Hong Kong Apostasy
A journalist from Apple Daily 蘋果日報, a leading independent media outlet in Hong Kong and Taiwan, uses the ancient expression 英雄遲暮 yīng xióng chí mù ‘heroic twilight’ to describe the celebrated and prolific novelist, screen writer essayist and commentator Ni Kuang (倪匡, 1935-), who is also known as Ngai Hong.
Born in Shanghai Ni remained on the Mainland after 1949 to seek an education and to contribute to the building of New China. As a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Inner Mongolia he found himself under suspicion and persecuted. Following rejection by his fearful family in Shanghai, and after a torturous journey south, Ni snuck across the border to Hong Kong in 1957. In a city of refugees, he would become renowned as a prolific and commercially successful writer churning out science fiction, martial arts novels, romances, adventure stories, thrillers and newspaper columns at the astounding rate of more than 10,000 Chinese characters a day.
He emigrated to the United States in 1992 but returned to live in Hong Kong in 2006 as his wife found it difficult to adjust to life in North America. Ni has long been a trenchant critic of the Chinese Communist Party and its surrogate local rulers. At the age of eighty-four, and despite encroaching infirmity, he continues to be an enthusiastic, if sardonic, commentator on the political life of his adopted home.
The following interview was published on 13 August 2019 as the heroic protesters of the city — 遲暮英雄 — were nearing a tragic Götterdämmerung.
In 1988, Ni Kuang made an astute observation on the past of Tibet and the future of Hong Kong (see the box below). It is nearly thirty years since Linda Jaivin and I translated that material for New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (New York: Times Books, 1992). It is heartbreaking, although not surprising, that his observations continue to resonate in 2019.
The title of this latest chapter in our series ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’ — ‘The Nobility of Failure’ — is inspired by Ivan Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (Penguin, 1975). Morris’s book provides an enthralling record of what he calls a ‘spontaneous sympathy with the courageous loser’ and he depicts in it a culture that ‘since ancient times … recognised a special nobility in the sincere, unsuccessful sacrifice.’
A somewhat similar strain of tragic heroism also exists in the Chinese tradition. It is one that harks back to the righteous sacrifice of the hermit-martyrs Boyi 伯夷 and Shuqi 叔齊. (See, ‘Conflicting Loyalties’ in A New Sinology Reader.) Be it in acts of protest, gestures of resistance and in the language of dissent, or indeed in a myriad of cultural expressions, it is a tradition that thrives in a multiplicity of modern guises.
My thanks to Victor Fong 方金平 for going over the translation and identifying errors in my reading of Ni Kuang’s remarks. All remaining errors are mine.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 August 2019
- Explications and notes are marked by square brackets , although amplifications have also been made to the text for readers who are unfamiliar with the political issues touched on by the author, or who might benefit from the highlighting of important cultural and historical references.
- For more chapters in the series ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, see The Best China section of China Heritage.
— The Translator
- 倪匡, 《追龍》, 1984
- 倪匡談中國共產黨, YouTube, 19 June 2012
- The Double Fifth and the Archpoet, China Heritage, 30 May 2017
- ‘CUP 人物: 香港亂局點收科?’, Cup 媒體 Cup Media, 21 June 2019
- ‘倪匡專訪: 假如年輕衛斯理在香港 倪匡認為他會這樣做’,《香港01》, 2019年8月13日
- 佘錦洪, ‘智者反送中: 倪匡都係《蘋果》粉絲 仲睇CCTVB係你白癡’, 《蘋果日報》, 2019年8月13日
I’ve Seen the Future
We must harbor no illusions about this business of there being ‘no change for ﬁfty years’ [after the Communist takeover of Hong Kong in 1997]. Anyone who can leave has to get out of here. Those who can’t have to prepare themselves psychologically for Communist rule. You can’t rebel, you can’t start a revolution, and you can’t be independent. The people of Hong Kong will pay the price for their apathy toward [the drafting of] the Basic Law. No one even tried to make their feelings known to the British prime minister when she came here; it’s as though the great cause of national unity were more important than anything else. But it’s possible to oppose Communist rule; I don’t have much sympathy for those who won’t even try. What could Peking possibly do if just 500,000 of Hong Kong’s ﬁve million people took to the streets, boycotted classes, and called a general strike to oppose the return of Hong Kong to China? With the Basic Law, the Communists have already managed to negate the ‘Sino-British Joint Declaration’; they’re taking over step by step….
What’s happening to Hong Kong is exactly like what happened to Tibet when it signed the ‘Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ [under duress on 23 May 1951]. The Communists say the nicest possible things and then act in the most reprehensible manner. This has always been the way of the Communist Party.
