Ye Du, January 12, 2022
Ye Du (野渡) is a Guangzhou-based dissident writer. Chow Hang-tung (鄒幸彤) is a barrister and human rights defender in Hong Kong. Until its disbandment in September, 2021, she was one of the vice-chairs of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, a grassroots advocacy group established in 1989 to campaign for the release of Chinese political prisoners and democratic reforms in China, as well as the organizer of the annual June Fourth Massacre Vigil in Victoria Park in Hong Kong for three decades until 2019. This essay was written in July 2021 when Chow was first detained. She was later granted bail. In December 2021 and January 2022, Chow was convicted for inciting and taking part in an unlawful assembly on occasion of the vigil in 2020 and for organizing the vigil in 2021, and was sentenced to a total of 22 months in prison. – The Editors
People say, “You fall in love with a city because of a person you love in that city.” I had already fallen in love with the city before I met her. But because of her, I love this city even more. The city is Hong Kong, and that person is Hang-tung.
Hong Kong. The name of this city is carved into my childhood, its deep groove running all the way into my life today, an indelible part of me.
When I was young, Hong Kong was an abstraction, irrigating the wasteland of the mainland with its culture. At home, at school, on the streets, everywhere you turned there were Hong Kong movies, TV dramas, kung fu novels, and Cantopop songs. It washed the dullness out of my days, accompanying me through those years when I first knew sorrow.
In my mind, Hong Kong was the capital of revelry and excess, a place I longed to venture into as a knight-errant, a misty dream in the distance.
Hong Kong nurtured me. My studies, work, and life are all thanks to its regional influence on Guangdong Province: Hong Kong’s honest government, free press, consummate legal system, and robust civil society, not to mention our shared Cantonese language, have always drawn the people of Guangdong to identify culturally with the city. And the nascent rights defense movement, through which mainlanders sought to protect the rights of citizens within the existing institutional framework, drew from the experience of Hong Kong civil society, spreading from officialdom down to the grassroots.
Hong Kong was the light illuminating a millennium of darkness, the wind that blew open our shackles.
The rights defense movement was an attempt to advance the rule of law through individual cases, but under the iron fist of the Leninist Party it was reduced to a fantasy. As public space has shrunk and the spirit of freedom atrophied, Hong Kong has given rare hope and strength to those of us still in the fight. Now this source of warmth and light is inevitably being snuffed out.
Hong Kong has embarked on the grief of violent change and the torment of engulfing darkness.
How can anyone endure it? In one short year, we have witnessed fear and terror, escape and silence. We’ve watched officials dip their bread in blood, we’ve heard the intimidating sound of one voice, and we’ve felt the grip of control tighten around every corner of society.
When language kowtows, patriotism becomes a performance. Too many people in this city have forgotten that there is only one type of true patriotism: If you love this country, you set its people free. Too many people in this city have forgotten their parents’ harrowing flight here not so long ago, and that the shallow sea of 30 years and 2.5 million people still flows with tears of blood.
Despite all this — despite the borrowed time of 100 years, the borrowed space aired by westerly winds — this city has birthed its own free spirit, and that spirit will not bow to sudden change. Because we have also witnessed bravery and resistance, sacrifice and persistence; we still love this city.
Among those persisting is Chow Hang-tung, and it is because of her that I love this city even more.
Hang-tung is steadfast and pure. She has never sought the spotlight, but as those before her were sent to jail one by one, she chose to take the stage. She is well aware of the price she must pay to uphold the city’s free spirit in this dark, stifling moment, and even more so that her sacrifice will have no visible effect amid this all-out attack. But she believes that in order to fight for freedom, you cannot be afraid to lose your freedom. If you cannot hold fast to your basic principles, then nothing can change.
For Hang-tung, resisting power means foremost resisting fear. In just a short period of time, Hong Kongers have witnessed unheard-of “red terror” tactics. Some, gripped by fear, have made arguments at odds with moral principles and common sense. Even when she knows in her heart that she has been wronged, Hang-tung keeps her eyes on the big picture. She makes no public objection, but through her actions demonstrates her resistance to fear, putting into practice the words of Liu Xiaobo whom she regards as a teacher: “In order for everyone to have the right to be selfish, someone of great moral standing must selflessly sacrifice their own… They cannot look to the collective conscience. Only by following their own conscience can they galvanize the cowardly masses.” (Letter to a friend [Liao Yiwu], 2000)
Because of her choices and persistence, Hang-tung has predictably lost her freedom to a judicial system that has already succumbed to autocratic thugs, and you can bank on the inevitable outcome of her case. As far as she’s concerned, she has found what she was looking for.
Humanity’s two great catastrophes are despotism and plague. Hang-tung’s treatment has shown the world the horror of the political plague wrought under totalitarianism. The tradition of freedom and the value system that this city has cherished for over a century are now being ravaged by this political plague.
“Things remain but he is gone, and with him everything.” The politicians, police officers, and judges who have murdered the spirit of this city have also made the bed for the totalitarian machine. But if we learn anything at all from history, it is that those who are leading the destruction of Hong Kong will not be judged fondly by posterity.
It has already been two-and-a-half years since Hang-tung and I were last able to meet, and our future yawns with the promise of a much longer, more distant separation. She will be in Hong Kong and I in Guangdong, but we might as well be on opposite corners of the earth. For us, this is no test. Neither of us will forsake our dignity and bow to autocracy, and we are willing to bear any hardship to hold fast to our principles.
Bit by bit, this city is no longer the city we know so well. In the end, this city will become just like those other Chinese cities that we know all too well. Only because of those unyielding free spirits do we still love this city. And because of them, we believe that someday, through our perseverance, all cities will become this city that once was.
 From Song poet Li Qingzhao. See translation in “Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism,” p. 98 (https://www.google.com/books/edition/Women_Writers_of_Traditional_China/xRNnU-SpDyYC?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA98&printsec=frontcover)
 Hong Kong and Guangzhou are about 80 miles apart.
Also by Ye Du on China Change:
A Social Media Profile of the Late Dr. Li Wenliang: From a Liberal-leaning Student, to a Party Adherent, to a Whistleblower Who Believes a Society Should Have More Than One Voice, Ye Du, February 26, 2020.