Zhang Jieping is the founder and CEO of Matters Lab, a decentralized content platform. Earlier this month, as fear reverberated following the first arrests under the hastily enacted national security law in Hong Kong, she posted a short essay of encouragement: “To counter fear, the first thing we need to do is take our speech back.” Last week on Matters, she published a lengthy essay titled “Under Totalitarianism, Our Fear, Resistance, and Love,” further reflecting on the new reality of life for Hong Kong, and warning that the line between freedom and totalitarianism is thinner than many think. An excerpt has been translated by CDT:
1. Totalitarianism is Not The Other
At 11:00 at night on June 30, like many people, I read the full text of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law on my computer, line by line. While reading and interpreting those unyielding yet vague sentences in my head, I felt as though I had returned to those days when I was a journalist reporting on China. Apart from a strong sense of confusion about space and time, the absurdity and bleak emptiness I felt in my heart were beyond words.
Fifteen years ago, I arrived in Hong Kong as a China reporter. One of the most frequent challenges I encountered was investigating why those who work on AIDS prevention and treatment, who survey lists of students that died in an earthquake, who advocate for environmental causes, who litigate on behalf of vulnerable populations, who write articles and poetry and publish books, and who organize house churches—why is it that they are the ones taken away? Between detention and trial, why did they disappear for days, even years at a time? What did they go through? What law did they break, what crime did they commit? And what do the charges even mean? How did they endure those long days of torment? How did they defend themselves? Who defended them? Can they even defend themselves within such a judicial framework? Those people who played a part in their arrest, who are they? Those huntsmen with parents, wives and children of their own, how do they carry out their work, what kind of mentality do they have?
Facing those who have been swallowed alive by darkness, I have countless questions.
I also know that for many people, the answer to these questions is so simple that they do not think of them as questions at all: it is simply “China”—that word says everything.
I remember in the office that Hong Kong colleagues used to listen to these stories with sympathy in their eyes, but would turn their heads to the other side, sigh, and say: that’s China for you. They weren’t wrong. Healthy people have no interest in probing a diseased system; people in bright places need not spend time gazing into the abyss. “China” is the reason for everything. Just stay away from it and everything will be okay. Just like what our parents taught us since we were young, just stay away from the bad guys, and our world and those in it will not turn bad.
Being in the midst of it, of course you know that’s not the case.
Evil is a whole set of mechanisms which operate silently in the day-to-day life of every ordinary person. Every person’s movement need only adapt to this system a little, or bend a little, and thus the abyss that will swallow us all is formed. The cost of freeing oneself from it will only rise higher and higher, far higher than what ordinary people can bear, to the point where even if you do leave, the tacit understanding you have as a result of interacting with this system will remain in your physical habits. By that time, no matter how great the resistance and struggle inside, from the outside everyone will have already coalesced into the same evil symbol.
The difficulty is that you don’t know when you are “in it” and when you can “stay out of it.”
People in democratic countries may feel that totalitarianism is far away. However, after the epidemic, as we enter into a Cold War world, the many policy decisions of democratic countries already contain elements of tyranny which have long been hidden within. If the political arena is reduced, even in a society under the rule of law, the operating elements of tyranny will spring up everywhere, in families, schools, workplaces, churches, in organizations large and small.
Totalitarianism is not the other, it is born within us. The movie “The Wave” uses a real social experiment that took place in a California high school in 1967 to tell us: once the external environment changes, politics and civilization itself can get sucked out to sea.
“The world is only five days away from totalitarianism.” This originally described the plot of the movie. It became a reality in Hong Kong in July.
The National Security Law, from promulgation to implementation, from confirmation of enforcement rules to the appointment of executive officers, to the arrival of the Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong as the fourth agency directly under the command of the central government—all of this took only nine days. The intermediate steps to get to this point are air-tight. Politically, this punctured the boundary of Hong Kong’s “autonomy” as a Special Administrative Region. In terms of the rule of law, it directly conflicted with the framework of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, threatening the spirit of the rule of law and procedural justice. It has essentially hollowed out the Hong Kong government, delegated power to the police, and moved Hong Kong one step closer to becoming a “police city.”
