How history has made Hong Kong realise the importance of defending for speech freedom
Former Chairman Mao Zedong once said: “Opposition and struggle between ideas of different kinds constantly occur within the Party; this is a reflection within the Party of contradictions between classes and between the new and the old in society. If there were no contradictions in the Party and no ideological struggles to resolve them, the Party’s life would come to an end.”
Perhaps it is what the Communist strongman said during the ten-year-long “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that made Hong Kong go through a lot in the past decades.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. It all started in 1966 when then Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong called on the nation’s youth to purge the “impure” elements of Chinese society. During the time, millions of lives were affected. Innocent people were unjustly criticized, wrongfully accused of imaginary crimes, or murdered in the name of ideology.
Yet, as great as the impacts had left Mainland China, it is not the only place that suffered or being impacted. It has led to a long riot between the pro-Communists and the colonial administration in Hong Kong in 1967, which was started from a pure labor dispute.
Chief Science Officer at Bitquant Research Laboratories Mr Joseph Wang, who has been blogging a lot on Hong Kong protests, said the tension in Hong Kong that time was heightened by the ongoing Cultural Revolution to the north.
“The trade unions had connections to Beijing and the Cultural Revolution in the PRC that was already on the way by this time, further fueled the HK communist leaders, who adopted violence as their tactic and even journalist were murdered by the communists during the riot,” Mr Wang said.
He was referring to the case of radio reporter Lam Bun, who was a critic of the leftists. He was burned alive in his car during the 1967 riot.
“The tactic of the HK Communists backfired, because his assassination outraged the Hongkongers and he eventually became an icon of free speech,” he added.
In fact, the Cultural Revolution has made many people realise the importance of freedom of speech. Here in Hong Kong, pro-democracy politicians and citizens are very aware of their speech freedom because of the fear of a Cultural Revolution replication will take place.
According to the Hong Kong Press Freedom Index, the freedom of press in Hong Kong has reached a new low in 2014. The ranking has gone from 18 in 2002 to 61 in 2014.
In January 2015, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was accused of stirring up new Cultural revolution in Hong Kong for publicly criticising a student magazine run by the University of Hong Kong Students’ Union. Leung attacked an article in the magazine for “advocating independence” and “putting forward fallacies”, which he said, is a violation of Basic Law.
His comments was slammed by many pan-democrats. Mr Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Labour Party, accused Leung of behaving like Mao Zedong, who purged dissidents, suppressed free speech and forced academics and capitalists to become farmers during the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
“He (Leung Chun-ying) was trying to stir up another Cultural Revolution in Hong Kong. We hongkongers are entitled with freedom of speech. Publicly denouncing one’s remarks is nothing but what Mao had done around 50 years before,” Mr Lee said.
As if one example is not enough, the incident of Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun further increased Hong Kong people’s fear of a Cultural Revolution revisit.
Ever since the rumour that Mr Chan may have a chance to become the pro-vice chancellor of University of Hong Kong came out, newspaper in the mainland had begun a spate of ferocious attacks against Mr Chan, challenging his capability for such a key managerial position in the university.
One of the major reasons the Communist newspapers did that was Chan’s association with Mr Benny Tai, the convenor of the Occupy Central movement in 2014. The communist press hinted that Prof. Chan is somehow involved in unlawful funding of the protest movement and that he neglected his academic duties. Following these accusations, his appointment to a pro-Vice Chancellor post was blocked.
A professor in the University of Hong Kong who does not want to be named, said university appointments are purely internal matters.
“Leftist newspapers resort to this kind of denunciation to put pressure on the university kind of remind Hongkonger the dark days of Cultural Revolution where the educated are criticised and accused,” he said.
Liang zhongren, who once suffered in the Cultural Revolution and is now settled in Hong Kong, said the greatest impact of the movement on Hong Kong is making Hong Kong people realise the consequence of not standing up for the freedom of speech.
“What is happening right now in society does not worry Hongkongers. History does,” Liang said.
He explained Hong Kong people are afraid of losing the freedom of speech because they know what the Communist government could do. The Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen incident, and even the Occupy Movement, he said, are examples of extreme means the party could resort to when it comes to a point where the majority stops fighting for their rights.
“The Cultural Revolution has made a huge impact on Hong Kong. Many of my friends in the mainland have told me they think the situation in Hong Kong is getting alike with what happened in China decades ago,” Liang said. “People have had enough with the dictatorial government.”
Liang was one of the countless educated youths who were extracted from urban cities to an enormous undeveloped land in the northeastern China for the sole purpose of nurturing the wasteland and the swamps in 1970.
“The Cultural Revolution has changed my attitudes to China completely,” said Liang. “I used to support the movement. I used to admire Chairman Mao. I used to think by criticising and beating the nationalists can make our country cleaner and stronger. But fifty years after the movement, no improvement could be seen in China. It only gets worse especially regarding freedom,” he added.
The greatest fear of a Cultural Revolution revisit probably came after local bookseller Lee Bo was disappeared and appeared again in the mainland, with his passport left at home.
For many years, Hong Kong has been supplying the world with forbidden information in the mainland. Many mainlanders come all the way to Hong Kong for the banned books. Yet, the act of detaining publishers of controversial books suggests that mainland law enforcement officers are carrying out duties in Hong Kong to suppress the freedom of speech, which was how the Cultural Revolution started.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, an NGO, once said in an interview: “This trend of targeting critical voices can only fuel greater fears about the ongoing erosion of the fundamental freedoms that make Hong Kong special”.
“This problem is not new. China is very worried that the freedom of expression and of publication in Hong Kong would affect mainland politics,” said Teng Biao, a fellow at Harvard Law School and formerly an academic at the Chinese University.
He said Lee’s disappearance could almost trigger another Cultural Revolution in Hong Kong. It was meant to intimidate those who are in Hong Kong spreading messages unfavourable to China’s ruling regime.
Fifty years after the tragedy, Mao’s Cultural Revolution is still a taboo in today’s China. While most of us are forbidden to remember, it is highly unlikely that the movement will truly be forgotten. The Cultural Revolution will not only remain as a threat to China, but had also left a huge impact on Hong Kong, creating fear that what happened 50 years ago will strike the city again.