Hong Kong rarely has cold spells, but 2019 was shaping to be a chilly and combustible year.
Anti-government protesters have grown increasingly agitated, while unchecked police force has led to widespread international condemnation. Two university campuses have literally gone up in flames, the sieges leading to an unprecedented cooling of international relations and US sanctions. The University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) historic campus, where Dr. Karen Mak serves as a Lecturer, was thankfully spared aside from a few skirmishes. But the lines were increasingly blurred, between what was happening and what could happen, academia and battleground, hopeful innocence and subdued despair.
And so, a few weeks before Christmas, for her annual crime fiction assignment, Dr. Karen Mak asked her Forensic Science class students one question: How does one die?
One group of students countered: What if they got murdered by the Police?
The answer to that would be an autopsy with no bottom line, no morals, and no end in sight.
Speaking up and speaking out is becoming more precarious than ever before in this freewheeling city, even for scientists. Dr. Mak happens to be one of the most public-facing and outspoken science figures in town. She became most well-known as a guest expert on “Sidewalk Scientist”, a prime-time variety show on TVB, Hong Kong’s dominant television broadcaster, bringing the publicity off network television as an internet personality.
I grew up a big fan of the “Sidewalk Scientist” when I was a kid, and I met Dr. Mak once in passing as a high-schooler at a science conference. But those were simpler times. By the time we finally met over Google Meet, I was 8,000 miles away in Atlanta, unable and unwilling to return home during the COVID-19 pandemic; Dr. Mak was, presumably, in one of Hong Kong’s many micro-apartments, preparing for “Science Night”, a weekly late-night talk show that she co-hosts on RTHK, Hong Kong’s increasingly embattled public broadcaster, or planning for the upcoming academic year.
This public-facing part of her career started with an email from her supervisor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, where she was formerly employed. An unpaid, underappreciated, and time-consuming experience researching for “Sidewalk Scientist” eventually landed her more camera-facing opportunities on the program. The original concept of “Sidewalk Scientist” can at best be described as an arranged marriage between “Charlie’s Angels” and “Emily’s Wonder Lab”, the popular new Netflix show. Despite being a sustained ratings success over the mid-2010s, as a trained scientist, Dr. Mak became acutely aware of the program’s flaws.
Shootings of three to four hours usually get hastily condensed into three- to four-minute fragments; Hongkongers have the reputation of being always in a hurry and perhaps so do TV producers who make science-adjacent programs. Dr. Mak recalled how her concerns over whether the heavily edited final product adequately explains the scientific truth would be dismissed by the producer (they claimed that the audience “would understand”). “In retrospect, we scientists were taken advantage of. Science was used as an attraction, and that somehow made the show incredibly popular. Perhaps the audience thought that they could learn a lot from watching the show, but from a rigorous scientific point of view, the director fumbled with the explanation.”
“Sometimes when I watch interviews of other academics I would go, ‘why would they explain a scientific concept like that?’ But as I had more experience with my interviews being heavily edited, I understood that many decisions were made under time constraints. What I thought as the gist of the walkthrough, the directors didn’t really want to let the audience know. They’d rather me ‘dumb’ down’ the content.”
By the time she moved across Victoria Harbour for her current institution around 2015, Dr. Mak took the plunge and started posting videos on Facebook. Acting as her own producer, editor, and visual director, Dr. Mak introduced science deep dives to an audience hiding in plain sight — the Cantonese speakers who compose the majority of Hong Kong’s population.
Cantonese is a core part of the Hongkonger identity because it is largely mutually unintelligible with Mandarin, the official language of Mainland China, and by extension, much of the Chinese-speaking world. However, there is nothing new about the erasing of languages and cultural identities anywhere touched by the Chinese Communist Government. A handful of neighboring Southern Chinese cities also use Cantonese as their lingua franca, most notably Guangdong (also known as Canton), but they have seen increasing crackdown by Mainland authorities. The trilingual former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, all of 440.7 square miles (1139.9 km^2) of land, are now the final lifeline of Cantonese’s quasi-official status.
Hongkongers know that their language is surviving on borrowed time, which, until very recently, was protected by the freedoms of thought, of speech, and of the media. Influencers and young people would openly mock Mainland Chinese loanwords, and high school graduates take the Hong Kong Diploma for Secondary Education (HKDSE), which has the only compulsory Cantonese-based oral examination in the entire world. Even though science courses are taught in English at HKU, the defiant establishment of Cantonese footholds has crept into the science scene.
Dr. Mak observed that there used to be no science sections in mainstream media, and her peers are only called on to comment on major public health scandals regarding pollution, food poisoning, and since the Umbrella Revolution, the unchecked use of crowd control equipment on mostly peaceful protestors. So with her trusty MacBook Air, she started experimenting with ways to talk about science with an emphasis on using the Cantonese language: no TV ratings as a benchmark, no focus groups for feedback, and no syllabus to follow, but creative freedom for informative and engaging science content. Started off by responding to what she had said on “Sidewalk Scientists”, Dr. Mak soon veered off with a blend of low-effort memes and themed science videos.
