The news today that in Hong Kong 47 pro-democracy politicians are to be charged with conspiracy to subvert state power is deeply depressing. Their crime? Organising and participating in primaries to identify the candidates with the best chance of winning seats in an upcoming election to the Legislative Council. An election that in any event never took place, with Covid used as a smokescreen. Just when you think that things can’t get any worse in Hong Kong, somehow they do.
When I started writing On Borrowed Time back in 2015, I knew that the future of Hong Kong was something that I wanted to address. The novel is set at the time of the transfer of Hong Kong to China and I couldn’t ignore the anxieties and concerns that people had back then. For those of us with foreign passports perhaps it wasn’t such an issue, but even we spoke with an uncertain confidence of the future. Locals ranged from those who were happy to serve their new masters as they had been the British – notwithstanding that many were from families who had fled Communist China in the 1950s and 60s – to those who made sure they had their potential escape routes mapped out with Canadian and Australian passports. In between the vast majority just had to get on with life and hope for the best.
The characters in On Borrowed Time reflect those concerns: Sam, the lawyer, confident that business will continue, Alice’s family unsure whether to stay or move to Vancouver, Kelvin anxious to protect the Hong Kong he loves. But did any of them guess just how badly things would turn out? I doubt it – certainly their creator didn’t – and yet so many of the things I included in the book as fiction are now fact:
Denial of work visas as a political weapon.
Chinese security agents operating freely in Hong Kong.
Covert surveillance through tapping phones of general public.
Intimidation of journalists.
But in my wildest dreams I never imagined that identifying the best candidates to run in what was already a flawed election to a flawed legislature would be an illegal act.
My seventeen years in Hong Kong gave me a deep love for the city and its people. It is a city that I owe so much to, and at the risk of sounding overly sentimental there will always be a place for it in my heart. But my love for Hong Kong means that the pain I feel at the moment is all the deeper.