— Ni Kuang, September 1988, trans. G.Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds
New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices
New York, 1992, pp.431-432
— from 金鐘, ‘為什麼要統一? 莫名其妙!
《解放月報》, 1988: 9, 第36頁
 The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, ﬁnalized in 1990, laid down the structure of law and government for Hong Kong after 1997. Deng Xiaoping acclaimed the law as a ‘creative masterpiece’, but many Hong Kong people believed it was an inadequate safeguard of their rights.
Veteran Commentators on the Extradition Bill Protests
Ni Kuang on the Hong Kong Police —
A Tool of the Totalitarian State
But He Won’t Distance Himself from the Protesters:
‘I’ve been opposed to the Communists for decades, do you think I’d support their PoPo now of all times?’
Interview by She Kam Hung 佘錦洪
Translated and Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
It is as if the scenario in one of those ‘near future’ novels has actually come true. Ni Kuang depicted the inevitable decline of Hong Kong following the Communist takeover in his sci-fi novel Chasing the Dragon, published over thirty years ago. But he has always emphasised that such fictional creations were strictly in accord with common sense.
Today, as Anti-Extradition Bill Protests have swept Hong Kong, this astute veteran has been speaking out again. Below he lavishes praise on the extraordinary spectacle of millions of marchers demonstrating against the Hong Kong government and he criticises the police for only exercising their ‘fearless might’ on demonstrators — actions that only go to demonstrate that they have been reduced to acting as tools in the service of a totalitarian state.
Ni Kuang is an avant-garde anti-Communist. But here he notes that although Hong Kong people have been witness to the depredations of the party-state on Mainland China for many decades, even he has been taken aback by the virulence of the anti-Communist sentiment that they have evinced in the streets of the city during the protests.
He does, however, point out that if people really want to be free then they must be prepared for a real revolution; he warns that faced with violent state repression the present situation will inevitably escalate out of control and result in needless casualties. Ultimately, however, he remains steadfastly on the side of the underdog:
‘Having opposed the communists for decades, why would I support their PoPo now?’
— She Kam Hung
‘From the start the Extradition Bill was completely unnecessary. You lot [the Communist Party] only have to send a few agents into the territory and you can abduct anyone you want. You could nab someone like [the prominent businessman] Xiao Jianhua [蕭建華, 1972-] without a problem [in 2017]; that means you could take anyone you chose.’
Speaking in his trademark heavily accented Cantonese — what we are familiar with as the ‘Ni Twang’ — the author sums up things with withering precision. The way he speaks, as well as what he says, mean that you really need to engage both your left and right frontal lobes when in conversation with him. That’s because what he has to say is both a creative and an intellectual challenge.
Ni Kuang has seen it all but, from the outbreak of the Anti-Extradition Protest Movement in June 2019 his tone has also reflected a guarded respect for the unfolding events.
‘To see a demonstration of over one million people in the streets of Hong Kong [on 9 June] was, no matter how you think about it, to witness a world-class achievement. I’d guess that in historical terms this may be the first time that this many people have voluntarily gone into the streets to protest against something like that in that fashion.’
Having lived under the extremes of authoritarianism [born in Shanghai in 1935, Ni remained on the Mainland after 1949 until making his escape to Hong Kong in 1957] and freedom, for Ni Kuang to be able to witness a demonstration like that — one that was both civil and entirely peaceful — felt like here, for once, was something that must have humbled even the crude autocrats of Beijing.
‘A Million Person Demonstration like that would not only have struck fear into their hearts, it took the whole world by surprise. “How can there be so many people out there?”, people must have been wondering. The scenes [as shown in the media] simply took your breath away.’
That and another one million plus person demonstration was among the factors that have forced the Hong Kong authorities into retreat after retreat. Such displays of mass unrest also sent shockwaves through the constabulary.
‘The police were so stunned they had no choice but to stand by and watch it all unfold: what could they have possibly done? Even if they sent out all 30,000 members of the force to face down the demonstrators they still would have been powerless.’
It’s true, during those two mass demonstrations [on the 9th and 17th of June], the Hong Kong police — once acclaimed for ‘restraint’ — simply absented themselves. More recently, however, they’ve repeatedly used teargas to disperse protesters, although time and again it has been under the cover of night as most demonstrators have been in the process of dispersing.
The mass protest movement has seen the image of the police all but completely tarnished — that’s because of their reckless use of teargas, their repeated decisions to shoot volleys into the crowds of demonstrators [using sand pellets, etc] without raising warning flags and due to the evidence that they have been in collusion with street thugs and triads [as in the case of the unprovoked violence at Yuen Long on the evening of 21 July].
