Standing up to Beijing, in the style of Gone with the Wind

It was an exchange that hardened a Hong Kong mother’s resolve to emigrate.

Her son attends a local primary school near the West Kowloon law courts. A few weeks ago, when people queued outside the courthouse to attend bail application proceedings of the 47 freedom fighters charged under the National Security Law, her child asked her teacher what the long lines were about.

The teacher said the crowd was waiting to get their CCP virus vaccination.

When that Hong Kong mother reported this conversation back to me in disbelief, I, too, was taken back. I didn’t know what was more unsettling: the teacher’s readiness to lie, or her quickness in inventing just off the cuff a falsehood that’s politically correct.

I later related this story to a friend who teaches at one of Hong Kong’s international schools – I was under the assumption that his workplace was less on edge.

I was taken back the second time.

“We aren’t even allowed to discuss the 2019 protests with students,” he said matter-of-factly.

I can still remember back when I was working for a foreign news organization in mainland, one day, my boss (a foreigner) doubled over and convulsed with laughter when a normally-bright local staff stared at him blankly upon hearing “Aung San Suu Kyi“ – this was back when Suu Kyi was still a human rights icon. The CCP has succeeded in brainwashing mainlanders so well that this local hire managed to graduate from one of the best universities in China without having once heard of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Perhaps when today’s Hong Kong children come of age, they, too, will only know what the CCP wants them to know?

And perhaps Beijing’s success in pumping fear into Hong Kong’s teaching professionals is one reason why last week, it banned a cinema from showing “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” a documentary on the stand-off between the police and protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2019. Surely, Beijing wouldn’t have wanted this scene from the film to be forever etched in people’s memory: the frayed nerves and frazzled faces of over a hundred heads of secondary schools, as they sheepishly got on with their assignment of persuading the students who had barricaded themselves in the campus to leave. Normally, these school chiefs would have been looked up as pillars of society. But now, as they arm-twisted their students into handing themselves over to the police – they did so in full awareness that they had no power to make good on their “no prosecution” promise to their charge – the cameras recorded for posterity the lengths they had gone in becoming putty in the state’s hands.

I know it’s easy to condemn Hong Kong educators for their cowardice, but factoring in human weakness isn’t the same as making allowance for it, and independent mainland economist He Qinglian – whose books earned her such unrelenting harassment from the CCP that she had to bolt for the US – can provide a window into what drives Hong Kong’s teachers to impart ignorance instead of knowledge. He Qinglian tells of a famous Chinese professor at a famous mainland university who’s in two minds about He’s work. “While your books provides an accurate portrayal of China’s situation,” he said, “what’s the point of rocking the boat? I have lost the vigour of youth, and the last thing I want is to be caught up in a political storm in my later years.”

He Qinglian’s principle is one should demand of oneself what one would have loved to demand of others. This creed is one that I’m trying to apply to my life too. In my case, it’s a matter of buying my intellectual independence by completely decoupling from the CCP – not earning my keep as a private English writing coach from any outfits or persons Beijing’s influence can extend to. This is a tall order, and the only way to get by is to gain such a mastery over English that I can explain the most complex linguistic maneuvers in the simplest of terms, and therefore prompt some of those who would otherwise be put off by my leper status as anti-ccp writer to hire me to teach their children.

I”d be the first to admit jumping through hoops is an exhausting way to live, but the joys of this path are many. As I minister to my younger students while they go through the agonies of learning to write well, I’m also taking them on a journey not unlike the one Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell’s mother took her on when she was six: to impress upon her child the importance of education, Mitchell’s mother led her on a survey of mansions in Atlanta that had fallen into ruins, beckoning her to imagine how it must have shocked the former inhabitants of these grand places to have had their way of life seized from them abruptly by the outbreak of the Civil War. Her mother’s message, which would eventually become the theme of Mitchell’s epic novel, was whatever earth-shattering changes the world undergoes, ”what women have in their heads will carry them as far as they need to go.” One satisfaction my way of life grants me comes from knowing when my younger students become adults themselves – by that time the full cost of Xi’s revival of Mao would have been known and soul-searching would have followed – they’ll think back on their time with me, and muse over how, by virtue of “having something in her head,” Michelle succeeded in avoiding becoming a CCP lackey even as Hong Kong’s longstanding institutions imploded.

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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