One thought struck me early on in my stint here in Hong Kong: once my mainland Chinese students are exposed to the freedom of speech, freedom of expression – and the freedom to surf the Internet! – how difficult would it be to return to the restrictions back home? Once your mind has been pried open to all the possibilities, how can you tolerate having it shut closed?
For example, one of the first things they do upon arrival here is to open a Facebook account, an act forbidden on the mainland. As are YouTube, Twitter and a slew of other social-media and news sites.
Imagine not being able to buy a history book about your own people, in your own country, but just across the border. For me, in fact, it’s unimaginable. One Chinese colleague says the lecture he enjoys most is when he shares with wide-eyed students everything they can’t learn back home.
So, with my last few weeks in Hong Kong, I’ve been asking some of my mainlanders: What next?
Over a bubbling “hot pot” soup in a local dai-pai-dong – an open-air street restaurant – several of my students were unsurprisingly torn between a desire to return to family, friends and hometown, or trying to stay in Hong Kong to find an unfettered media job.
Going home, said one young woman from the north, would be “like being a human being, then going back to being a primate.” Said another, who hails from just across the border, in Shenzhen, added, “Once I’ve learned about all the resources out there, I don’t want to have them taken away from me.”
A third, though, indicated that despite everything she’s learned here, she would surely return to her beloved coastal city – resume keeping her head down. “If I were to blog about sensitive topics, I could be put in jail,” she said. “And I wouldn’t want to risk my life for that, or get my family into trouble.”
One day I myself will return to the Middle Kingdom, to see how – if at all – our students have applied our lessons in “democratic” journalism.