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Hong Kong, March 19, 2024.  © AP Photo/Louise Delmotte, File

“What should I do with those copies of Apple Daily?”

Someone in Hong Kong who I was chatting with on the phone recently had suddenly dropped her voice to ask that question, referring to the pro-democracy newspaper that the government forced to shut down in 2021.

“Should I toss them or send them to you?”

My conversations with Hong Kong friends are peppered with such whispers these days. Last week, the city enacted a draconian security law — its second serious legislative assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms since 2020. Known as Article 23, the new law criminalizes such vague behavior as the possession of information that is “directly or indirectly useful to an external force.”

Hong Kong was once a place where people did not live in fear. It had rule of law, a rowdy press and a semi-democratic Legislature that kept the powerful in check. The result was a city with a freewheeling energy unmatched in China. Anyone who grew up in China in the 1980s and 1990s could sing the Cantopop songs of Hong Kong stars like Anita Mui, and that was a problem for Beijing: Freedom was glamorous, desirable.

When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the city’s people accepted, in good faith, Beijing’s promises that its capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years and that the city would move toward universal suffrage in the election of its leader.

Not anymore. Now Hong Kong people are quietly taking precautions, getting rid of books, T-shirts, film footage, computer files and other documents from the heady days when the international financial center was also known for its residents’ passionate desire for freedom.

I used to joke that I never needed to watch dystopian thrillers like “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “The Hunger Games.” As someone who has lived and worked for years in Hong Kong and China, I know what it feels like to descend into deepening repression, remembering our free lives.

As Beijing kept breaking its promises over the years, Hong Kongers took to the streets to defend their freedoms nearly every sweltering summer.

In 2003, demonstrations of half a million people forced Hong Kong’s government to shelve an earlier attempt to introduce Article 23. In 2014, hundreds of thousands peacefully occupied parts of the city for 79 days to protest moves by Beijing to ensure only candidates acceptable to the Communist Party could run for election as Hong Kong’s top leader.

But Hong Kongers were unprepared for the coming of President Xi Jinping of China, the architect of another frightening crackdown far away on the other side of the country.

In 2017, I started to receive reports that Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities were disappearing into “political education” camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. People who had managed to get out told me how Xinjiang’s borders were suddenly closed, escape was becoming impossible and that speech or behavior that was once acceptable — like simply praying at a neighbor’s house — could get you jailed. Officials would enter homes to inspect books and decorations. Uyghurs were discarding copies of the Quran or books written in Arabic, fearing they would be disappeared or jailed for insufficient loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. One man told me he had burned a T-shirt with a map of Kazakhstan on it — many of Xinjiang’s inhabitants are ethnic Kazakhs with family ties across the border — as any foreign connection had become risky.

As these stories of repression and fear emerged from Xinjiang, they were instantly recognizable in Hong Kong.

In 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would have allowed extradition to China. Fear and anger — and the feeling that Hong Kong people needed to make one last stand while they could — exploded into months of protest.

One of the 2019 protest slogans — “Today’s Xinjiang is tomorrow’s Hong Kong”— sounded to me like hyperbole at the time. Now, five years later, it feels prescient. Today, it’s Hong Kongers who are disposing of dangerous books and T-shirts. Some people I know have quietly left an online chat group that includes foreign organizations and individuals; such contact could put the group’s Hong Kong members at risk. Others are quitting social media; tens of thousands have already left Hong Kong.

After Beijing imposed the National Security Law in Hong Kong in 2020, it used the law to decimate the city’s pro-democracy movement by jailing its leaders. More than 1,000 people remain in jail. Fearful of arrest, independent labor unions and media outlets disbanded. Libraries pulled hundreds of books off shelves. Films and plays were censored. Civil servants can no longer stay neutral but are forced to pledge allegiance to the government.

Both the National Security Law and Article 23, passed last week, are broad, vague and blunt instruments intended to critically wound civil liberties and transform institutions that protected people’s freedoms into tools of repression. Under Article 23, anyone found guilty of participating in a meeting of a “prohibited organization,” or who discloses “unlawful” and vaguely defined “state secrets,” could face a decade behind bars.

Beijing has couched this repression in terms like “rule of law,” and visitors to Hong Kong often fail to recognize the transformations taking place beneath the enduring glitz of the city. That leaves the rest of the world detached from the reality on the ground — unable to sympathize with Beijing’s victims or to feel their breathlessness under this growing weight.

One acquaintance in Hong Kong told me that people he knew had become blasé about their sudden loss of freedom and were just coldly watching the destruction of the city and what it stood for. But others, toughened over the years, still express hope and defiance. The solidarity forged through nearly two decades of widespread activism won’t die easily. A Pew Research Center survey this month found that more than 80 percent of Hong Kongers still want democracy, however remote that possibility looks today.

The Chinese government wants the world to forget about Hong Kong, to forget what the city once was, to forget Beijing’s broken promises. But Hong Kong’s people will never forget. Don’t look away.

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