Public Sphere Interview: Journalist Hana Meihan Davis on Hong Kong

A Hong Kong native combines journalism and family history in a new memoir about the city's declining freedoms amid increasing control from Beijing

Journalist Hana Meihan Davis grew up in Hong Kong's milieu of democracy activists, many of whom are now facing arrest or in exile. In May, she published a book, "For The Love Of Hong Kong: A Memoir From My City Under Siege." The book combines journalism and personal essay. The authoritarian Beijing government has tried to assert control over the city since it regained sovereignty from the United Kingdom in 1997, which due to its British colonial heritage has been a bastion of the rule of law and democracy. In the past few years, the situation there has become much more dire as Beijing has tightened its grip, sparking a protest movement. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, South China Morning Post and the Yale Daily News. We spoke over Zoom last week. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Luke Johnson: Can you start by telling readers briefly why you decided to write the book?

Hana Meihan Davis: The book began as a senior capstone for the human rights program at Yale, where I graduated in the class of 2020. And at the end of the school year, I had turned it into a magazine piece that then grew into this book. I was writing my capstone, which was this similar mixture of personal essay and journalism. In the fall of 2019, Hong Kong was right in protest. I had started it that summer, at the end of May, when I was in the city for the last time. I spoke to a lot of these people that probably wouldn't even agree to be interviewed, because they're either under arrest at home or have faced criminal charges or trial. 

The book started in trying to figure out what exactly was going on in Hong Kong at the time, but also in an attempt to collect together and write down my experiences with Hong Kong for myself and for everyone else, in case it became a place that was unrecognizable, which it kind of did. That was at the heart of what was going on, to make sure that it was all there that it wouldn't be something that I could forget, because I had committed to memory and written it all down.

LJ: You intertwine your family history with the history of Hong Kong. Can you briefly describe your family and their role in politics?

HMD: My godfather, Martin Lee, who gave my mother away at her wedding, and who has worked both with my mother and father for decades, is the founder of Hong Kong's first democratic party. For decades, he has been internationally renowned as a champion of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. My mother started off her career working for Martin Lee, for his democratic party in the early 90s. She was his press officer and personal assistant. My father has been a professor in Hong Kong, including the fall of 2020, where he taught remotely because of the pandemic. He's been a professor at both the top two universities in Hong Kong, teaching constitutional law and human rights. My mother in 2019 co-founded the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC) which does a lot of lobbying with the US government and one of the board members, Samuel Chu, who has an arrest warrant from the Hong Kong government for his activism. A lot of the people that rose to prominence in Hong Kong -- the sphere of democracy activists, politicians, lawyers, and scholars -- they became regular faces in my childhood. That's part of the premise of the book as well, chronicling what it was like to grow up around all of that and how important they are to the city's history.

LJ: One thing about Martin Lee -- am I correct that you couldn't reach out to him for the book?

HMD: I chose not to, because he was in the midst of a trial at the start of 2021. He was arrested on April 18, 2020. I did not reach out to him because of the fact that he was undergoing this charge of unlawful assembly, for protests that had happened in the fall of 2019. Because of concerns for his safety, and for the safety of others involved in that trial, we have cut off communication from others that we have known for years.

LJ: You were born in 1998, shortly after the handover from the U.K. to China. You wrote that the debates over Hong Kong's political future were the "soundtrack to your childhood." Can you explain what those debates were like?

HMD: What features most prominently in my memory is having very frequent dimsums with Martin and his wife. I was a pretty shy child, and so I'd always sit in the corner. [I was] listening to my dad and Martin debate things freely in the middle of a crowded restaurant, and having people come up to Martin and thanking him for being such a champion of the city and its people. On other occasions, going with my parents to protest every year, we would go to the June 4 Tiananmen candlelight vigil, which has now been banned for the second year in a row. We would go to the July 1 handover anniversary march. At all of these events, we [would] come together, and I see people who in my mind were like aunties and uncles standing up on podiums wearing t-shirts for their political parties. We'd have dinners and lunches around these events. In hindsight, they had a lot of impact on the experience growing up. But these conversations happened in such a casual way that is very much illegal these days in Hong Kong, you could be risking your own safety.

