Farewell to Hong Kong and Its Big Lie

Earlier this month, a few days before I packed up my apartment and left Hong Kong, I made my way across the city to Victoria Park. For decades, the city’s residents would gather there in the thousands on the night of June 4 to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a moment of mass collective remembrance for those killed by Chinese forces in Beijing in 1989 and, though less so, a nod to the formative role that the crackdown played in the development of Hong Kong’s own prodemocracy movement. This year, the once-moving scene was entirely stamped out by the city’s more authoritarian turn.

At the park, the heavily equipped police outnumbered the journalists, who themselves outnumbered those there to remember the victims of Tiananmen. I was standing with two other reporters as well as two friends. This put us over the limit of four people allowed together outside under Hong Kong’s COVID policies. I walked away after being warned by police, but I continued typing notes on my phone. The effort was wasted: An officer told me that all five of us would need to provide IDs and answer questions. Even though I had moved, she informed me, I had been “seen with the group earlier.” About a dozen police officers and media-liaison personnel quickly surrounded us. It was almost as if public health was not really the reason for the encounter at all. I mentioned the obvious contradiction to one officer now standing just a few inches from me as my details were recorded. He replied with a flippant series of yeahs before backing up a few steps.

The moment was a mild inconvenience but nonetheless illustrative of the absurdity of the night. Elsewhere in Hong Kong that evening, police stopped and searched a car that drove near the park, its license plate reading US 8964, numbers that corresponded with the date of the massacre. One woman was questioned and warned for handing out blank sheets of white paper. Police told another woman to turn off the light on her mobile phone—some people had turned theirs on in lieu of the candles traditionally used to mark the Victoria Park vigil. When she asked why she needed to do so, the officer said it was in order to preserve her phone’s battery life. As to why, exactly, hundreds of officers surrounded the park, the government offered only that the police were responding to online rumors about a possible illegal assembly that needed to be thwarted.

In Hong Kong today, falsehoods, gaslighting, and endless fabrications such as these are equaled only by the cowardice of the people partaking in this insulting ruse, an infectious cascade of lies used by Hong Kong’s leaders, and their overlords in Beijing, to reimagine the past and justify the retooling of the city. One would think that the “patriots” deemed worthy of running Hong Kong and their swelling ranks of collaborators would be proud of their role in the dismantling of the city’s freedoms, jailing of its opposition, and overhauling of its institutions. Instead, they hide their motives behind unbelievable excuses and make their moves under the cover of darkness, treating Hong Kongers with visceral contempt, like a pack of gullible idiots devoid of agency and free thought.

(Louise Delmotte / Getty)

The narrative of the 2019 prodemocracy movement—in which millions defended their liberties and pushed for more freedom—now recounted by Beijing and its loyalists in Hong Kong is one of paid protesters, foreign agitators, and unpatriotic internal opposition. Claims that once resided in the mind of unhinged propagandists and on the fringes of the internet are now accepted wholesale in many parts of polite society, a story line being cemented in the city’s courts, where scores of activists and former lawmakers are on trial for violating Hong Kong’s national-security law.

The law, imposed by Beijing a year into the protest movement, was tailor-made to prevent the events of 2019 from happening again, as well as to destroy the bonds and solidarity forged throughout that year. Officials are working in a retroactive fashion to supplant the reality of the movement with the story Hong Kong officials seem to have willed themselves into believing. The broad contours of this lie are becoming clearer, focusing in large part on Jimmy Lai, the loquacious founder of Apple Daily, a prodemocracy newspaper that was forced to close last year, after it was raided and its accounts frozen by authorities. Lai, currently in jail on a number of charges, is being cast as the mastermind of the prodemocracy protests, a deft purveyor of propaganda with deep pockets and foreign connections, who fooled huge numbers into rising up in a violent insurrection.

This is a false and deliberate strategy, one that pins all of the blame on a few “black hands” or “hostile forces” and carries a long historical precedent. Beijing deployed the same language at the time of the Tiananmen demonstrations, and more recently during 2008 protests in Tibet. The intent is to strip Hong Kongers of their own agency and assign blame to just a few select individuals, brushing aside the many legitimate grievances of city residents in favor of a more simplistic tale. There is little doubt that Lai will be found guilty under the national-security law. As Scott Veitch, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, wrote last year about the city’s judiciary, “wound up like clockwork toys, they trundle off in whatever direction they are pointed.”

