When he took a photo of a group of students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2012, Chow Po Chung, a prominent political philosopher, joked that he hoped none of them they wouldn’t end up in jail in ten years.
The group laughed.
Chow, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, had mainland students in mind. He had never expected the two from Hong Kong to be in jail nearly a decade later.
A year after Beijing imposed a comprehensive national security law on the territory to crush opposition to the ruling Communist Party, visiting friends and former students in prison is now part of their routine.
A bestselling author and public intellectual whose impassioned books and speeches have influenced many young pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Chow said the security law changed his life.
He says he is sad, angry, guilty, depressed and sometimes proud and hopeful. He also says he has doubts whether he should always encourage his students to actively participate in public affairs, as this could result in job loss and imprisonment. He also states that he must remember not to let fear invade his life, such as practicing self-censorship in the classroom. At the same time, you need to assess the risks you are taking and the limits you could push back.
Its psychological trauma and moral dilemma provide a window into a city of 7 million that has suffered a sharp fall from a relatively free and daring community to one that last year was ruled by authoritarianism.
Hong Kong has suffered too much injustice, he says, making the city less and less familiar. “The core values of the whole city have collapsed,” said Chow. “They were destroyed.”
Chow was deeply involved in the city’s pro-democracy movement. While in high school, he protested against the crackdown on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. He taught John Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” at the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” website and was briefly detained on the last day of democratic protest. He attended numerous protests in 2019 as an observer, observing the relentless crackdown in Beijing. All of this failed, and the security law was the final blow.
“Things that shouldn’t have happened in a normal society have happened,” he said in an interview from his home on the campus of Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I’m talking about the most prominent people, the kind of people who should be role models, are attacked and sentenced to prison.”
For two decades, Chow has encouraged his students to examine the meaning of life and to become active, conscientious citizens who help build societies based on values like justice and freedom.
When asked if he continues to teach the same today, Chow pauses for a long time and opens his mouth several times before telling him that he has stopped telling his students to be active participants.
“Of course, I always tell them to care about society and be responsible for their lives,” he explained. “But it is no longer easy to tell them what to do, because participating in political and public affairs has become a high risk act.”
Chow appreciated the kind of opportunity and freedom that Hong Kong offered its residents. Born in the southern province of Canton, China, he emigrated to the former British colony in 1985 at the age of 12. His family lived in a poor area of Kowloon, but he prospered in his studies and enrolled at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He started teaching at this institution in 2002 and has become one of the most popular teachers, known for his passionate and very engaged classes.
Chow is proud that many residents continue to demonstrate with their wallets, shop at stores owned by pro-democracy activists, and donate to a humanitarian fund for 2019 protesters in need of medical treatment and legal representation.
But it is getting harder and harder to keep hope. Many days of the past year have started with bad news. On the eve of our meeting in early May, four pro-democracy activists were sentenced to prison terms for participating in an unauthorized rally last year. One of them is Lester Shum, a former student.
To show his support, Chow goes to court hearings and visits people like Shum in prison. He discovered that prisons can be very different. The women’s prison where Chow Koot-in (not his relative), another former student, was held looks like an office building. Another, where activist Gwyneth Ho awaits conviction, appears rigid, with high walls.
The most surreal is the men’s prison in Stanley, an upscale neighborhood on the southern tip of Hong Kong Island. More than 30 political activists, including Apple Daily newspaper magnate Jimmy Lai, are trapped there. Visitors pass through mansions before reaching the building. Some mornings the waiting room feels like a social gathering, with visitors drinking coffee from the vending machine and chatting for hours.
“It’s both absurd and sad,” says Chow. “It looks like a scene from a movie.”
Your online life has also changed a lot. Its 45,000 Facebook followers posted pictures of trips and meals. Not much today. “The city is suffering,” he said. “People feel guilty for enjoying life.”
The profiles he follows on Facebook are also a thermometer of fear. When the security law went into effect a year ago, Chow saw some of his followers change their names, adopt pseudonyms, or delete their timelines, while others simply shut down their Facebook accounts in order for the authorities. cannot sue them for your posts. Now his page is full of names he doesn’t recognize.
Chow’s own profile has changed. He mostly repost other people’s stuff instead of writing original texts because, he says, he doesn’t know how to talk about his problems.
He barely wrote any articles, let alone a book. His latest, published in June 2019 amid a whirlwind of protests, was “Our Golden Times” [Nossa época dourada]. When I asked him if he would use the same title today, he took another long break. Probably not, he replied. “This is probably the start of our worst time.”