LJ: Were people talking about independence or greater sovereignty, or what?

HMD: I don't think it's fair to say that any of these first generation of Hong Kong activists have really argued for Hong Kong independence, what they were talking about was the importance of safeguarding Hong Kong's democracy, and its rule of law, and autonomy. The understanding that was always really drilled into me as a child through all of this was that whenever there were big protests on the street, whether it was 2003, or 2014, with the Umbrella Movement, or 2019, it was the city and many of its people realizing that these kinds of agreements were written to paper by the Basic Law constitution and other documents, were not being protected by the government. They should have been. It was this idea that really grew on me and grew on a lot of the people in my generation that at the heart of Hong Kong's political development is that demand for compliance to the promises that we were guaranteed in the handover. And when those felt like they were under attack, then people would come to the streets, you'd see new generations of activists, which is Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, who were closer to my age than to Martin Lee. 

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LJ: Can you briefly explain the Basic Law, and it is scheduled to end in 2047? Did that date loom large over you?

HMD: Hong Kong has had days of reckoning -- in 1997, in what would happen after this handover moment, and the other being 2047, which was the fifty year guarantee for the Hong Kong Basic Law. The Basic Law, its content is very liberal, like the U.S. Constitution, it promises a high degree of autonomy, and a common law system that pre-existed under the U.K. colonial rule. It associated rule of law, promises of free speech, freedom of assembly, human rights, that were guaranteed by the U.N. Human Rights covenant charters. I think there were people who, like Martin, suspected that the Hong Kong government would not protect Hong Kong's rule of law unless it represented Hong Kong. There were spaces in which the Basic Law could be manipulated in its language to allow for things like the National Security Law. That's what grounded a lot of early activism in Hong Kong was ensuring compliance to the Basic Law and ensuring compliance to these promises. 

In recent decades, as people of my generation, born after the 1997 handover, there was a sense that it was our immediate future at stake. We'll still be in the middle of our lives, we'll have families, futures, and 2047 offered a turning point for what was at stake for young people living in Hong Kong. That really came to head in 2019-2020, when things started rapidly worsening. Now, something that at least I'm afraid of is that it feels like there will be a  generational gap of people who were born and lived through the past couple of years as a cognizant adult, maybe even participating in the protests, and the young children who now the generation after us is subject to national education, and a tightening on free speech, freedom of thought, and censorship. 2019-2020 felt like 2047 had come 20 years too early. That's a part of what galvanized a lot of the frontline protesters, that they had this now-or-never moment.

LJ: You were 16 when the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 broke out. And that was the first major upheaval in your life in Hong Kong, can you briefly describe how you experienced that? And what precipitated it?

HMD: The 2014 Umbrella Movement called for genuine universal suffrage--one man, one vote for chief executive and for the Legislative Council. It erupted because of various groups coming together. A lot of young people coming in from one end, and a lot of academics and professors and an older generation of activists coming together. For 79 days, the Hong Kong financial center was at a standstill. 

For me personally, it was a moment where I could see amongst my classmates, and amongst people in my generation, as someone who had taken ideas of democracy and human rights, and all the adults around me had spent their careers fighting for, we're taking that all for granted, seeing that there were really deep fissures between me and my classmates, who were reflecting the views of their parents, who were more inclined towards seeing the protesters as a nuisance. I distinctly remember days where I'd have classmates come in and complain that it took them two hours to get to their tutoring instead of 15 minutes. And the thought was, it was the worst thing in the world and thinking to myself, and sometimes saying out loud, "Well, in Hong Kong, democracy is important. And being able to vote when we get old enough to vote is important. And having a government that represents us is important." And classmates [saying], "Yeah, I know that. They're not that they're not doing things that actually benefit us. They're kind of annoying." 

