On a particularly clear day, I climbed Lion’s Rock, an iconic Kowloon peak that offers stunning views of Hong Kong to the intrepid hiker. In 2019, the grandiose cliff face was regularly covered in protest signs. Leaning against a tree trunk, I feel my thumb slide into a groove. I look up and squinting, I see engraved on the trunk, “八三一”, the Chinese characters for 831. Like Neo learning to read code, the same numbers began to float before my vision as I walked down the road , strange and insistent, cut into tree after tree: 831, 831, 831. I took out the phone: 8/31, the date of the “Prince Edward incident”, when the police brutally beat the protesters at the Prince subway station Edward, and then sealed it. in the first interventions.
Googling 831 quickly led me to 721, the Yuen Long incident on July 21, which also involved violent clashes between police, protesters and counter-protesters. Democratic Party Chairman Wu Chi-wai condemned the arrest of Lam Cheuk-ting, a Democratic Party politician at the time, noting that “the prosecution is ‘calling a deer a horse’ and twisting right and wrong “.
My mind spun, clicked back. Months earlier, listening to an indie band beloved for their politically subversive lyrics led me to a cafe in Kowloon about which they sing. A few doors down, he had seen a curious T-shirt in the window of a store: it had a picture of a deer with the caption “This is a horse.”
I was starting to put things together, to understand how the companies and people around me were branding themselves: how they stuck their tongues in their leaders’ tongues in their cheeks; how coded interactions allowed them to find each other and build community.
A few weeks later, I’m nodding absently during a conversation when my acquaintance sighs, “You just can’t point at a deer and call it a horse.” My eyes go up. They catch my gaze. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” they ask sensibly. “I understand,” I replied. We exchange silent, knowing nods, both understanding that something important has happened between us. Surveillance fosters mistrust, and so conversation often happens only between the lines. Far from an act of cowardice for not “speaking your mind”, these codified gestures are a deep measure of trust, a commitment to remember together.
As Milan Kundera wrote, “man’s struggle against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion.” Faced with the will of Beijing, perhaps this is all that is left of those in this city who took to the streets with passion just three years ago. But it’s nothing. Far. Learning to see something where there is nothing seems paranoid, but in fact it is the only bulwark against revisionism in a city where you have to deal with doublespeak from the highest positions. Last year, two independent newspapers were closed within a week and their employees were arrested. But Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said that while the newspapers compromised national security, their closure had nothing to do with the National Security Act or censorship. Addressing questions about the recent election as a “one-man race,” where only one candidate stood for election, Maria Tam, deputy director of the Basic Law Committee of China’s NPCSC, said: “Having only one person running for election. [chief executive’s] office doesn’t mean we have fewer options,” in a semantically illogical statement.
The paradoxical doublespeak in Hong Kong today does not just occur as a sprinkling of isolated incidents, it is profoundly existential. Earlier this year, news broke about new textbooks for school children in Hong Kong that would claim Hong Kong was never a British colony. In his speech at the handover anniversary celebrations, President Xi Jinping claimed that “true democracy” in Hong Kong only began after Hong Kong was returned to China. When questioned by a UN rights committee about press freedoms and disbanded NGOs, Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Erick Tsang defensively retorted that “in fact, democracy has made a great leap forward since the return to the homeland in 1997”. All this presents a crisis of rhetoric and ideology. If Hong Kong was never a colony, it couldn’t be “returned”, but if that was the case, what was being celebrated on July 1st? Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists are considered unpatriotic and persecuted. Should we understand whether democracy is desirable or not? And does Hong Kong have one or not?