Lai will provide authorities with their perfect villain. The supporting cast in this farcical theater will be filled out by some of the 47 activists and former lawmakers who were arrested after taking part in an unofficial primary in July 2020 in which an estimated 600,000 people cast ballots. The majority have signaled their intent to plead guilty. The reasoning for this choice is understandable. Most have been held without bail for more than a year and are hoping that their sentences will be reduced.

The summary of facts in the case runs nearly 150 pages. The length however, should not be mistaken for depth. No hidden scheme uncovered; the contents of the document are drawn almost entirely from social-media posts and public interviews. After Lai stoked the protests, the narrative will go, these activists and parliamentarians stepped in to carry out the next part of the grand plan and overthrow the government through illegal means. Again, this is not true: Their plan, creatively, relied on using existing laws and regulations to force a political deadlock if they gained control of a legislature in which prodemocracy lawmakers have never been in the majority since the handover in 1997. Many of the winners of the primary were blocked from even standing in the election, which itself was postponed by COVID. New election laws ensure that nothing of the sort will ever happen.

A pigeon flies over a deserted Victoria Park in Hong Kong
(Peter Parks / AFP / Getty)

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, has embarked upon her own efforts to salvage her legacy of arrogance and poor governance as the end of her time in office draws near. Her calendar is filled with ceremonial events, such as ribbon cuttings at museums and tram rides. Amid the hackneyed photo ops, she has taken considerable time out of her dwindling days in office to make a final, offensive push to try to sell Hong Kongers on the fiction that all is well in their city. “Hong Kong is as free as ever, whether it’s in the freedom of expression, in the freedom of assembly, in the media, and so on,” Lam said during a recent interview with CNBC. She has also absolved herself of any wrongdoing, doubling down on her belief that the bill that sparked the massive protests was a good idea and that the only issue was poor communication. Lam’s bid to be Hong Kong’s chief executive started, she said, five years ago, with a call from God. It ends with a flourish of lies.

It is not totally surprising to see Lam undertake such a detached, embarrassing spectacle, yet there is little sympathy for her, even from pro-Beijing figures, who are keen to lay their own failures at her feet. She is historically unpopular for her handling of the protests, and her government’s mismanagement of the pandemic led to thousands of deaths. “I think the public will view her as the worst CE ever,” one former pro-Beijing lawmaker told me, speaking on condition of anonymity given the political sensitivities. “Poor Carrie,” he added mockingly. U.S. sanctions mean she cannot easily travel abroad, he said, but “she cannot walk on the streets of Hong Kong either.”

It is a struggle to try to keep up with the lies, which arrive at a furious volume and pace: New school textbooks proclaim that Hong Kong was never a British colony, for example, and heavy editing was deployed earlier this year to make a set of postage stamps appear more patriotic. All of these fictions serve the city’s leaders and officials, and help perpetuate one of the biggest, most enduring falsehoods about Hong Kong: that it is a city where people simply don’t care about politics. One needs only to look at the events in the city for the past decade to know that this is untrue. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, few places did more in recent years to stand up for freedom and democracy in the face of an unending autocratic assault.

The signs of the prodemocracy movement that were plain to see three years ago are more difficult to spot now: a fading yellow raincoat stenciled on a back-alley wall; a cutout of a cartoon pig, sunbleached from pink to orange, hung in a café window; a wireless-internet-network name filled with cryptic numbers. Spotting them offers a brief moment of reprieve from the maddening daily exercise of being constantly told that what you’ve seen and experienced is not the truth. I was there when 1 million, then nearly 2 million people demanded change from the government; I saw the creativity and resilience of Hong Kongers and helped investigate abuse of force by the police. All of that happened. Many Hong Kongers experienced and bore witness to far more.

Later on June 4, I sat at a small bar not far from Victoria Park after police had pushed everyone to the edge of the sidewalk. At the table next to me, a woman and her boyfriend were drinking beer. I caught a glimpse of a tattoo on the back of her arm, peeking out from under her shirt sleeve, part of a popular slogan from the 2019 demonstrations: Fight for Freedom.

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