Hong Kongers self-censor out of fear, says sacked Tiananmen scholar

Rowena He, fired after her visa was denied, says nobody knows where the political lines are drawn.
By Liu Fei for RFA Mandarin and Ng Ting Hong for RFA Cantonese
2023.11.03
Hong Kongers self-censor out of fear, says sacked Tiananmen scholar "Everyone says – so where is the red line?" says Tiananmen massacre historian Rowena He, shown in this undated photo. "I think the biggest red line is that there is no red line."
Provided by Rowena He

Tiananmen massacre historian Rowena He, who was recently denied a work visa by authorities in Hong Kong, felt she was constantly under a "shadow of fear" while living in the city amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent, she told RFA Mandarin in a recent interview.

He, a Chinese-Canadian academic who was fired from the Chinese University of Hong Kong due to the lack of visa, was on a visiting fellowship overseas when she received the news that her former life in the city had been pulled from under her feet.

Both her former employer and Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee responded to the decision by saying it had been taken "in accordance with the principles" governing the granting of work visas.

But He told Radio Free Asia that it is impossible to know just what those principles are in today's Hong Kong, where social media posts made anywhere in the world can form the basis to jail someone under the 2020 National Security Law.

"Everyone says – so where is the red line?" she said. "I think the biggest red line is that there is no red line."

"You don't know where the red lines are, so you are kept guessing," He said. "It's not a question of knowing that you will lose your job if you do this specific thing, and you can make a choice about whether or not to do it."

"The red lines are fuzzy, so everyone censors themselves out of fear," she said, adding that she has felt this fear before – growing up as a young person who witnessed the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square and was later forced to keep quiet about it.

Additional information

He said she had actively cooperated with all requests for extra information and documentation made by the Immigration Department during the year or more she was waiting for the visa.

The officers wanted to know about her previous research at Harvard University, her sources of funding, and her relationship with non-governmental organizations and overseas governments, she said.

In the end, she was denied the visa after officials had "taken all of the available information and circumstances into consideration," she said.

ENG_CHN_INTERVIEWRowenaHe_11032023.2.jpeg
In 2014, Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Rowena He published “Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.” Credit: RFA screenshot

The refusal followed He's denunciation in a Feb. 28 article in the ruling Chinese Communist Party-backed newspaper, the Wen Wei Po, a pattern that is becoming increasing familiar in Hong Kong since the national security law was imposed on the city in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, stifling freedom of speech.

The paper published an article penned by a pro-Beijing youth activist Nicholas Muk, which hit out at He's 2014 book Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, for "spreading anti-China and disruptive thoughts in Hong Kong."

The book was later removed from public libraries in Hong Kong amid an ongoing public censorship operation.

Next generation

None of this will stop He from following political developments in Hong Kong from overseas, and from carrying out her historical research into that era in Chinese history, she said.

"It is precisely because this fear is so deep that I don't want our next generation to live like that," He said. "If one day, our younger generation no longer needs to pay such a price for their thoughts, or their writing, then the real Chinese dream will probably have been realized."

She said she expects young people in China to keep on protesting, despite the crackdown on participants in last year's "white paper" protests.

"We may see a yellow paper movement and a red paper movement," she said. "The younger generation in mainland China that I have come into contact with are very thoughtful and increasingly open-minded." 

"They are no longer the same, very blind, nationalistic angry youth I used to encounter before," He said. "Something has changed."

ENG_CHN_INTERVIEWRowenaHe_11032023.3.jpg
Protesters hold up blank pieces of paper and chant slogans as they march to protest COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing, Nov. 27, 2022. Despite the crackdown on participants, Rowena He says she expects young people in China to keep on protesting. Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

She said people will keep the flame of the democracy movement alive despite an ongoing ban on mass commemoration of the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Hong Kong, or anywhere else in China.

He said many people feel "shocked and helpless" about the crackdown, but they can still hold to their ideals, wherever they are in the world.

"Once the seeds are sown, freedom will always bloom," she said. 

Crackdown continues

Meanwhile, the crackdown on public dissent continues regardless of location.

The West Kowloon Magistrates Court on Friday handed down a two-month jail term to former overseas student Yuen Ching-ting, 23, after she pleaded guilty to "publishing online speech with seditious intent" to social media starting in September 2018, before the national security law took effect.

Judge Victor So said the sentence was relatively light because Yuen had shown "remorse" and cooperated with the police investigation.

Yuen was charged on June 15 following her arrest in March with "arousing hatred or contempt" for the authorities, unlawful attempts to change "legally enacted matters" and inciting others to break the law.

The case against her was based on her posting of "inflammatory remarks" to social media platforms, including the slogan "Free Hong Kong! Revolution now!" while she was studying in Japan, including posts she made before the national security law took effect.

Yuen was arrested in March after returning to Hong Kong from Japan, where she was studying. Local media outlets reported that she was in the city to change her Hong Kong identity card. She was initially arrested on suspicion of inciting secession, a crime under the national security law.

Hong Kong leader John Lee vowed in his annual policy address earlier this month to "eradicate the causes of dissent" in the city, which he said still lingers despite a two-and-a-half year crackdown.

Lee said his administration is currently drafting new national security legislation to be passed in 2024, which officials have said will "close loopholes" in the 2020 National Security Law imposed on the city by Beijing.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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