We had debates and conversations about what was going on in our city and all the politics and what that meant, they had guest speakers come in. It was this space where we could learn, and if you wanted to lean into all of the politics, you could. It is something that just wouldn't be possible now.

LJ: You wrote that "for many 2019 was the last stand, a coordinated attempt to fight for the future, to protect a shared identity." Can you explain how you experienced the 2019 protests and what they meant for the city of Hong Kong?

HMD: I flew out in Hong Kong, the day before the first big protests of one million people on June 9. I had landed in D.C. a bunch of hours later to start an internship at The Washington Post. My city had just erupted. I remember walking into the newsroom that day, and having Hong Kong being on the headline of every major newspaper. I was really proud that they would be able to tell everyone again that I'm from Hong Kong. 

For the rest of the movement, I was abroad and have still been. As the summer wore on, things started getting more dire and protests started getting a bit more violent. As the school year started in the fall, which was my senior year, there was a move amongst the Hong Kongers at Yale, both students and professors, to organize events. There was a move to build a stronger community that hadn't existed that much before. From what I gathered from a lot of my classmates, which reflected my own experience, it was a lot of anxiety, going to sleep just as the news cycle is starting up again in Hong Kong, and waking up and checking your phone to see the news first thing in the morning, [being] most afraid to check the news, because of what might have happened overnight. There was a big question of, what are we all doing here? Should we be back home? It was a very hard semester in terms of witnessing everything from far away. To the extent that I could, I ended up writing both for the Yale Daily News and for The Washington Post during the summer about Hong Kong, which, reflected by the book, became my way of contributing to what was going on. It was a stark situation to live, not really knowing what was going on back home and what would happen and feeling a lot of emotions about everything.

LJ: You talk a lot in the book about China's National Security Law, which you wrote is "in the eyes of many, an official death sentence for Hong Kong." Can you talk about the law and how it's affecting you and those around you?

HMD: The law was announced on June 30, 2020, to be activated at midnight. It was announced at around 11pm that night and activated at midnight on July 1, which was the anniversary of the handover. It "prevents, stops and punishes" crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, all of which are very loosely defined clauses. One of the fears of Hongkongers and their supporters is that the law could apply to anyone or anything. It doesn't necessarily have boundaries. It can be manipulated to target whoever needs to be targeted. 

As of mid-May 2021, there were about 110 arrests made under the National Security Law or by the National Security Police that was established. There have been countless other kinds of cases that haven't been tried under National Security, but have been in response to the 2019 protests. 

This fear grips a lot of Hongkongers and has compelled many thousands to apply for means to move abroad, if they don't already have a direct way through passports and student visas. There's a mass reconsideration of personal futures. Especially families, whether or not they want their kids or future generations to grow up in a society where they lack free speech and free thought. 34,000 people have so far this year applied for the British National Overseas (B.N.O.) passport that is being extended to Hong Kongers as an olive branch from the U.K.; there are predictions that a couple of hundred thousands might ultimately apply for this passport, which makes an easier path for immigration. 

There have been electoral changes, national education bureaus and all these things established that clamp down on what people can know, what people can be taught, how people can express themselves, how voting can happen, and how the government is structured. 

On a personal level, my family, at least for the time being, has no hope of going back to Hong Kong, unless there were to be some sort of drastic change there. I think my parents are especially cautious because they are very active voices in the Hong Kong community abroad. A lot of family members are considering immigration to the U.S., U.K., and Canada. A lot of classmates that I had growing up or friends from college are considering moving. There is this great sense of apprehension among Hong Kongers of what will happen. Even Hong Kong's economic and business standing in the world has flipped so much. 

There is this mass reckoning of what next, and what next might not be able to take place in Hong Kong anymore. There is a quote from the book from one of the journalists I interviewed who has been a journalist in Hong Kong for decades, and he said something along the lines of, "you love Hong Kong, and now you're finding that it might not be a place that is worth your love anymore." And I think that's the sentiment that is carrying a lot of people and a lot of the fear, anxiety, and even sadness of what next, what do we do?

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