Hong Kong’s national security police has put opposition politicians behind bars, chased activists into exile and threatened them with bounties, atomized civil society, and decimated the Hong Kong independent media. Now, it has a new target: the Cantonese language.
Gongjyuhok, a Hong Kong advocacy group that promotes the use of Cantonese, announced on Monday (Aug. 28) it is shutting down after national security police last week entered the founder’s former home, where his relatives now live. The group—whose name translates to “Cantonese study”—was founded in 2013 with the mission of “protecting the language rights of Hong Kong people.”
In a statement (link in Chinese), Gongjyuhok founder Andrew Chan said authorities conducted a warrantless search of the home and accused the group of violating Hong Kong’s national security law by publishing a fictional story.
In an email to Quartz, Chan confirmed that the story in question is “Our Time,” by an author named Siu Gaa. It was one of 18 shortlisted entries in a 2020 writing competition hosted by Gongjyuhok and sponsored by the Hong Kong government. Citing legal pressures, Chan took down the story from the Gongjyuhok website, but an archived version (link in Chinese; translation here) is still available.
“I think promoting local culture in Hong Kong is indeed rather dangerous, because even Gongjyuhok is being accused of being pro–Hong Kong independence and anti-China,” Chan told Quartz.
Cantonese is the lingua franca of Hong Kong, and is intimately tied to Hong Kongers’ identity as distinct from the mostly Mandarin-speaking mainland. As part of Beijing’s campaign to fully control Hong Kong, officials have pushed for wider use of Mandarin, including in schools.
Language can also facilitate political resistance—and pose a threat to authoritarian rulers, who manipulate language to distort reality and erase inconvenient truths.
During Hong Kong’s 2019 protests, Cantonese slang played a crucial role in fostering solidarity and strengthening protesters’ shared identity. Cantonese also powered political satire, serving as a grassroots weapon for undermining government authority.
Gongjyuhok’s effort to protect and promote the Cantonese language stands in direct defiance of Beijing’s ongoing effort to repress the linguistic identity of Hong Kong.
The state’s censorship of a fictional story comes amid a broader campaign of cultural repression. The government has sought to ban the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong,” purged books from public libraries, jailed speech therapists for authoring a “seditious” children’s book, and passed a law to allow film censorship on national security grounds.
The short story accused of violating the national security law, “Our Time,” is set in a dystopian 2050. It tells of an authoritarian future in which vast swaths of Hong Kong history have been erased from both the city’s structures and the public consciousness, and all aspects of life are subsumed under the Chinese Communist Party.
One of the two characters is a twenty-something named Gwong Zai, whose parents emigrated to the UK in 2020—the year the national security law was enforced. The parents recently passed away due to health complications caused by “[inhaling] too much Chinese-made tear gas in their youth.”
After finding an old notebook filled with his parents’ writings from decades prior describing pre-authoritarian Hong Kong, Gwong Zai travels to the city for the first time to retrace his parents’ footsteps.
He encounters a young woman, Siu Sze, who is surprised by how much he knows about Hong Kong’s past. “I have not seen local people so familiar with Hong Kong’s stories for a long time,” she tells him, hinting at a mass state-enforced amnesia.
Before they part, she gives him a book she had been reading. In the book is a poem that reads: “The struggle between man and totalitarianism is the struggle between memory and forgetting.”