterously forever. So I knew my sufferings would end one day.”

When I met the said lady in the mid aughts, she was attending her weekly dancing sessions at Shanghai’s Paramount ballroom (百樂門), her old haunt before 1949. Lately, I often think back on that encounter with her at the fabled nightclub: there aren’t many things on earth that are more preposterous than the “SW” mask farce, and if the Cultural Revolution ended for her, surely, there will come a day when Beijing will relax its grip on us.

Sometimes, it’s outside Hong Kong that we can find more reasons for hope. In mainland, everywhere you can see signs of the CCP’s facade cracking. Just last month, state media reported with great fanfare how a former young financial analyst who holds a masters degree from a British university happily adapted to becoming a hired hand at a refuse recycling company and is now earning up to RMB 50,000 a month.

This salary level seems improbable, but even more improbable is his upbeat attitude towards his plunge in status. “To be able to earn money with my pair of hands, what’s shameful about this?” he was reported to have remarked. What’s more probable is the CCP is still having difficulty finding employment for those 8 million fresh graduates who flooded the job market last year (this year’s load is an estimated 9 million), so its propaganda outlets have concocted this young man’s story to persuade young people to take on jobs that are incommensurate with their education. With the party increasingly exerting its hold on the mainland economy, is it any surprise that enterprises are having difficulty creating good jobs? For all we know, mainland is itself on the cusp of change.

“Hong Kong is more and more like a large detention centre,” one of you (John Clancey) recently observed. While only some of us are physically detained, all have to contend with not letting our minds be apprehended by fear. Speaking personally, it’s not easy for me to conquer my fear of Beijing and write the way I do, but now that I feel it’s my turn to lift your spirits, you have my word that I’ll try my best to do so.

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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