Darkness in Hong Kong
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Tong xin ji shou is a Chinese phrase expressing extreme sorrow and rage. The four-character phrase filled the glaring white space of the editorial page of Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong on May 21, 1989, following the mainland government’s declaration placing Beijing under martial law after weeks of mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The newsroom had foreseen a bloody massacre in the square two weeks later as martial law meant the use of military force against demonstrators. Since the newspaper was owned and overseen by the Chinese government, the editorial writers could not write any negative editorials. They instead left the space empty except for the four-character phrase. The episode is a legend to journalists in Hong Kong. Even the pro-Beijing media stood up against censorship. Or they did in the past.
On June 24, when Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily published its last copy after authorities froze its assets and arrested the owners and others, I scanned the media response to the sad event. I had expected a Tong xin ji shou-like lament among media players despite the repressive environment under the new national security law. There was one editorial. “The candlelight grieving the Tiananmen Square massacre was extinguished, and the Apple Daily has been closed. It would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. We can no longer go back to the past … There is only one choice for Hong Kong. We would have to side with the state and become one for national development. We must play the role of opening China and defending national security.”
That editorial was not from a traditional pro-Beijing paper, but from Ming Pao, one of the most influential papers in Hong Kong. The paper was founded by famous Chinese wuxia, or martial arts, novelist Louis Cha, better known by his pen name Jin Yong, and maintained neutrality. It was neither openly friendly nor critical of Beijing. I used to read the paper during my correspondent period in Beijing in spite of the difficulties of getting access through a VPN. The paper often had exposes on the Chinese power elite that could not be reported by news outlets on the mainland. But the paper now recommends compliance with the new order. All other papers and broadcasters in Hong Kong have changed their tone. The Apple Daily, the one that stayed recalcitrant, had to fold.
The pen is mightier than the sword, English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in a 19th century play. The full quote is, “Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.” Hong Kongers are not beneath the rule of such men. The pen in Hong Kong may be yielding to the sword of Beijing. But a free press has defied defeatism. The sold-out last edition of the 26-year-old Apple Daily carried a farewell note. It read: “When an apple is buried beneath the soil, its seed will become a tree filled with bigger and more beautiful apples.”