It’s very satisfying to at last be able to put up this post. It is full of — gasp! — messages against China’s central government. I visited Hong Kong in late November, about a month before leaving China for good. There I was able to take many photos of graffiti and other anti-government messaging put up by protesters.
I had to keep them under my hat until I got out of there, not wanting to risk my exit in the off chance that some government officials would get wind of them were I to put them up. The government monitors foreign journalists and snoops on their phones. I’m hardly the daring overseas reporter type who draws suspicion, but there was no reason to bring on unnecessary risk. The fact that I worked for the central government’s propaganda machine might have given me some cover, but it also drew its own special scrutiny. To this day I don’t know if it afforded me more or less protection than your usual job for a foreigner in China of working for a global corporation or teaching English.
Gallery: HK Protest Graffiti, and Carrie Lam’s CGTN newsroom tour
This trip came just after my last week at CGTN. This is China’s authoritarian government-run broadcaster whose intent it is to bamboozle international viewers into thinking China is a normal, well-adjusted country no different than theirs. (How can a channel that shows cute panda videos be bad?) The coverage of the Hong Kong protests was as repugnant and Orwellian as one would expect from such an institution.
I quit the job for many reasons, but the coverage of the Hong Kong protests, as well as Xinjiang, was chief among them. I couldn’t be a party to it any longer, so I left in the middle of a yearlong contract period. My last-minute trip to Hong Kong was all the more satisfying because of this. I knew it would make for a much more positive ending to my time in China than another day editing miserable false narratives at the state propaganda organ. And it would be poetic to tie it all off with something that runs counter to the state messaging I’d been soaking in for over three years.
One of the last stories I edited for CGTN said the numbers of people getting flights and hotels in Hong Kong were about half what they normally are. It prompted me to buy a ticket. I’d spend two days there and get a glimpse of history.
As poor luck would have it, the days I was there were the only peaceful ones in months, coming on the heels of local district elections that saw pro-Beijing candidates trounced. This gave protesters the catharsis needed to finally take a break for about a week. So I didn’t get to see any protests, but I did get to see lots of protest graffiti.
Some of the shots I took were from a pedestrian bridge where the walls had been covered in protest posters. One guy lingering around them was dressed in black, a sign that he was probably a protester himself. I went up and started chatting about the materials on the walls. He was surprised by my approaching him. “Am I the only foreigner who’s come up and started asking questions?” I asked. He said I was. This was after five months of protests in an international finance and media hub.
But he was happy to talk. He explained to me the materials and talked about some of the key turning points leading up to the protests. I told him I’d quit my job at CCTV (the more readily familiar name of CGTN’s parent organization) and he looked pleasantly astonished, probably gratified to hear of at least one little impact their risky displays had made on the government.
After I left the bridge and was walking down the street, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was he. “By the way, if you are going back to Beijing, you’d better delete those photos from your phone. Better safe than sorry,” he said.
He voiced the sentiment that had been bouncing around my inner chambers for the past three+ years. “Better safe than sorry.” I’d told myself that countless times, thinking that it was best to avoid even a 1 percent chance of crossing one of the many unseen, shifting lines.
I thanked him, grateful for this sliver of exchange. That was what I came for. A moment like that. Something real. Something that acknowledged the bent world that is mainland China. Everyone in Beijing, Chinese and foreign alike, is so guarded with what they say, you’re left interacting with the façades of people, even those you know fairly well. You get the sense that most people would just as soon use something like this against you if they thought it might benefit them. Now here was a stranger rushing up to take the time to watch my back for me. It was important that I see this better version of China before leaving, so I didn’t go home with only a sour notion of the place.
Authoritarian media, predictable results
Here is a sampling of some of the more absurd, transparently propagandistic pieces produced about Hong Kong by CGTN during my final months. Anyone trained in journalism or PR… or in maintaining a pulse… should be able to see right through these tricks.
From CGTN’s YouTube channel
Even in Hong Kong, I felt uncomfortable taking photos of anti-government slogans. I’d spent so much time in the world of CGTN and its state messaging, I couldn’t help feel I was being super naughty by merely taking photos of these wildly off-limits, direct statements against authority that other people had put up. You would never see such graffiti or posters in Beijing. If you dared to put one up, you’d be plagued with worry that a person or a facial recognition camera caught you doing it.
The protesters are inspiring. Their actions will almost certainly dog them for the rest of their lives, as their names get dutifully recorded in Beijing’s databases of “troublemakers”. Their cause is probably a hopeless one, as the rest of the world is too embroiled in other issues to make Hong Kong a priority. (I suspect this is going to be a moment, similar to so many we’ve also had with climate change, when people will look back and say, “That was the time to act. After that, it was too late.”) But they carry on because the alternative, defeatist obedience, won’t do. They are on the edge of losing everything to Beijing and refuse to yield to that unacceptable version of reality.
A bartender at the hotel I stayed at told me that this hotel, along with many others, have been offering weekend package deals to Hong Kong citizens. People can stay for the weekend and get big meals for a fraction of what the typical Hong Kong visitor — a wealthy, globe-trotting business type — would pay. Many locals can’t afford to stay in these places; they just work in them. Their home apartments are so tiny that getting to stay in a regular-sized hotel room is a luxury, a great getaway even if it’s just down the street. Locals have been gratefully snapping up the deals. So in at least that small way, Hong Kongers have won.