“The hardest part is that after work, I have to first read and translate the abstract of my references into Cantonese, then go online and grab some pictures, and finally create the slides and transitions that would be in the video. My deep dives are hence produced in fits and starts. I can make them if I have all day!”
The tradeoff of television exposure for more organic engagement worked. Dr. Mak now has one of the largest reaches of any female science communicator in the world, when adjusted by population and mother language. Dr. Mak has a soapbox for everything from atoms to the International Year of the Periodic Table and combating misinformation, and people are listening.
Those were simpler times though, and now people trust her to the point that they want more from her than just science.
Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been both on full throttle and on survival mode since June 2019, when two separate million-people marches galvanized opposition against the Extradition Bill. Echoing Bruce Lee’s mantra of “Be Water”, protesters and sympathizers, from bankers to bartenders, have worked to make a stand across all professions and disciplines.
About this time, Dr. Mak got an opportunity to return to television: a colleague in her office has been a regular on “Science Night”. By the time she was brought on board, the team consisted of more than a dozen experts across college campuses and disciplines. They were early adopters of planning shows through virtual collaboration (as a result of the college sieges, students were sent home during the Fall), with spreadsheets to assign potential topics to various experts and for producers to reserve studios. As with many science communicators, time is of the essence; getting fellow guest experts to spend their time for shootings can be a chore. But it was much more intellectually rewarding for her, her team, and her audience: “Was it geeky? No, but talking about the wonders of science is just rewarding!”
Enjoying more creative input, spurred by contemporary issues, and egged on by popular demand, Dr. Mak and her fellow show writers steered the RTHK show to confront the intersection of science and society. They started bringing in experts to discuss the science behind crowd suppression tools and the bone trauma that may or may not have resulted from them. The series was renewed in early 2020, and they immediately set off writing scripts involving discussions of the science behind plagues, freedom, resistance and, given the delicate U.S.-China relationship, the curious case of America’s scientific dominance.
While most of the experts on the show were sympathetic to the protestors’ cause, Dr. Mak did not see this evolution as the politicization of science but instead, a necessary return to its essence. “We can’t detach science from daily life. Science not only is an intellectual pursuit but addresses the needs of the world.” Gradually, she became emboldened to write the occasional snarky post on her Facebook page to get social media reactions (Dr. Mak has drawn a hard line over not criticizing the Police Force though).
Then one day, out of the blue, she received a call from the Dean’s Office.
When Dr. Mak was summoned, she was immediately berated by the Dean, an English gentleman. It turned out that before she had assigned a grade to the students’ crime story draft, the one about how the Hong Kong Police murdered a protester and buried the evidence, somebody somehow obtained the draft and brought it to the University Grants Committee (UGC), a body overseeing all major universities in the region. That person, holding the one piece of paper with all the bullet points, accused Dr. Mak of inciting hateful and insulting speech among her students towards the Police, who actually fired live ammunition on a highschooler. Since the person who filed the complaint deliberately skipped the usual department hierarchy of handling grievances, the Dean was forced to step in on behalf of his overlords at the UGC.
To this day, Dr. Mak still does not know who tried to mess with her, particularly how they accessed the secure draft submission before the homework deadline. However, she is still hurt by how the dean immediately pounced at her. “He just interjected, ‘Karen, the homework is inappropriate!’ I explained to him that the exact same assignment has been there every year, that I had no control over what the students wrote. That’s it.”
Dr. Mak was immediately cleared of all accusations by the Dean; fortunately, the quick resolution also meant that her Facebook page was spared from the barrage of Chinese trolls, “Little Pinks” and state-controlled media critiques that has descended on fellow pro-democracy academics.
Nevertheless, the city is gasping for air.
On June 30th, Dr. Mak, like many people, spent their sleepless nights scrolling through their social media posts one by one.
The National Security Law, unveiled in a surprise announcement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, would change the city overnight; nobody, not even Hong Kong authorities, had any prior knowledge of a single word of the Law. Critics derided the law as draconian, and the Hong Kong Government did not attempt to assuage such fears by seeking to arrest individuals such as Nathan Law, the exiled former legislator who agreed to testify before a United States Congressional hearing prior to the announcement of the law; Simon Cheng, a former UK consulate staff member who was abducted and tortured in Mainland China; along with Samuel Zhu, a pastor’s son and lobbyist who holds American citizenship. They were wanted on suspicion of inciting secession or colluding with foreign forces.
Luckily for Dr. Mak, all she had were a few cringey old photos. But the fear is real within her field, and for good reason.
Hong Kong’s scientific research, among many things, runs through Mainland China. HKU has five State Key Laboratories that directly receive funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology of Mainland China; in 2019, 63.9% of all HKU research postgraduates come from Mainland China (Although Hong Kong is constitutionally part of China, due to a legal quirk, Mainland Chinese students studying in Hong Kong are counted as international students, a massive coup for diversity-related rankings.)
