The group of about 80 protesters wore numbered lanyards around their necks and cordoned themselves off with tape as they marched, like a crime scene in motion.
This odd spectacle last month was Hong Kong’s first authorized protest in three years — highly choreographed, surveilled and regulated, even though it was not an explicitly antigovernment demonstration, and a world away from the crowds that thronged streets in 2019 to protest China’s tightening grip on the city. One participant said the protesters, who were opposed to a land reclamation project, were “herded like sheep.”
It was just one example of how Hong Kong, a global, tech-savvy city whose protests were once livestreamed around the world, is being transformed. But authorities aren’t merely choking off future protest; they are attempting to rewrite Hong Kong’s history.
Revisionism — with its ancillary altering or obliteration of memory — is an act of repression. It’s the same playbook China used after violently crushing the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. Then, state-induced amnesia was imposed gradually. At first the government churned out propaganda that labeled those protests as a counterrevolutionary rebellion that had to be suppressed. But over the years, the state slowly excised all public memory of its killings.
In Hong Kong the silence has set in much more quickly. The gagging of dissenting voices and editing of the past has happened at warp speed, mirroring the blink-and-you-miss-it modern news cycle. This has its own logic; the faster the blanket of silence is thrown over Hong Kong, the less time there is for criticism to take root, and the faster the next phase of transformation — whatever that may be — can be introduced. The cycle of unmaking accelerates.
I worked in Hong Kong’s once-cacophonous newsrooms and covered its boisterous protest rallies. Now most Hong Kong journalists I know have fallen silent. Some are in jail, some are in exile, and some no longer write, as no publications are left that will publish them. After a draconian national security law was imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, at least 12 news outlets closed down, including the popular, pro-democracy Apple Daily. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, could face life in prison on national security charges, and six of its executives have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, a vague charge introduced with the new security law. Some of the shuttered outlets pulled their archives from the internet. This is how history is erased, both virtually and literally.
Those who continue to publish are under scrutiny. One of Hong Kong’s best-known political cartoonists, Wong Kei-kwan, better known by his pen name, Zunzi, has been repeatedly criticized by top officials, including one who chastised him for “serious deviation from the truth.” His plight recalls George Orwell’s comment that “every joke is a tiny revolution.” In this climate, the only guarantee of safety is silence.
The amnesiac playbook includes mass indoctrination through “patriotic education.” New school textbooks state that Hong Kong, which Britain handed back to China in 1997, was never a British colony, because Beijing does not recognize the 19th-century treaties that ceded Hong Kong to Britain, even though some roads and parks are — for now — still named after British colonial figures.
History is identity, and to challenge this foundational tenet of Hong Kongers’ experience is to assault their identity. Britain did not establish full electoral democracy in Hong Kong, but it left behind a stubborn respect for civic values, a free press and a desire for political participation that fueled the huge protests of 2019. The act of rewriting history whisks away the cornerstone of that legacy, recasting Hong Kongers as victims of an occupying force rather than as agents of their own fate.
Hong Kong’s memory is not being reformatted in one fell swoop. People cannot be forced to believe what they are told, but they do need to salute the new order in acts of performative obeisance, like recently introduced flag-raising ceremonies in schools and oaths of allegiance for civil servants. Forgetting is a process of many steps.
Another is to purge those who will not forget. More than 10,000 people were arrested during the 2019 protests. An action as minor as