A Cultural Revolution 2.0 is sweeping through Hong Kong’s offices and schools

History repeating.
History repeating.
Image: AP/Kin Cheung
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Like many of his colleagues in the Hong Kong civil service, V. has a calendar pinned up in his office cubicle. But his stands out: it features a slogan supporting the city’s pro-democracy protest movement.

“My calendar keeps getting knocked over or covered up,” said V., who only wanted to be identified by his initial. Earlier this year, his boss told him his pro-protest calendar was inappropriate. V. refused to take it down, telling his boss the design of the calendar has nothing to do with his ability to do his job. So far, he hasn’t been punished, but he fears potential retribution.“Would someone take a photo of my desk and report me? As long as they think I’ve committed a crime, they can arrest and charge me.”

Less than a month after Beijing enacted a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, an intense fear is reverberating across the city’s workplaces over worries that every word and act may be scrutinized for being anti-government and anti-China. The new security legislation punishes those accused of vaguely defined crimes like secession and subversion, and gives police vastly expanded powers to surveil and investigate.

Article 33 of the law explicitly encourages those accused to provide information on other suspects, in exchange for lighter punishment if the information provides leads for other cases, effectively institutionalizing a culture of snitching that began in earnest during last year’s protests, most notably at airline Cathay Pacific. Some pro-government groups now openly solicit clues on suspected violators of the national security law, and the city’s former leader is even offering bounties.

Quartz spoke with nearly a dozen people across different professions who have described the current situation as a “Cultural Revolution 2.0″—a reference to the violent, decade-long campaign started by the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1966 to purge society of perceived enemies of communism and to consolidate his grip on power. The campaign relied on a pervasive culture of spying on and snitching out friends, family, and colleagues.

“It’ll cause Hong Kong to only have a singular voice,” V. said of the current atmosphere. “We used to have three groups: the opponents, the supporters, and the silent.” But now, with rampant censorship and surveillance, “the silenced will still be silent, the opponents will all have been arrested, and so only the supporters remain.”

Purging schools of political ‘viruses’

So far, Hong Kong’s schools appear to have borne the brunt of this incipient wave of political suppression. Teachers have been rebuked and fired for supporting the protest movement, and many have been targeted for making comments in the classroom or using language in test questions that are deemed to be anti-government. Almost 200 teachers have been investigated for alleged professional misconduct, with a third receiving punishment or warnings, according to the education minister.

Officials have in recent months intensified their rhetoric against the education sector, casting schools as having been “politicized” and “infiltrated” by wayward anti-China forces. An editorial in Beijing mouthpiece China Daily called for schools to be purged of “every ‘virus carrier’.” The government appears intent on wiping out any form of political dissent in schools, by urging staff to discipline students who chant slogans, sing “sensitive” songs, and take part in activities such as forming human chains.

Students form a human chain to protest the government on Sept. 24, 2019.
Students form a human chain to protest the government on Sept. 24, 2019.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva

A secondary school visual arts teacher who asked to be identified as Mr. Wong, and who regularly draws illustrations with biting political commentary, said he received an anonymous complaint in January about his “inappropriate” artwork. Though he wasn’t immediately punished, his school told him last month that his contract would not be renewed due to budgetary reasons.

Mr. Wong denies that his political cartoons encouraged students to take part in illegal protests, and accused the government of trying to stamp out all political opposition by instigating a wave of “white terror,” a term used to describe the period of repression during Taiwan’s dictatorship period. Though now unemployed, he’s determined to continue his artwork. “I don’t feel that I incited the students to do anything,” he said. “Quite the opposite. The students have incited me to keep drawing.”

In a statement to Quartz, a spokesperson for the education bureau said the bureau had over the past year received “quite a number” of complaints about teachers “using hate speech… weaving into teaching materials messages of hatred, insult or unfounded accusations of… the [p]olice and the [g]overnment,” but emphasized that each case is “treated fairly.” The spokesperson added that teachers should “show respect for the law and the behavioural norms acceptable to society.”