The clock on Hong Kong had been ticking when its British colonizers agreed to return it to China, but after the day when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, many left and more struggled to stay on the small piece of land they called home. By the end of the first decade of Hong Kong’s return to China though, a sizable portion of those emigrants came back when they realized that Hong Kong can lend credibility, resources, and freedom to connect local and Chinese talent, industries, and ideas to the world; gradually, many researchers have grown chummy relationships with those across the Shenzhen River border. It’s an open secret that these researchers are no fans of the protest movement: the demonstrators threatened the status quo.
The overarching plan of the strategy of past regimes was to treat Hong Kong as a slow-cooked frog: that the borders and firewalls separating the two, including those in scientific research and innovation, would be gradually chipped and blurred over time. Instead, such a playbook is thrown out of the window when the new Hong Kong and Chinese administrations, in a desperate attempt to purge the protests, decided to kill off what makes Hong Kong unique and frantically reshape it in China’s image as if they had no time to lose.
Now that without a hint of irony, Tiananmen Square Massacre vigils are finally banned and journalists are screened by the Police, dissidents in Hong Kong are fully embracing the idea of “Be Water”. Dr. Mak and others are taking a page out of the other China playbook: Chinese academics who witnessed the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square Massacre, moved elsewhere, and eventually came back to Hong Kong, the last piece of free Chinese soil; they have spent decades dabbling in the dark arts of double-dealing and underground resistance.
Regardless of whether it occurred overnight, Dr. Mak’s Facebook page, along with scores of others, is now filled with wink-and-nod references to the movement: there was an anime video she shared about the human immune system that was dubbed to depict a tongue-in-cheek siege between “police guardians” and “rioters”; a profile of Stanislao Cannizzaro, the late Italian chemist who participated in Sicilian revolts and helped establish the unified Italian state; along with fact-checks on claims propagated by TVB, the channel where she was once prime-time appointment but now has increasingly succumbed to Chinese control.
“There’s no need to take the most hardcore position all the time. Whether you consider that self-censorship depends on how you categorize it. But what’s the point of all of us getting arrested for no reason?”
How does a city die? Does a city ever die?
Since we met, the Hong Kong Government has increased its attacks on not only the protest movement but on any form of scientific and educational expertise that does not bend to its will. A high school textbook that Dr. Mak consulted got censored: The Education Bureau announced edits to the textbook’s public health segment that omitted any mentions of the origin of SARS (not to be confused with SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19) due to the Mainland Chinese eating wild animals or the presence of a lucrative black organ trade market in the country. In an interview with Apple Daily, the notoriously pro-Democratic newsroom ransacked by National Security agents, Dr. Mak pointed out that while she was unaware of the changes, such behavior was “regretful but not surprising”.
Those same high school students and their parents who would’ve purchased the textbook that Dr. Mak consulted would become even more incensed when it was announced at the end of August that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, HKDSE Chinese Oral Exams would be scrapped for the second consecutive year. It was seen as a ruse to suppress the Cantonese language; regretful too, but not surprising. Before the controversial firing of prominent academics, anonymous resignation letters from Dr. Mak’s ex-pat colleagues had been circulating within her department. Wouldn’t you be concerned when “loyal opposition” and “freedom of thought” is banned in college campuses within the Chinese government’s s[here of influence?
Many ask: When even the classroom is no longer safe, what’s next?
As with the case more than three decades ago, many Western democracies are offering themselves up as a safe haven for Hong Kong’s desperate professionals, once again the most sought-after emigrants anywhere in the world. The UK, Japan, and Australia have pledged to revise their visa policies to attract Hongkongers seeking the exits. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s ongoing death by a thousand cuts means that its role as Asia’s international finance, trade, and cultural hub is being replaced by its neighbors in a piecemeal manner, some of which provide relatively lower-cost options for Hongkongers fleeing the city.
Hong Kong’s situation has prompted comparisons with Singapore, another small Asian city-state punching above their weight with a strong technocratic government, a robust financial sector, and cultural diversity. In fact, having spent her earlier career teaching at a Singaporean University, Dr. Mak insists that the nuanced differences within the two cities are not merely that of two sides of the same coin: Singapore balances its heavy-handed government and limited room for dissent with a cushy lifestyle and sizable social transfers. Its small size and the unique circumstances of its founding enabled such a system to flourish over the past half-century. “Anyone is naive to think that the Singaporean model can be implemented in Hong Kong. We’re used to our freedoms. Would we shut up just to get by or avoid getting arrested? No!”
Having spent time overseas herself, Dr. Mak does not have a wandering eye for now. In a time when the truth has never mattered less for some people, and others rush to write obituaries for the city, she is instead doubling down on a two-pronged approach: stepping beyond the boundaries of laboratories and lecture halls, while learning the delicate dance of tactical retreat on the fly.
Dr. Mak and others like her are taking “staying at home” to another level. They may be hunkered underground, organizing their own elections (the turnout, a full 600,000 despite government threats, a pleasant surprise for Dr. Mak) or scattered across the world, but the resistance has never been more alive. Hong Kong is surviving on a thread, on borrowed time in a borrowed place; now the time has come for Dr. Mak, and the millions before her who have flourished through the city, to pay their dues. What is she doing to save her city, pass on an embattled language, and spread scientific facts?
“I do what is right. I live by my principles and there is nothing to fear.”