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Fear and Loathing in Hong Kong: writing when Big Brother is watching

The directive that those present at the Beijing-based Tsinghua University campus should gather for a physical workout seemed innocuous enough - this was back in 1951, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had only reigned for two years and had yet to launch any nation-wide purge of intellectuals - but already, it instilled in literature professor Chen Mengjia(陳夢家) a sense of foreboding. "1984 is coming! So soon!" He angrily muttered to a friend upon receiving the order.

Chen Mengjia takes the picture during his teaching at the University of Chicago in 1940s.

As far as I know, there's no record of Chen alluding to Orwell again in the presence of others , but surely, in the years that followed - the party quickly showed its true colours and subjected the country to the 1984 treatment - privately, Chen must have often felt like a doomed character in Orwell's book. He finally snapped when the Cultural Revolution came in 1966: to cling onto what remained of his dignity, he hung himself. His last words were "no longer will I put up with being taunted like a circus monkey."

Normally, stumbling upon a writer who can uncannily illuminate one's reality for one is an uplifiting experience - Orwell himself was in such a state when he discovered Henry Miller and enthused "He knows all about me...he wrote this specially for me." But when one is living in troubling times, and when what an author gives one is a foretaste of even more troubling times ahead - how does one cope with such knowledge?

This is not a hypothetical question for me, now that the regime that had once tormented Chen Mengjia is reneging on its promise to grant Hong Kong the freedom enshrined in the city's mini-constitution. Instead, Beijing is setting the stage to give the former British colony the 1984 treatment too. The dictatorship has, among other things, kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers who had published books that offended it, barred foreigners whose past deeds it has deemed subversive from entering the city , monopolized the city's bookstore network and persuaded businessmen loyal to it to snap up the local media properties. For me, however, the most disturbing sign that Beijing is dead serious about intimidating Hong Kong into silence comes in the form of the weekly column penned by Tammy Tam, the chief editor of the South China Morning Post.

The paper's previous incarnation as venerated publication had a hand in making me the writer I am: in my teenage years in the 1990s, not only did I rely on it to beef up my vocab bank; through it I got my first exposure to the then-lofty world of adult writing. So, imagine my horror in discovering that the paper is now headed by someone whose grasp of the English language is dubious at best - read Tam's work, and you wouldn't brand as disgruntled that anonymous employee who, on the occasion of Tam's rise to her current position three years ago, described her to the press as someone who "struggles with basic English" . Some of her readers have also weighed in : "sounds like translate Google"; "she is effectively destroying my speed reading"- a group of expatriates in Hong Kong delivered their verdicts.

Those familiar with CCP history won't be surprised by Tam's appointment. It's a time-honored CCP tradition that, when selecting people for positions, loyalty to the party trumps other qualifications. In China's northwest region in the early 1950s, for instance, so many unlettered party stalwarts had their illiteracy overlooked and were made heads of counties that a practice emerged: to help them avoid the embarrassment of placing stamps on documents upside down, the lower corners of official chops were deliberately chipped away; the chipped parts could then guide the cadres in stamping documents correctly. So, whoever it was that installed Tam was still so enamoured of this "loyalty first" practice that they quickly dismissed concerns (if such concerns had existed at all) that her substandard English would erode the paper's reputation.

This is not to say SCMP hasn't made an effort to deny that CCP has laid siege to the paper - its chief executive Gary Liu, for example, assured The New York Times that "we are not here, certainly, to promote the views and wishes of Beijing."  Tam, however, has proved herself to be ready to demolish in one blow the facade her colleague tried to maintain. Last year, she invited three officials from China's foreign ministry to sit in at an editorial meeting, not caring that doing so might provoke those employees of hers who regard editorial independence as sacrosanct into leaking the incident to the press. This one of them promptly did, and the next day, a story about the meeting appeared in the one remaining independent mainstream media in the city. 

Photo: nextplus.nextmedia.com

I prefer to believe that, in making a show of letting Beijing officials intrude into her newsroom, Tam was blinded by her arrogance and therefore blindsided by the leak. But the truth is likely to be more sinister. In the past couple of years, CCP's influence on institutions in Hong Kong, previously kept under wraps, has been brought out into the open as though by design. Five percent of the city's listed companies have announced they are now answerable to the newly-established party cells within them; students who hailed from China studying law at a Hong Kong university openly attended on-campus party cell conferences, where they were exhorted to "wear politics on your sleeves". Tam's meeting was therefore probably convened out of cold calculation - she was simply doing her part in a large-scale ploy to spook Hong Kong people into accepting their lot as circus monkeys.

Last November, a scene that could have appeared in 1984 occurred in China: a woman in the southwest metropolis of Chongqing appeared at the city's People's Liberation Monument stark naked in broad daylight, yelling "down with the communist party, give me justice". She was quickly subdued by the police.

Even though I know nothing about her beyond what was shown in the video - I don't know what her grievance was or what has become of her since (the party has probably confined her to a mental hospital) - I feel I already know her, because as a writer who relish the release I get when I put Tam's likes in their place, I can imagine how empowered the woman felt when she channeled her loathing of the CCP into her grand gesture. And luckily for me, not all oppressed characters in 1984 are equal: unlike Chen Mengjia, I have a foreign passport, so, I can leave Hong Kong when the CCP becomes too impossible; unlike the Chongqing woman, whose dramatic undertaking is by nature a one-off act, I can mobilize my anger and write on an ongoing basis. Writers often complain about how hard writing is, but I can assure you that overcoming the fear of writing when Big Brother is watching is even harder than the act of writing itself! No matter how mighty the struggle, however, I'll soldier on. This is what I want for myself, and what Chen Mengjia and the Chongqing woman would have wanted for me and themselves, too.

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