Teachers who have not yet been directly targeted say they are walking on eggshells. A liberal studies teacher at a secondary school, who asked to be identified as Louise, said she is under intense pressure when planning her classes and setting homework. As a wide-ranging school course designed to teach critical thinking, officials have zeroed in on liberal studies as the reason for what they say is the radicalization of students. And with shifting red lines and no clear rules from the government, Louise said she is unsure which topics can be safely discussed and which are regarded as political third rails. She fears that issues like corruption, rule of law, and judicial independence could put her on shaky ground. Even environmental issues could be risky, she said, because it touches on issues of governance.

“But if we don’t talk about this, there’s nothing else to talk about,” said Louise, and compared the mood in schools to the Cultural Revolution. “The control of thoughts is very strict.”  

Hospital witch-hunt

Political suppression has crept into the medical sector, too, as doctors and nurses say they’re being forced to navigate a political minefield even as they scramble to deal with a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

A surgeon at a public hospital said that supervisors at her hospital have been given orders to draw up a list of names of staffers with unexplained absences over the past several months—what she called a “witch hunt” for those who participated in strikes held earlier in the year to demand stricter border controls to fight the pandemic.

“People are obviously scared,” she said. “People who boycotted knew that that was a risk. But now under the national security law, are these people going to be prosecuted?” Rumors have circulated that medical workers will have to swear an oath of allegiance to the government, the surgeon said—something she finds “ridiculous” because the only oath they should pledge is the Hippocratic one.

Medical staff protest against police brutality on Aug. 13, 2019.
Medical staff protest against police brutality on Aug. 13, 2019.
Image: AP/Kin Cheung

At the city’s Eastern Hospital, a doctor said she and her colleagues recently came under a barrage of complaints from the police earlier this month after an injured officer who was treated at the hospital filed a complaint against a nurse who wore a pro-protest pin and name badge. In response, hospital management quickly ordered staffers to take down all protest-related stickers from desks and office doors, the doctor said. She continues to wear a subtle tag emblazoned with the word “resist,” but acknowledges that doctors can be “subject to complaints at any point, or be snitched on.”

The incident comes shortly after police officers filed complaints against the local Red Cross over a staffer who was spotted wearing anti-police accessories during a blood transfusion drive at a police facility. The Red Cross was forced to apologize.

A spokesperson for the hospital authority said public hospital healthcare staff “should demonstrate professionalism to provide equitable service to all citizens indiscriminately.”

Total loyalty

Among the dozens of protests large and small that took place last year, one in particular appears to have struck a raw nerve with the authorities, when one August evening thousands of civil servants took part in a rally in a stinging rebuke against the government. The repercussions of that are mounting, with the government reiterating its demand for “total loyalty” from civil servants.

An administrative officer, part of an elite corps of policymakers, said that verbal orders have been passed down the chain of command in recent days directing all employees to remove protest-related posters and stickers from their office desks. Those who refused to do so would be invited for “friendly chats” with senior managers.

The administrative officer, who asked to be identified as P., said they have for months grappled with whether to quit their job, torn between the haunting prospect of colluding with and “condoning something that’s evil” and holding out hope that they could try to push for changes, however incremental, from within the system. And even if they did quit, they wondered, wouldn’t they just be replaced by someone who’s willing to toe the government line?

Thousands of civil servants held a protest against the government on Aug. 2, 2019.
Thousands of civil servants held a protest against the government on Aug. 2, 2019.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A spokesperson for the civil service bureau reiterated that civil servants must serve the chief executive and the government with “total loyalty” and that their actions in public “will not give rise to any actual, perceived or potential conflict of interest with their official position or duties.”

P. said they recently tried to brainstorm with a colleague ways in which junior policymakers like themselves could make it harder for the government to increase the police budget, amid the current economic crisis and widespread public distrust of the police force. But P. said they ultimately realized their efforts would be futile, because the establishment sees security as a top priority and someone higher up would easily approve more funding.

For now, P. is staying on the job. But the question of when there would be no choice but to quit is never far from mind, particularly as officials move to require all civil servants to swear an oath of allegiance to the government.

“It’s very hard to say what exactly your break point is,” said P. “Your bottom line shifts. You can decide on what the bottom line is, and when things reach that line, you realize you’ve softened a bit.”