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As China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, the city's identity is changing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

These are the sounds of Hong Kong's first authorized protests in three years. Back in March, roughly 80 people were marching in opposition to a land reclamation project. Police were watching closely, and the demonstrators had to wear numbered badges around their necks as they walked in the rain. The whole scene was a far cry from the hundreds of thousands that protested back in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

CHANG: Back then, Hong Kongers were loud about what they saw as China tightening its grip on their city. The journalist Louisa Lim covered China for the BBC and NPR for a decade and remembers covering what she calls boisterous protest rallies in Hong Kong. She recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about how drastically things have changed there. Welcome.

LOUISA LIM: Oh, it's so nice to be here, Ailsa.

CHANG: It's so nice to have you, Louisa. You know, for a long time, protests have been sort of a hallmark of what makes Hong Kong, Hong Kong, right? And you covered many of those protests decades ago. What was it like for you to see the footage of these 80 people just quietly marching in the rain?

LIM: It was actually shocking. I mean, as you say, protests are really a hallmark of what Hong Kong has been. You know, it's been a city of protest. Even tiny issues, people have come out on the streets and really made use of the freedoms that had been available to them. And I think, you know, what we see now is that ability to protest has been so drastically constrained. I mean, they were not allowed to have too many people. They had to carry like a police tape around them as they marched, moving it like a moving...

CHANG: Cordoning themselves.

LIM: Cordoning themselves off from other people. And they were also warned, you know, not to wear black or yellow, the colors of the massive protests four years ago. So it was a very different kind of protest and, I mean, that maybe the future of protest in Hong Kong.

CHANG: Well, you write that authorities, I mean, they're not just changing the way people in Hong Kong protests now, they're rewriting Hong Kong's history, right? You call it, quote, "state-induced amnesia." Can you tell us what you mean by that phrase?

LIM: Well, I mean, it's really interesting because we are seeing history being rewritten in real time. But of course, they are things that just happened four years ago, so they are things that we saw playing out. And now we're seeing this attempt to change the narrative from the top down. You know, one example is suppression of journalists. At least 12 media outlets have been shut down or have had to shut themselves down for fear because of this national security legislation that was imposed in 2020. And, you know, when they shut down, some of them removed all of their archive from the internet. So, you know, that was literally the disappearance of history. And we're also seeing history books literally being rewritten, children being taught different history in schools. And, you know, the biggest example of that is Hong Kong was a British colony for 156 years.

CHANG: Right.

LIM: Now, China is saying Hong Kong was never a colony because China did not accept the treaties. It calls them unequal treaties under which Hong Kong was ceded to the British. And so it's describing Hong Kong as not a colony, but more like occupied territory.

CHANG: By the British?

LIM: By the British. I think Beijing's really trying to impose its narrative in Hong Kong and doing it in a very coercive fashion.

CHANG: I mean, you live in Australia right now, but you have friends who still live in Hong Kong. What do they tell you about like how their day-to-day life has changed just in the last few years?

LIM: I think there's a lot of fear. I hear from people that, even with their closest friends, they often don't talk about politics anymore, often with family members, because there are generational differences, and often because they simply don't dare. You know, I had a friend who told me that they wanted to like a Facebook post about my book, but they didn't dare because they just didn't know if their internet was being surveilled.

CHANG: Wow.

LIM: And that really brought it home to me just how, even the most simple action, people are now having to sort of second guess, should I do this? Is there a consequence? And that's why we're seeing this massive outflow of Hong Kongers. You know, hundreds of thousands have left in the past few years. Population has shrunk for three years in a row. Some schools are facing closure because they've lost so many students. So I think what we're seeing is that people are just voting with their feet. And for those who remain inside Hong Kong, you know, life just looks more and more constrained. This new order is being imposed, and I think the space to resist it is shrinking very, very fast.

CHANG: Louisa Lim is a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of "Indelible City: Dispossession And Defiance In Hong Kong." Thank you so much, Louisa.

LIM: Oh, thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.