When taking a gaggle picture with school college students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2012, Chow Po Chung, a distinguished political thinker, joked that he hoped none of them would find yourself in jail in 10 years.
The group erupted in laughter.
Mr. Chow, who teaches on the Chinese language College of Hong Kong, had the mainland college students in thoughts. He by no means anticipated that it will be two from Hong Kong who would find yourself in jail practically a decade later.
A 12 months after Beijing imposed a sweeping nationwide safety legislation on the territory to crush opposition to the ruling Communist Get together, visiting pals and former college students in jail has change into a part of his routine.
A best-selling creator and a public mental whose passionate books and speeches have influenced many younger Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, Mr. Chow stated the safety legislation had turned his life the other way up.
He’s unhappy, offended, responsible, depressed — at occasions proud and hopeful. He struggles with whether or not he ought to nonetheless encourage his college students to be energetic contributors in public affairs because it might result in job loss and jail time. He has to remind himself to not let worry creep into his life, resembling self-censoring within the classroom. On the identical time, he has to judge the dangers he’s taking and the boundaries he might push.
His psychological trauma and ethical dilemma present a window right into a metropolis of seven million people who has skilled a precipitous fall from a comparatively free and defiant group to at least one that has been dominated by authoritarianism over the previous 12 months.
Hong Kong has endured an excessive amount of injustice, he stated, making town more and more unfamiliar. “The entire metropolis’s core values have collapsed,” he stated. “They’ve been destroyed.”
Mr. Chow has been deeply concerned within the metropolis’s pro-democracy motion. As a highschool pupil, he protested the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. He taught John Rawls’s “A Principle of Justice” on the location of the 2014 Umbrella Motion and was arrested briefly on the final day of the pro-democracy protest. He went to many demonstrations in 2019 as an observer, watching as Beijing cracked down ruthlessly. All of them failed, and the safety legislation was the ultimate blow.
“The issues that ought to not have occurred in a standard society occurred,” he stated in an interview at his dwelling on the campus of the Chinese language College of Hong Kong. “I’m speaking about probably the most excellent individuals, the sort of people who must be held up as position fashions, are being attacked and sentenced to jail.”
For twenty years, Mr. Chow inspired his college students to look at the that means of life and change into energetic and conscientious residents who assist construct societies primarily based on values resembling justice and liberty.
I requested whether or not he taught the identical factor now. He paused for practically a minute and opened his mouth a number of occasions earlier than saying he had stopped telling his college students to be energetic contributors.
“After all, I nonetheless inform them to care concerning the society and be accountable for their lives,” he stated. “However it’s not simple to inform them what they need to do as a result of collaborating in political and public affairs has change into a extremely dangerous act.”
Mr. Chow has loved the sort of alternatives and freedom Hong Kong used to supply to its residents. Born within the southern province of Guangdong, he migrated to the previous British colony in 1985 on the age of 12. His household lived in a poor neighborhood in Kowloon, however he thrived academically and enrolled within the Chinese language College of Hong Kong.
He started instructing at his alma mater in 2002 and have become one of the vital in style professors, recognized for his passionate and extremely engaged courses.
Certainly one of his college students, Michael Ngan, stated he was influenced by Mr. Chow’s instructing, particularly the Socrates dictum he likes to quote, “An unexamined life is just not value dwelling.”
Such philosophy prompted Mr. Ngan to make an necessary life choice this 12 months. He’s one of many 129 civil servants who resigned after refusing to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong authorities, believing that the request infringed on their freedom of speech.
“His instructing enlightened me,” Mr. Ngan stated. “Trainer Chow taught us that we’ve acquired just one life to reside and may take advantage of out of it.” Although, he emphasised, Mr. Chow by no means urged his college students to be political.
Such sacrifices sadden Mr. Chow. In addition they encourage him. “Many individuals are utilizing totally different means to protect the soul, the values and the dignity of this metropolis,” he stated.
He’s proud that many residents proceed to protest with their wallets by purchasing at shops owned by pro-democracy activists and by donating to a humanitarian fund for the 2019 demonstrators who want medical remedy and authorized illustration.
However it’s more and more tough to stay hopeful. Many days prior to now 12 months began with unhealthy information. The day earlier than our assembly in early Might, 4 pro-democracy activists have been sentenced to jail for participating in an unauthorized meeting final 12 months. Certainly one of them is Lester Shum, a former pupil.
To point out his assist, Mr. Chow goes to court docket hearings and visits individuals like Mr. Shum in jail. He discovered that prisons might be very totally different. The ladies’s jail the place Chow Koot-yin (not associated), one other former pupil, was jailed appears virtually like an workplace advanced. One other, the place the activist Gwyneth Ho is ready to be sentenced, appears stern, with excessive partitions.
Essentially the most surreal one is the boys’s jail in Stanley, an upscale neighborhood within the southern tip of Hong Kong island. Greater than 30 political activists, together with the Apple Day by day newspaper tycoon Jimmy Lai, are jailed there. Guests stroll previous lovely mansions earlier than reaching the power. Some mornings the ready room appears like a social gathering, with guests holding espresso from a merchandising machine and chatting for hours.
“It was each absurd and unhappy,” Mr. Chow stated. “It feels virtually like a scene out of a film.”
His on-line life has additionally modified so much. His 45,000 Fb followers used to publish pictures of their travels and meals. Not a lot any extra. “The town has been struggling,” he stated. “Folks really feel responsible about having fun with life.”
His Fb timeline can be a barometer of worry. When the safety legislation took impact a 12 months in the past, Mr. Chow noticed that a few of his followers modified their names into pseudonyms or deleted their timelines whereas others closed their Fb accounts altogether in order that the authorities couldn’t prosecute them due to their posts. Now his timeline is filled with names he doesn’t acknowledge.
Even Mr. Chow’s personal Fb timeline has modified. He primarily reposts different individuals’s posts as a substitute of writing authentic ones as a result of, he stated, he doesn’t know speak about his pains.
He has barely written any articles, not to mention a ebook. His final ebook, revealed in June 2019 amid a whirlwind of protests, was “Our Golden Occasions.” Once I requested whether or not he would use the identical title now, he paused for an additional very lengthy second. Probably not, he answered. “It’s most likely the start of our worst occasions.”
Studying to reside with worry is the toughest. Mr. Chow admitted that he had thought of whether or not he ought to select his phrases extra fastidiously at courses and whether or not to just accept my request for an interview.
“I inform myself to not let self-censorship change into the police in my coronary heart,” he stated, “and to not let worry management my life and my considering.”
“As soon as it’s in,” he added. “Will probably be exhausting to eliminate.”
Regardless of the big adversity, Mr. Chow believes that so long as the individuals maintain combating again, it won’t be the top of the story for Hong Kong.
After the police banned the annual vigil for the Tiananmen bloodbath for the second 12 months, the democracy advocates tried new methods — together with lighting candles and shining cellphone lights — to watch it.
“I don’t know what Beijing was like after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown,” he stated. “However after the nationwide safety legislation, after the various arrests, after all of the setbacks, suppression and trauma, the spirit of defiance nonetheless persists in Hong Kong.”