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A brief return to wounded Hong Kong

What's difficult to accept is that inhabitants must renounce freedom, democracy and pluralism to achieve national unity

People walk past lanterns for sale ahead of the mid-autumn festival in Hong Kong on Sept. 4

People walk past lanterns for sale ahead of the mid-autumn festival in Hong Kong on Sept. 4. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 06, 2022 10:31 AM GMT

Updated: September 06, 2022 10:35 AM GMT

"Welcome back to our wounded city." So a friend of mine wrote to me upon my arrival in Hong Kong in August after three years of absence. Years as long as a century. One can see and feel, almost breathe the transformation of the city!

You just need to meet people — from friends to those who have roles of responsibility — walk along the streets, visit familiar places...

The city has lived a few months in a mad race that ends up hitting a wall. Everything happened: the political revolution of young people, supported by most of the population; the introduction of the National Security Law; the progressive and unstoppable affirmation of a "police state;" the politically correct patriotism imposed in schools, televisions, newspapers; the arrest of more than 10,000 people, almost all of them very young, including many minors; the incarceration of the democratic opposition; the closure of parties, associations and newspapers; the arrest and release on bail of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, now facing trial.

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Hong Kong has also suffered heavily from the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic. Stringent quarantine measures have stolen fundamental resources of the territory: tourists and traders. A number of restaurants, pubs, shops and shopping centers were first empty and then forced to close with dramatic economic consequences, anxiety and depression.

Hundreds of thousands of people leave the city to protect their children's future. Some organize farewell lunches, while others leave without saying anything to anyone. Almost ashamed. There are those who could leave and do not do so by choice. Some are already the target of police visits and investigations, are at risk of arrest, yet do not leave. There are divisions in families, breakups between friends, mutual suspicion, and the impossibility of trusting others.

This and much more have happened and are happening: nothing is as before. "Hong Kong has changed" is one of the most recurring phrases told to me.

Here is a subdued emotion when I meet someone who has a family member or a mutual friend in prison"

Yet returning to Hong Kong, even if only briefly, even if in this unfortunate time, was an immense joy. Hong Kong hasn't lost some of its best features. Right from the half-empty and ghostly airport you are met by friendly and efficient health officials. The staff of the hotel and of the Covid centers, which must be visited frequently for the control swabs, are also attentive.

Like all permanent residents of the city, I had to replace my ID card — it was easy, fast and with courteous officials dealing with my case. The metro, always efficient and safe, has increased its lines and reaches new locations. It's hot and humid more than usual, but getting around Hong Kong is always a treat. The urban landscapes, the buildings with postmodern architecture, the skyline and the port between the island and Kowloon are unique and spectacular.

The friends I met are still them: it takes a little, a hug, mentioning a past episode, and I understand that they have not changed. We talked about what has happened and what is happening. There is a subdued emotion when I meet someone who has a family member or a mutual friend in prison. But we do not dwell in these sad conversations more than is strictly necessary: difficulties are not the only topic of conversation. It is not the only key to understanding what’s happening. They have to continue to live.

Hong Kong people have the adaptability and resilience of people who are strong inside. They find the strength within themselves in order not to succumb. The quality of personal relationships and sincere friendships acquire now a greater strength and importance.

I think of Etty Hillesum's extraordinary lesson: no external circumstances can destroy you unless you allow it to happen. There is an interior life, with its spaces, its events and its achievements, as important as social life. There is a space where you remain free and which you do have not to give to any usurper. Even in prison, you can live like this. It seems to me that many in Hong Kong, more or less consciously, have made this choice. I met some very dear people and I saw this spirit in them.

One of them is Cardinal Joseph Zen, who welcomed me almost enthusiastically: "I have lost all my battles, yet I am happy." He told me about his arrest and the court hearings, but above all about the good he does by visiting prisons. He meets people who live remarkable inner transformations away from the spotlight. Some of the incarcerated leaders live their predicament with a spirit of faith and with the consciousness of being witnesses, willing to pay a high price for values they strongly believe in. Some even come to faith.

Bishop Stephen Chow, whom I had interviewed for Mondo e Missione after the consecration, thanked us for the prayer for him we made in Monza, last Dec. 5, contemporary to his ordination. A solidarity that struck him. He has an impossible mission ahead of him. Yet he accepted it and is facing it with Ignatian spirit. He puts into practice the method of ‘discernment’, which includes a shared and spiritual reading with his collaborators.

"If the orientation of ideological nationalism prevails, Hong Kong could face a radically downsized role for itself"

Thanks to God, the Hong Kong Church has leadership that wants to remain united to face a season full of difficult challenges. The priority is the young people, who today are disappointed and afraid. And the schools, where patriotic rhetoric requires changing the history texts and many other things that made Hong Kong a plural city.

The fate of Hong Kong (as well as that of Taiwan), as never before, is linked to the events in Beijing. I have talked about it in the past few days with various interlocutors. What will happen in the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, which will begin on Oct. 16? Will President Xi Jinping definitively consolidate his power or will it be the beginning of his downsizing? Nobody knows. Certainly, the Congress will have major consequences for China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the rest of the world.

Many say that China will definitely not give up Hong Kong's international and financial role and that therefore, in some way, Hong Kong will have to survive. At least this seems to be the line of Premier Li Keqiang, which some see as an alternative to Xi Jinping.

But if the orientation of ideological nationalism prevails, Hong Kong could face a radically downsized role for itself.

If China will effectively realize the mega strategic project of the Metropolitan Region of the Pearl River Delta, a vast territory around Hong Kong that includes 11 large cities and 80 million inhabitants, then Hong Kong will only be a marginal neighborhood. And Hong Kong might even be required to definitively emancipate itself from the vestiges of its colonial past.

Hong Kong is part of China, as it is right. Nobody thinks of looking back or regretting a past that had its shadows. What is difficult to accept though, is that in order to achieve legitimate national unity, a community of over seven million highly motivated inhabitants must be forced to renounce their aspirations for freedom, democracy and pluralism.

It's time for departure. After a journey of great emotion, I leave with Hong Kong and its many friendly faces in my heart. And with the awareness of having to continue to be "a little chronicler of this time," as Etty Hillesum said.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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