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When Chow Po Chung, a prominent political philosopher, took a group photo with college students from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in 2012, he joked that he hoped none of them would end up in prison in 10 years.
The group burst out laughing.
Mr. Chow, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, had the mainland students in mind. He never expected it to be two from Hong Kong who would end up in jail almost a decade later.
A year after Beijing passed a comprehensive national security law on the territory to crush opposition to the ruling Communist Party, visits to friends and former students in prison were routine.
A best-selling author and public intellectual whose passionate books and speeches have influenced many young Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, Chow said the security bill had turned his life upside down.
He’s sad, angry, guilty, depressed – sometimes proud and hopeful. He is grappling with the question of whether he should still encourage his students to actively participate in public affairs, as this could lead to job losses and jail terms. He must remember not to let fear creep into his life, such as self-censorship in the classroom. At the same time, he has to weigh the risks he is taking and the limits he could cross.
His psychological trauma and moral dilemma offer a glimpse into a seven million city that has seen a steep fall in the last year from a relatively free and defiant community to one ruled by authoritarianism.
Hong Kong has endured too much injustice, he said, which makes the city increasingly unfamiliar. “The core values of the whole city have collapsed,” he said. “They were destroyed.”
Mr. Chow was deeply involved in the city’s pro-democracy movement. As a high school student, he protested in 1989 against the suppression of the Heavenly Peace. He taught John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” on the grounds of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and was briefly arrested on the last day of the pro-democracy protest. He went to many demonstrations as an observer in 2019 and watched Beijing act ruthlessly. All failed, and the security law was the final blow.
“Things have happened that shouldn’t have happened in a normal society,” he said in an interview in his home on the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus. “I am speaking of the most outstanding people who should be viewed as role models, attacked and sentenced to prison terms.”
For two decades, Mr. Chow encouraged his students to examine the meaning of life and become active and conscientious citizens who help build societies based on values such as justice and freedom.
I asked if he was teaching the same now. He paused for almost a minute and opened his mouth several times before saying he had stopped telling his students to be active participants.
“Of course, I still tell them to look after society and be responsible for their lives,” he said. “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.”
Mr. Chow enjoyed the opportunities and freedoms Hong Kong used to offer its residents. He was born in the southern province of Guangdong and immigrated to the former British colony in 1985 at the age of 12. His family lived in a poor neighborhood in Kowloon, but he flourished academically and enrolled in the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He started teaching at his alma mater in 2002 and became one of the most popular professors known for his passionate and dedicated teaching.
One of his students, Michael Ngan, said he was influenced by Mr. Chow’s teachings, particularly the Socrates dictum, which he likes to quote: “An untested life is not worth living.”
This philosophy led Mr. Ngan to make an important life decision this year. He is one of 129 officials who resigned after refusing to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong government because they believed the request violated their freedom of expression.
“His teaching enlightened me,” said Mr. Ngan. “Teacher Chow taught us that we should only have one life and make the most of it.” However, he emphasized that Mr. Chow never pushed his students to be political.
Such sacrifices make Mr. Chow sad. You also inspire him. “Many people use different means to protect the soul, values and dignity of this city,” he said.
He is proud that many residents continue to protest with their wallets by shopping in stores owned by pro-democracy activists and by donating to a humanitarian fund for the 2019 protesters in need of medical treatment and legal assistance.
But it is getting harder and harder to remain hopeful. Many days in the past year started with bad news. The day before our meeting in early May, four democracy activists were sentenced to prison for attending an unauthorized meeting last year. One of them is Lester Shum, a former student.
To show his support, Mr. Chow goes to court hearings and visits people like Mr. Shum in prison. He found that prisons can be very different. The women’s prison where Chow Koot-yin (unrelated), another former student, was held looks almost like an office complex. Another, in which activist Gwyneth Ho is waiting to be sentenced, looks stern, 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 detained there. Visitors walk past beautiful mansions before reaching the complex. Some mornings, the waiting room looks like a social gathering where visitors hold coffee from a machine and chat for hours.
“It was both absurd and sad,” said Mr. Chow. “It almost feels like a scene from a movie.”
His online life has also changed a lot. His 45,000 Facebook followers posted photos of their trips and meals. Not much anymore. “The city is suffering,” he said. “People feel guilty because they enjoy life.”
His Facebook timeline is also a barometer of fear. When the Security Act went into effect a year ago, Mr Chow saw some of his followers changing their names to aliases or deleting their timelines, while others shut down their Facebook accounts entirely so authorities would not prosecute them for their posts. Now his timeline is full of names he doesn’t know.
Even Mr. Chow’s own Facebook timeline has changed. He mainly posts other people’s posts rather than writing originals because, he said, he doesn’t know how to talk about his pain.
He has hardly written any articles, let alone a book. His last book, published in June 2019 amid a hurricane of protests, was “Our Golden Age”. When I asked if he would use the same title now, he paused for a very long moment. Probably not, he replied. “It’s probably the beginning of our worst times.”
The hardest part is learning to live with fear. Mr. Chow admitted that he had considered choosing his words more carefully in class and accepting my request for an interview.
“I tell myself not to let the self-censorship in my heart become the police,” he said, “and not let fear rule my life and my thinking.”
“Once it’s in,” he added. “It’s going to be hard to get rid of.”
Despite the tremendous adversity, Mr. Chow believes that the story will not end for Hong Kong as long as people fight back.
After police banned the annual vigil for the Tiananmen massacre for the second time, democracy advocates tried new ways – including lighting candles and lighting cell phone lights – to monitor it.
“I don’t know what Beijing looked like after the Tiananmen were crushed in 1989,” he said. “But after the national security law, after the many arrests, after all the setbacks, oppression and trauma, the spirit of defiance still lingers in Hong Kong.”