As Ni Kuang has observed, in an open and civilised society the normal relationship between the police and citizens should be one of mutual reliance. Now, however, Hong Kong is well on the way to becoming a totalitarian-style society:
‘In such circumstances it’s impossible for there to be any kind of positive relationship between the people and the police. After all, according to V.I. Lenin himself, the police are primarily an arm of state power and repression. How could anyone expect them to get on with the citizenry?’
[Note: See Mark Harrison, ‘Seven Soviet-era tips for running a successful police state’, The Conversation, 6 April 2016]
He bluntly declares that henceforth it will be impossible to restore the kind of confidence and trust people had previously had in the police force. Although, he argues, if the police honestly feel that they are blameless in the way they have handled the protests, then they should acquiesce to the popular demand for the establishment of an independent commission of investigation [to look into police abuses].
‘If I didn’t do anything wrong, then I should welcome such a thing! If you’re concerned that an independent investigation will undermine police morale that’s only because you’re afraid of what will be revealed about your behaviour. Before a thorough investigation you can’t be sure the police are wrong. Maybe you’ll find they’ve done nothing untoward. Let’s get the truth out in the open!’
Before such investigation, how come you sure the police are wrong? Maybe you’ll find that they’ve done nothing untoward
When asked about whether he thought the police were acting lawlessly, Ni Kuang replied with simple clarity:
‘They are under service personnel performing according to particular guidelines; they’ve been trained. We don’t know specifically by whom, or, for that matter, how exactly they have been trained. Nor indeed do we know what kind of brainwashing they have been subjected to. We don’t know any of that.’
Nonetheless, he believes that it is still too early to support that online petition that has been launched calling for the Hong Kong police to be named as a terrorist organization:
‘There will be time enough for that when the Communist Party takes over complete control of the force.’
I press him about his view of the police force at the moment and he simply responds with the words ‘they are fearless and powerful’, adding with a laugh:
‘They put their fearless power on full display when repressing the protesters. It’s just that when their presence has really been needed — when you need police valour [as when triad gang members attacked protesters and others on the evening of 21 July at Yuen Long] there’s no sign of them. But that’s exactly when you need to hear from them. However, at least according to the news reports I’ve seen on TV, they come charging out in valorous formation when there is hardly anyone around. Who are they putting the show on for?’
For Ni Kuang the core issue that ignited the demonstrations is a simple one: the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework [agreed to in the ‘Sino-British Joint Agreement’ of 1984] is simply non-existent:
‘At the time I pointed out that [the Agreement] was merely a copy of the “Seventeen-point Agreement” made between Beijing and the Tibetan government [of 1951].’
[Note: See the 1988 quotation from Ni Kuang above. ‘The Seventeen Point Agreement’ is short for the ‘Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ 中央人民政府和西藏地方政府關於和平解放西藏辦法的協議 / བོད་ཞི་བས་བཅིངས་འགྲོལ་འབྱུང་ཐབས་སྐོར་གྱི་གྲོས་མཐུན་དོན་ཚན་བཅུ་བདུན་. One account relates the chain of events in the following way:
‘The People’s Liberation Army crossed the Jinsha River on 6 or 7 October 1950 and defeated the Tibetan army by 19 October. Instead of continuing with the military campaign, China asked Tibet to send representatives to Beijing to negotiate an agreement. The Dalai Lama believes the draft agreement was written by China, and Tibetan representatives were not allowed to suggest any alterations. China did not allow the Tibetan representatives to communicate with the Tibetan government in Lhasa. The Tibetan delegation was not authorized by Lhasa to sign, but ultimately submitted to pressure from the Chinese to sign anyway, using seals which had been specifically made for the purpose.’]
‘It’s like an adolescent girl being tricked by a relative who flatters her into agreeing to one thing and then, over time, discovering that she’s been sold off into prostitution.’
The Legalisation of Rape
They say that in a certain civilized country there was an unwritten law that stated that a person who was raped could not cry out, offer any resistance, or go to the police for help. The victim was obliged to lie back and bear the assault in silence.
Later it was realized that this unwritten law was an offense against decency, and instead of enhancing the reputation of this civilized country, it brought disapprobation upon it. At this point, someone challenged the law. They claimed, in the ﬁrst instance, that rape is a savage and barbarous act that should be outlawed; secondly, that all rapists should be punished, gang rapists most severely of all; thirdly, that victims of rape should be permitted to scream; and, ﬁnally, in cases where there is an obvious disparity between the physical strength of the victim and the rapist, making it impossible for the victim to resist without further risk, that a discussion should be held afterward in order to ascertain the precise cause and effect of the rape. For example, was the victim young and beautiful? Was her behavior in any way provocative or lewd? Did she incite the rapist in any way? Was the rapist psychologically disturbed? Should the victim receive hush money from the rapist, or should she demand a free operation to mend her damaged hymen?