What does totalitarian life feel like? It’s not that a group of bad guys called “totalitarians” cross the border and drive straight in. It’s that the familiar people, familiar institutions, familiar behaviors and lives around us suddenly take on new forms.
The University of Hong Kong automatically erased the photo of a young alumnus sentenced to prison; public libraries have voluntarily formed blacklists and removed books by sensitive people; officials and the police decreed that voting in elections is a violation of the National Security Law; media bosses have quickly replaced content directors who are not friendly to Beijing; book fair organizers have threatened booksellers to self-censor; individuals on the top of official blacklists have publicly accused old acquaintances of being CCP thugs; on social media, changing names to hide one’s identity has become a trend, and people automatically predict which terms are considered “sensitive words” and replace them with alternatives; long lines are forming outside immigration agencies…
The reason why totalitarianism can spread like a cancer is that it is very good at getting our healthy cells to defect. Society is like the human body. If every organ and every blood vessel cannot perform its duty and maintain a healthy bottom line, the whole will face total defeat.
For this reason, when totalitarian power is overwhelming, what we have to fight against is not the other, but our own fear, suspicion, laxity, and echolalia. We cannot let every minute, every second of every day be scuttled by Great Games, mutually-assured destruction, and calculations. During this time, not being changed by totalitarianism is the biggest counterattack we can wage.
5. Vocation and Love
Anyone who has a pursuit in life will refuse to resign when faced with a sudden loss of freedom: I don’t want to compromise, I don’t want to self-censor, I don’t want to waste my life in a game at the margins contemplating what can and cannot be said, I don’t want to be unable to discuss all the truly creative and exploratory things concerning this magnificent world, I don’t want to stop sailing in the world of ideas and simply stare down the days until the enemy is gone.
This unwillingness to resign is often the initial force supporting our resistance.
However, for individuals, resisting the shadow of tyranny is a long journey, requiring continuous practice and enduring energy. The lasting motivation behind this toil is not anger or stubbornness. It is not “what we don’t want.” It is “what we do want.”
After the National Security Law, the slogans on the streets of Hong Kong changed from “resistance,” “revenge,” and “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” to “I really love Hong Kong.” Although this is a strategy to avoid censorship, people seem to understand subconsciously that the darker the times, the more love is needed, because love is the only enduring force.
Love is not abstract. Take Hong Kong as an example. The Hong Kong we love needs to have a more concrete imagination. What is the way of life that we want to pursue or protect? What kind of social imagination? What do we think of our role in pursuit of this path? How do we combine this role with our own vocations and interests? In essence, what is it that you want to do the most in this lifetime?
It is Havel who said that he hated being labeled a “dissident” because a person with an abundant life is not defined by being “at odds with the voice of the regime.” After all, how important does the regime think it is? “Dissidents” are just people who, as they live their lives, find that they must stand up to power. They have life goals, interests that they cannot let go, and a faith that they’re willing to pay for. Only then do they have the courage and patience to “fight forever” against tyranny. They may be doctors, chefs, pilots, sociologists, musicians, writers, artists—ordinary people from all walks of life.
Only when every one of us establishes their life goal and does everything they can to protect it can we force politics to break through the goals of totalitarianism and return it to its only proper foothold: the individual.
We have been talking about the loss of freedom. But more importantly, what is the purpose of freedom? The purpose of freedom is to allow individuals to live a more autonomous life. And only the autonomy of life—where we know what kind of life we want to live, and we live it, instead of being driven by life—is the greatest motivation for defending freedom.
In this great era, I write to myself, and to encourage my friends. [Chinese]
Translated by an anonymous CDT contributor. Edited by Anne Henochowicz.