A philosopher from Hong Kong taught the meaning of life. Now he visits students in prison.

Taking a group photo with students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2012, prominent political philosopher Chow Po Chung joked that he hoped none of them ended up in jail. in 10 years.

The group burst out laughing.

Mr. Chow, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, had the mainland students in mind. He had never expected that it would be two Hong Kongers who would end up in prison nearly a decade later.

A year after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the territory to crush opposition to the ruling Communist Party, visiting friends and former students in prison is now part of its routine.

A bestselling author and public scholar whose impassioned books and speeches have influenced many young pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Chow said the security law changed his life.

He is sad, angry, guilty, depressed, sometimes proud and hopeful. He wonders if he should still encourage his students to actively participate in public affairs, as that could lead to job loss and jail time. He must remember not to let fear creep into his life, like self-censorship in the classroom. At the same time, he must assess the risks he is taking and the limits he could push back.

Its psychological trauma and moral dilemma opens a window to a city of seven million that has experienced a precipitous fall from a relatively free and defiant community to one ruled by authoritarianism in the past year.

Hong Kong has suffered too much injustice, he said, making the city less and less familiar. “The core values ​​of the whole city have collapsed,” he said. “They were destroyed.

Mr. Chow has been deeply involved in the city’s pro-democracy movement. While in high school, he protested the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. He taught John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice at the 2014 Umbrella Movement website and was briefly arrested on the last day of the pro-democracy demonstration. He attended numerous protests in 2019 as an observer, watching Beijing ruthlessly crack down. All of them failed and the security law dealt the final blow.

“Things that shouldn’t have happened in a normal society have happened,” he said in an interview from his home on the campus of Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I’m talking about the most remarkable people, the kind of people who should be seen as role models, are attacked and sentenced to prison.”

For two decades, Mr. Chow has encouraged his students to examine the meaning of life and to become active, conscientious citizens who help build societies based on values ​​such as justice and freedom.

I asked him if he was teaching the same now. He paused for almost a minute and opened his mouth several times before saying he had stopped telling his students to be active participants.

“Of course, I always tell them to care about society and be responsible for their lives,” he said. “But it is no longer easy to tell them what to do because participating in political and public affairs has become a very risky act.”

Mr. Chow appreciated the kind of opportunities and freedom that Hong Kong offered its residents. Born in the southern province of Guangdong, he emigrated to the former British colony in 1985 at the age of 16. His family lived in a poor area of ​​Kowloon, but he prospered academically and enrolled at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

He started teaching at his alma mater in 2002 and has grown into one of the most popular teachers, known for his passionate and highly engaged classes.

One of his students, Michael Ngan, said he was influenced by Mr. Chow’s teaching, especially Socrates ‘saying that he likes to quote:’ A life without exams is not worth it. to be lived.

Such a philosophy prompted Mr. Ngan to make an important decision in his life this year. He is one of 129 officials who resigned after refusing to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong government, saying the request violated their freedom of expression.

“His teaching enlightened me,” said Mr. Ngan. “Professor Chow taught us that we only have one life to live and that we have to make the most of it.” However, he stressed, Mr. Chow never urged his students to get into politics.

Such sacrifices sadden Mr. Chow. They inspire him too. “Many people use different means to protect the soul, values ​​and dignity of this city,” he said.

He is proud that many residents continue to protest with their wallets by shopping in stores owned by pro-democracy activists and donating to a humanitarian fund for 2019 protesters who need medical treatment and legal representation.

But it is more and more difficult to keep hope. Many days of the past year have started with bad news. The day before our meeting in early May, four pro-democracy activists were sentenced to prison terms for participating in an unauthorized rally last year. One of them is Lester Shum, a former student.

To show his support, Mr. Chow goes to court hearings and visits people like Mr. Shum in prison. He discovered that prisons can be very different. The women’s prison where Chow Koot-yin (unrelated), another former student, was imprisoned almost looks like an office complex. Another, where activist Gwyneth Ho is waiting to be sentenced, looks stern, with high walls.

The most surreal is the Stanley Men’s Prison, an upscale neighborhood on the southern tip of Hong Kong Island. More than 30 political activists, including Apple Daily newspaper magnate Jimmy Lai, are imprisoned there. Visitors walk past beautiful mansions before reaching the facility. Some mornings the waiting room feels like a social gathering, with visitors holding coffee from a vending machine and chatting for hours.

“It was both absurd and sad,” said Mr. Chow. “It almost looks like a scene from a movie.”

Her online life has changed a lot as well. Its 45,000 Facebook followers posted pictures of their trips and meals. Not much more. “The city is suffering,” he said. “People feel guilty for enjoying life. “

His Facebook timeline is also a fear barometer. When the security law went into effect a year ago, Mr Chow saw that some of his supporters changed their names to pseudonyms or deleted their timelines while others shut down their Facebook accounts completely so that authorities cannot prosecute them because of their publications. Now his timeline is full of names he doesn’t recognize.

Even Mr. Chow’s Facebook timeline has changed. He mostly repostes other people’s posts instead of writing originals because, he says, he doesn’t know how to talk about his pains.

He barely wrote any articles, let alone a book. His last book, published in June 2019 in a whirlwind of protests, was “Our Golden Times”. When I asked him if he would use the same title now, he paused for a really long time. Probably not, he replied. “This is probably the start of our worst times.”

Learning to live with fear is the most difficult. Mr Chow admitted that he had wondered whether he should choose his words more carefully during class and whether he should accept my request for an interview.

“I tell myself not to let self-censorship become the police in my heart,” he said, “and not to let fear control my life and my thinking.”

“Once he gets in,” he added. “It will be difficult to get rid of it. “

Despite the enormous adversity, Mr Chow believes that as long as people keep fighting, it will not be the end of the story for Hong Kong.

After police banned the annual vigil for the Tiananmen Massacre for the second year, democracy advocates tried new ways – including lighting candles and glowing cellphone lights – to observe it.

“I don’t know what Beijing looked like after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989,” he said. “But after the National Security Law, after the many arrests, after all the setbacks, the repression and the trauma, the spirit of defiance persists in Hong Kong.”

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