In the wrong climate, museums can feel like graveyards. The Hong Kong News Expo, a Newseum-inspired commemoration of Hong Kong’s long journalistic history, opened last month.
That was just weeks after Financial Times Asia Editor Victor Mallet was expelled from the territory for acting as host to a Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club luncheon for an activist advocating independence from China and other disturbing events signaling threats to press freedom. Thus even the sign on the door, promising those who visit “Fair and Objective Respect for History,” can be read defensively in that charged context.
Tempting and elegant as such a narrative of decline may be, though, reality is not quite so simple. Rather, the News Expo – both implicitly and explicitly – speaks to the profound contradictions still unresolved as the city continues its transition from British colony to quasi-autonomous city-state to Beijing’s subject.
Hong Kong has long been a city running on borrowed time. Claude MacDonald, the British representative in negotiations over the territory with Qing China, declared a 99-year lease “as good as forever.” Of course, by 1997, forever had arrived and Hong Kong – a final vestige of Britain’s lost empire – was handed over to a newly ascendant China.
Yet procrastination continued to reign as Hong Kong was given 50 years of “One Country Two Systems,” a temporary guarantee of the city’s political and economic freedom. The past few years, however, have brought a drumbeat of reminders of how fraught and partial this settlement is.
The liberal tabloid Apple Daily has long faced regular cyberattacks and advertising boycotts, especially following its support of the 2014 Umbrella Protests. In 2015, five booksellers associated with anti-Beijing publishing house Mighty Current Media were abducted by Chinese security services. Several have not returned from China. In the same year, the upstart Hong Kong Free Press was barred from covering government press conferences.
Hong Kong’s paper of record, the South China Morning Post, was purchased by the Alibaba Group in 2016, and has shied away from explicit critique of Beijing. The paper received serious reproach for publishing an allegedly-scripted confessional interview with Gui Minhai, one of the detained publishers, in 2018.
Such cases receive little mention in the News Expo, though one plaque notes “surveys of both the general public and journalists have found press freedom index scores to be on the decline.” Hong Kong has slid on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index from 18th place in 2002 to 70th in 2018. China ranks 176th, fourth-from-last.
This reticence is unsurprising – the News Expo project was, after all, heavily funded by the Hong Kong government.
Still, the very presence of the museum serves as a reminder of just how far apart the territory remains from the mainland. A wall on the upper floor is dotted with photographs commemorating major moments in Hong Kong’s history: the 1967 Leftist Riots, Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s, Tiananmen solidarity protests in 1989, the Handover in 1997, SARS in 2003 and, most recently, the Umbrella Protests in 2014. Such a tableau would be unthinkable elsewhere in China.
More generally, the museum presents journalism as an overwhelmingly positive influence on Hong Kong’s history. One panel reads: “the Hong Kong media has witnessed and recorded how Hong Kong society has developed and its political changes, thus reflecting the social characteristics and special features of the different eras, and its close synergy with the life of Hong Kong people. Media operators, editors and reporters have a unique role and responsibility to fulfil in society.”
Hong Kong has long been considered, fairly or not, a city far more interested in the future than the past, whose primary identities were pragmatism and capitalism. The kind of place, in other words, that names a museum an ‘Expo.’ Only recently, with projects such as Tai Kwun – where a complex of colonial police buildings was restored as a set of galleries and restaurants – and the News Expo, have historic buildings in Hong Kong seen any fate other than becoming the site of a new skyscraper.
The site of the News Expo holds its own history. Sun Yat-Sen was baptized on the grounds, though the present building was most recently a market. Nearby streets formed the center of Hong Kong’s newspaper trade for much of the colonial era.
This growing appreciation for the city’s rich history is tied in ways deeper than commonly acknowledged to the politically charged atmosphere has enveloped the city, especially since the Umbrella Protests. As Hong Kong’s sense of its own past becomes more defined, so has its attachment to the freedoms that are its heritage.
On the eve of the Millennium, The Economist speculated that the 21st century might see “China become Hong Kong:” the territory could provide Beijing with a model for implementing liberalizing reforms. Such end-of-history optimism at the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy seems misguided today as Xi Jinping centralizes power and China’s hi-tech revolution promises more and deeper ways for the state to surveil and control.
Nevertheless, an underrated development of recent decades is how finally Hong Kong has become Hong Kong. A deeper sense of self and distinctiveness from the mainland is manifest in everything from growing pride in the use of Cantonese to projects like the News Expo that dig deeply into the territory’s history.
This shift in self-perception, of course, is no match in realpolitik terms for the political and economic power that Beijing wields. It would be foolish to expect a thousand News Expos to change the basic arithmetic that guarantees Hong Kong’s subordination. But rather than being merely another herald of the demise of Hong Kong’s free press, Hong Kong News Expo echoes a more subtle motif of the past few years: that, in coming to lose its freedoms, Hong Kong is beginning to take them and itself more seriously.