- (Hah Gong’s Note: This is my translation of an ancient Greek text dating from the New Stone Age. If there are any discrepancies in interpretation, the Greek text should be taken as the standard.)
I recently heard that the unwritten law quoted above now applies to Hong Kong: The Sino-British negotiations [over Hong Kong’s future] have resembled a gang rape of Hong Kong by two men, with the victim being denied the right either to scream or protest. After the event, a member of a certain legislative body appeared on the scene and demanded a detailed inquiry into the background of the rape. But a number of staunch advocates of rapists’ rights came forth and called for the legalization of rape, decrying the victims for being shameless. Naturally, this upset a large number of former rape victims, who have expressed support for their fellow victims.
It is said that the pro-rapists have their reasons for lobbying for the legalization of rape. They believe that the legislator mentioned above speaks only for himself and has no right to represent all rape victims, and therefore has no right to scream or protest during the act. But the opposition states that even though the legislator could speak only for himself, he too is a victim of rape and has the right to demand a discussion of and an investigation into the precise cause and effect of the rape.
Now everybody is shouting: ‘Rape victims of Hong Kong, unite!’ As a result, the pro-rapist lobby is completely isolated, and the only course left for them is to get support from a few pseudo-scholars with near-zero IQs. Having just polished off a Patriotic Chinese New Year’s Eve Banquet and Patriotic Spring Festival Tea, these ‘scholars’ can naturally be depended upon to say a few kind words and cite a few precedents to suit the occasion in support of the legalization of rape. Most curious is the fact that among them are a number of people who still have not had their political appendixes removed. Yet they make grandiose statements suggesting that everyone should simply lie back quietly and allow the rapists to get on with it, claiming that any protest would be ‘negative, unconstructive and in no way beneﬁcial.’
— Hah Gong, 2 March 1984
trans. Don J. Cohn, reprinted in
G.Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds
New Ghosts, Old Dreams, 1992
New York, pp.429-431
— from 哈公 (許子賓, d.1987), ‘“強姦合法化”論’
As for Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, she’s nothing more than a puppet and the Communist Party has, over the past twenty-two years. incrementally exerted its control over Hong Kong:
‘Forget all that stuff about “there will be no change [to the status quo of Hong Kong being able to enjoy a high-level of political autonomy] for fifty years”. In just over two decades things have become completely fuzzy.’
But Hong Kong borders Mainland China and people here have been witness to all of the vile absurdities that have engulfed people there for seventy years. There is simply no way anyone would want to fall into the embrace of the totalitarian state unless they were willing to sell out their conscience for the sake of personal gain.
‘You tell me: do you honestly believe that Hong Kong people would rather believe all that propaganda instead of trusting their own personal experiences and understanding?’
Over the past two months, the Five Demands of the protesters have remained unanswered leading to a constant tussle and escalation in the clashes between the protesters and the police. Ni Kuang is impressed by the fact that, despite the absence of any defined leadership, the protesters have been able to maintain a standoff with the authorities.
‘Even I have been taken aback by the level of animosity that Hong Kong people have shown for the Communists. Who would have thought that they are showing themselves to be just as much of an anti-Commie as I am, even more so!’
By the same token, it is because theirs is a leaderless movement, so the standoff has also become a stalemate. Or, as Ni Kuang puts it:
‘Feats of daring-do are one thing; the lack of forward planning is another.’
The mindless upping of the ante that has seen the movement go from peaceful protest to ever more violent confrontation will inevitably affect the overall situation:
‘Everyone has forgotten all about the mass demonstrations about which people could say one to two million people took to the streets. Now it’s more about violence and this gives the power-holders a perfect pretext by which they can dissemble and distract people’s attention. Or, as the ancient Chinese expression puts it, they have: 授人以柄 [shòu rén yǐ bǐng] — “surrendered the advantage that they previously enjoyed”.’
Ni Kuang used the Gilets Jaunes protests in France and the Palestinian intifada in reference to the Hong Kong clashes. In his opinion, the Hong Kong protesters have merely been employing ‘kindergarten-level’ armed resistance:
‘Bamboo switches and expandable batons are no match for teargas and guns.’
The assault on the LegCo Building and the splattering of black ink on the national emblem of the People’s Republic at the Central Liaison Office [which became an early focus of mock-outrage among Beijing propagandists] on a practical level didn’t really get at the Communist power-holders:
‘Though it was thrilling to see the national emblem [of the People’s Republic] splattered [with black ink], that achieved very little. Didn’t they just go and replace it with another one?’
