September 20, 2017
An activist in Hong Kong has been convicted of throwing out library books as an act of protest
by Ian Dreiblatt
According to a report by Jasmine Siu in yesterday’s South China Morning Post, Hong Kong-based activist Alvin Cheng Kam-mun has been convicted of theft and fined HK$3,000 (about $385 in US money). The crime? He filmed himself walking into a library in the city’s residential Ho Man Tin district and throwing out nine books written in simplified Chinese characters.
To make sense of the story, you need to know about two things: the People’s Republic of China’s “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong, and Mao Zedong’s character reform of the 1950s.
One country, how many systems?
We’ve written a lot about the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy as part of our ongoing coverage of the Causeway Bay Booksellers, five men apparently abducted by agents of the Chinese government in retribution for their Hong Kong-based work publishing and selling books of thinly-sourced political gossip. (All but one, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, have since been released.) The books are illegal in mainland China, but not in Hong Kong — which, while technically part of the PRC, maintains its own legal system, currency, and other institutions.
To help make sense of this, back in July 2016, we spoke with Eli Friedman, an in-demand scholar of contemporary China, sociologist at Cornell University, and author of work including 2014’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China and articles for, among others, Jacobin and the Nation. He explained:
The British successively captured Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories during the nineteenth century. Although the British implemented some of the trappings of a liberal polity — freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and of course strong property rights — the governor of Hong Kong was a white man appointed by the Queen. The territory reverted to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. It was to be governed under the principle of “one country, two systems,” meaning that it’s supposed to maintain its own political and legal systems until 2047, at which point it will be fully reintegrated into China. But if anything, PRC-HK relations have become more strained in the twenty years since the handover, with younger Hong Kong residents increasingly less likely to identify as “Chinese.” The reasons behind this are complicated, and there is a good deal of nativist discrimination against Mainlanders in Hong Kong. But there are also some very legitimate concerns. Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong has been pretty disastrous, leading to unbelievable levels of wealth inequality, housing prices that make New York City look quaint, and fewer and fewer job prospects for young people. So people are angry. Some of this anger has been channeled into causes I find politically retrograde, like the movement for Hong Kong to revert to British rule (insert Brexit joke here). Some are calling for Hong Kong independence, which is in my view neither realistic nor desirable, even if it is understandable. Most people just want Hong Kong to be able to maintain its own legal system, to begin moving towards electoral democracy and a more inclusive economy — hardly radical demands. But across the political spectrum, people are watching the clock tick down to 2047 and are very afraid for their future. The booksellers case brings all of these fears out into the open.
So, that’s first off — Cheng is among those who want Beijing’s hands off Hong Kong.
Some real characters
English was Hong Kong’s sole official language until 1974 (thanks, imperialism), when mass protests successfully demanded the recognition of Chinese as well. A full picture of language usage in Hong Kong would be immensely complicated, but what’s important here is that a large majority of Hong Kongers speak a local dialect of Cantonese, which they write in Chinese characters.
But which Chinese characters? Ever since the fifties, there have been two main variants on the Chinese script. We wrote about this back on January 20th (you may have been distracted), in an obituary for the wonderful Zhou Youguang:
When Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he promptly set about making the Chinese language more standard, and easier to read, write, and learn. To that end, he effected one of the most massive—and successful—reform programs in the history of writing. There were two main prongs: firstly, he simplified thousands of Chinese characters, reducing their visual complexity and the number of strokes needed to write them. (Because Hong Kong has never adopted Mao’s reform, the name “China” (“Zhōngguó,” literally “Center Country” or, by more archaic convention, “Middle Kingdom”) is written differently in the two places: 中国 in the PRC, versus 中國 in Hong Kong.) Secondly, he ordered the creation of an indigenous alphabetic standard by which the sounds of Chinese could be consistently represented; Premier Zhou Enlai (no relation) asked Zhou to head up the project.
The script Mao promulgated is comprised of “simplified characters”; the older script, still in use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and many diaspora communities, consists of “traditional characters.” (Actually, in the original piece, the contrast was between the PRC and Taiwan; edited here for clarity.)
So, for Hong Kong nativists like Cheng, the simplified script can be an unwelcome symbol of Beijing’s political dominance and cultural influence, marked by its remove from venerable traditions of Chinese scholarship and identity.
Yeah. Siu reports that, during his trial, Cheng said the libraries had “wasted public funds” by acquisitioning books written in the mainland script, and called those books a form of “cultural invasion.” The presiding judge, Wong Sze-lai, did not agree, and called Cheng “selfish and stupid.” The fine she imposed was nearly sextuple the HK$505 (about $65 US) value of the books Cheng had thrown away.
Cheng’s is a familiar face in Hong Kong protest circles. When the city’s Umbrella Movement kicked off in 2014, he booked the first available flight from Brisbane, Australia, where he’d been studying, to return home and join in. In the years since, he’s been a prominent face at protests, and has been arrested several times. Today, he’s the vice-chair of Civic Passion, one of Hong Kong’s militant anti-PRC political parties.
Asked whether he’ll keep fighting the influence of simplified characters in Hong Kong, he told Siu only, “I hope Hongkongers will cherish and defend our language.”
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.