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The speed with which Hong Kong has descended into repressive authoritarian rule is being matched by the city’s protesters, who are moving just as quickly to stay one step ahead of censors.
Just two days after the sweeping national security law was signed into force on Tuesday (June 30), the Hong Kong government officially created the city’s first thoughtcrime: it banned the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,”(光復香港, 時代革命) declaring it to be secessionist and subversive, and hence in breach of the new law.
Legal scholars have already questioned the validity of the government’s blanket ban on the slogan without regard for intent and the scope for different interpretations of the phrase. But whether or not the ban ultimately holds up in court is besides the point. Its mere existence right now fundamentally undermines freedom of speech, expression, and thought.
True to the Hong Kong protest movement’s reputation for being resilient and creatively versatile, people have already come up with all sorts of ideas to skirt the ban on their rallying cry. Where last year Cantonese was creatively deployed as an expression of satire and identity, it’s now used as an antidote to political repression. On the chat app Telegram, protesters have shared different ways to speak in code. Cantonese being a tonal language, there is ample opportunity to swap in similar-sounding characters to create a phrase that sounds like the banned slogan, but means something else entirely.
Here’s one example. The eight characters below are near-homonyms for “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” in Cantonese, which in its original would be pronounced “gwong fuk hoeng gong, si doi gaak ming.” Here, it’s altered slightly to read “bacon and sausage, vegetables and noodles,” pronounced “jin juk hoeng coeng, si coi zaa min.”