He also mocks the timidity of the Party cadres working in the Liaison Office building:
‘Where were you when your precious national dignity and sovereignty were being challenged directly? Why didn’t any of you make an appearance or attempt to mount a defence? If you are true patriots you should be ready to face down machine-gun fire, let alone a little paint bomb.’
He went on to observe that, given the bigger picture and the long time frame involved, it is inevitable that the anti-Communist opposition in Hong Kong will eventually be worn down and eliminated. Although, in the process, people in the territory may well share the fate of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang:
‘The Communists may well decide to employ the Xinjiang Model and create a Hong Kong concentration camp. But where would you put it? Maybe they’ll build it on Lantau Island! Couldn’t they just reclaim some more land around Lantau and build a camp there’
Ni Kuang offers this with a shake of the head and a bitter laugh.
He also makes a point of saying that people should not hold out any hopes that the American-China trade war would come to their assistance. The Chinese are inured to their autocracy, after all, they have lived with it for millennia. Even if people have to put up with some new, unbearable misery there is no reason to think their discomfort will fundamentally threaten the political system.
‘If they have to 1.3 billion Chinese will be expected to survive eating grass. How long are those Americans gonna be able to hold out?
‘People lived through the deprivations of the Great Famine as well as the Cultural Revolution. They’re pretty fearless. How long is Trump going to be in office? Even with another four-year term, or say six years, they’ll be done for.’
Ni Kuang can only discern three paths by which Hong Kong can move on from the present stalemate:
- The first is for Hong Kong people to resign themselves to being pliant subjects of Beijing:
‘If Hong Kong people were to just give in they would have done so long before now, and the present situation would have never eventuated.’
- Second is the most passive form of resistance — to leave; and,
- The third is the most positive choice of all, although the possibility of its success is nebulous:
‘Fight on, fear no sacrifice and overcome all obstacles’.
[Note: This last option is Ni Kuang’s reworking of Mao Zedong’s 1945 slogan:
Be resolute, fear no sacrifice, overcome all obstacles and difficulties and fight on to victory.]
Ni Kuang says that although the idea of ‘Hong Kong Independence’ is all well and good, given the present on-the-ground realities it is nothing more than a dream. That is particularly so because of the immense incommensurability between the two forces that are pitted against each other.
‘It’s like playing a hand of poker: you’ve got your Jack or Queen — Bamboo Sticks and Helmets — but I’ve got all the Aces — my machine-guns. Once they line up all the pieces they have on their side, it’ll be game over! After all, the pieces they are playing with include atom bombs, nukes and rockets. How are you going to compete with a winning hand like that? It’s simply not a competition.’
He then talks about the end of the Qing dynasty [in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries]. That was a time of autocratic political decline and military weakness. Yet, even then, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, and his forces had to engage in more than a decade of struggle and sacrifice until they could achieve success.
‘There’s simply no way you can launch something like the French Revolution [which overthrew autocracy]. Then millions of people revolted. If you can claim that you have millions on your side, now we’re talking. There simply aren’t the numbers of people in Hong Kong willing to rebel like that.’
As things unfold in these see-saw protests, the central issue remains that of the military, or the People’s Liberation Army to be precise. In Ni Kuang’s opinion, given the present situation, even if Beijing decides to deploy troops to crush the protest movement it most probably won’t do it in an overt manner. That’s because Hong Kong is still of use to the Communists.
‘[On 5 August there was a report that] Swiss banks hold over 780 billion RMB [over US$11,000,000,000] in accounts held by 100 Chinese nationals. Do you think those people made those transfers directly from Beijing? No way! All the money goes through Hong Kong.’
In a conversation lasting over an hour Ni Kuang offers no particular strategies for how the present conflict may be resolved. No matter how wise one may be, there are always things that are simply beyond one’s grasp. As for Hong Kong’s future he doesn’t hesitate:
‘The place is already nine tenths gone.’
He points out, however, that it was in the legal sphere and in education that Hong Kong might still maintain some bulwark to protect its freedoms and civilisation.
In online discussions protesters and locals have sworn that ‘even a nuke won’t make us abandon each other’. So, before drawing our conversation to an end, I ask Ni Guang whether he too is still on the side of the protesters. Without a moment’s hesitation he replies:
‘Of course I am! I’ve been opposed to the Communists for decades, do you think I’d turn around and support their PoPo at a time like this?’
- 佘錦洪, ‘智者反送中: 倪匡批警淪極權工具 不與抗爭者割席: 反共幾廿年唔通撐警啊?’, 《蘋果日報》, 2019年8月13日