My father was a manual worker, and my mother was a housekeeper. My father fled to Hong Kong in his 20s to escape the Cultural Revolution [*1] and the famine that it caused. At the time, British Hong Kong granted a Hong Kong identity card to those who successfully snuck past the border, and that was why my father was able to settle in the city and begin a new life. My mother, meanwhile, stayed in mainland China for longer but ultimately decided to secretly come to Hong Kong to take care of me after I was born.
I lived my entire life in Tuen Mun, an area located in the New Territories[*2] with tall mountains, and I spent a lot of time hiking with my father, as well as swimming in the local lakes. My father also enjoyed feeding the local bees to get honey, and at one point, we even rented a small farm to grow fresh vegetables.
My hometown also makes a special dish called Tuen Mun sticky noodles; nowhere in the world could I find anything that tastes as good as those noodles. I am part of a new generation of HongKongers who were born here in a new life my family built when they fled from the mainland. My father worked several jobs throughout my childhood, including making toys and being a plumber tradesman. He did this for almost 20 years. We always had to work hard to get by, but gradually, because of my parents’ hard work and sacrifice, our standard of living improved, and my two sisters and I were able to change our destiny through education.
PRESERVING ‘COLLECTIVE MEMORY’
My parents, being from mainland China, mainly focused on the immigrant society of Hong Kong and, as such, viewed their identity as Chinese rather than a Hongkonger. Other young people and I held similar views, particularly in 2008, when the Beijing Olympics made us more confident that China would be successful and wealthy as a nation. However, since then, Hongkongers, especially the young, are more concerned with preserving their own heritage; they call it their ‘collective memory’, which they believe is being removed in dribs and drabs since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997[*3]. This has gradually morphed into a sense of belonging to this place; a sense of belonging to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not just a place to make quick money and leave; it is a place that belongs to us, and we must make it better. It is the desire to fight for this sense of belonging that has emerged among many young people in Hong Kong, including myself.
MAKING A CHOICE – WORKING FOR THE UK
Despite being a British National Overseas[*4], I never internalised my British nationality until I came to London to pursue a master’s degree in political economy. Back then, I was touched by multiple stories of human rights advocates suffering persecution in China during my time in London, and it sparked my desire to engage in politics to help both Hongkongers and others suffering around the world. However, I later realised that my identity as a Hongkonger meant that I could not work in a UK diplomatic post. At the same time, it was difficult for me to get involved in Hong Kong politics, as I would have to sacrifice my other career options.
I was therefore forced to make a choice around what work I could do to help Hong Kong despite my restrictions. I also saw international business as a way to try and help my city using my skills without getting involved in politics directly. This was how I ended up representing Scottish businesses and investors to China through the UK consulate. While I cannot be a diplomat, I thought I could still use my economic background to help Hongkongers in another way.
Following my arrest in Shenzhen[*5], I always had a sense that the state security services intended to charge me politically and force me to confess to British involvement in the Hong Kong protest movement. Instead, they decided to charge me with soliciting prostitution. I found this something of a relief as it showed that they had not decided whether they could charge me for political crimes as they intended. It gave me hope that there was now time for me to try and secure my release and for those outside to pressure the government to let me go.
I do not know of any civilised country that treats suspects in the fashion that I was treated. The secret police will use all means at their disposal to try and force people to confess to trumped-up charges. I am not regretful for the confession I made, because I now realise that the outcome could have been worse and it also allowed me to access medical treatment during my time in detention. However, confession means I am still subject to bullying, both by netizens and the Chinese state media. Nonetheless, forcibly admitting to a false crime may have saved me from political charges and a harsher penalty.
My experience also made me realise that China has not changed over the decades. Under Mao’s ruling, landlords, “counter-revolutionaries”, and others would be profiled to whip up public anger against them. What happened to me was just a subtly-disguised version of that. Using charges such as soliciting prostitution are ways the Chinese government try to undermine your career and social life. They try to destroy your reputation so others will not listen to you. They label me as anti-China because I have criticised ‘one country, two systems’. They have also said I support the independence of Hong Kong and Taiwan, even though I have never made such statements. It is all part of their intention to block any attempt I make to have a political career, as they were not able to imprison me to prevent it.
If my family and my girlfriend had not told my story to the international media, I am not sure that I would have been released. At the time, some in my family were worried that telling my story would have made my situation worse, but if they had not, I could have disappeared forever. My family and friends in mainland China have come under intense pressure as a result of their relationships with me, to the point that they no longer tell anyone that they ever knew me. I also took photos down from social media to protect my friends from retaliation both by the Chinese state government and netizens.
Comforting to some extent, I still would receive supportive messages from friends in mainland China saying that they l believe my story; however, they would never come out and defend me publicly. My mother has also asked me why I was so public about my experience to the international media. She called me and asked, “Why did you have to do it? Do you have to speak about it so much?” I can sympathise with her mentality, as she is the only member of my immediate family to have relatives on the mainland. While she did not admit it, I fear that her family may have been under the watch of the Chinese secret police. It is for their safety that I decided to publicly cut ties with my family. I want to make sure that the Chinese authorities will not harass my family anymore. It was a tough decision, but it was necessary.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
I’m not sure whether I will be able to talk to my family again. Members of the UK embassy have told me that once I am on the list of the Chinese authorities, I face long-term risks for myself and my family’s safety. My family also does not like to be bothered; I have suggested that they move to either London or Taiwan so they can see me again, but they just want to be left alone in Tuen Mun to live their lives. I hope that we can reunite with each other someday, and no matter how bleak the future is, I still have hope, since without it, I would be left with guilt. I chose to speak out; I decided to stand up to the authorities, for democracy and for freedom. However, as things have unfolded at the expense of my family, and that is what I feel most guilty about.
HONGKONGERS, ‘HANG IN THERE’
I am not the only Hongkongers who have been kidnapped and gone missing without an explanation. To those who are still fighting for the truth, I will say, ‘hang in there’.
I have been tortured. I have been put into solitary confinement, but I got through it, and although I now face a hostile state and hostile media, I will take it. I am willing to take it. I have sacrificed my family, my career, and my personal safety to speak out. I do not regret it, and I want to show the world the details of the system that I and others have suffered for the sake of speaking the truth.
And if you believe in the importance of freedom of speech, you should never ever give up.
I am Simon Cheng, I am a HKer.
[*1] The Cultural Revolution was a period of social and political upheaval in Communist China between 1966 and 1976 that is estimated to have killed up to 20 million people
[*2] The New Territories include a region of wetlands, parks and mountains in northern Hong Kong, bordering the People’s Republic of China, as well as several outlying islands such as Lantau in the southwest
[*3] Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997
[*4] British National Overseas (BNO) is a class of UK citizenship that was offered to Hong Kong residents after the 1997 transfer of the territory to China. Although BNOs are UK nationals, they do not have an automatic right to live in the UK
[*5] In August 2019, Cheng was abducted by Chinese authorities in Shenzhen and held in detention for 15 days