During one of my first Monocle reporting trips to Bangkok, I remember being in a bar and trying to talk about the king before being quickly and vociferously shushed by my local companion. It was both an eye-opening and mouth-closing experience. I knew that Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws were strict but not that strict. Since then I’ve become accustomed to seeing Thai friends and interviewees point up at the sky instead of naming the monarch in public, or make coded references to Rama X as “Justin” for his Bieber-like body tattoos. As a visitor I’ve been forced to play along with this charade too, so coming back to Hong Kong was always a breath of fresh air and of free speech; we literally could say anything. Not any more.
One year after the introduction of the National Security Law, similar habits are beginning to creep in at home. Voices are lowered in restaurants whenever the NSL is mentioned with a waiter in earshot and hushed conversations are had in the back of taxis about friends moving to the UK; one woman recently told me that in the post-NSL era her husband simply refuses to talk about Beijing outside of their own apartment. Paranoia or a necessary precaution? Right now, we just don’t know. The police run a tip-off line that encourages the public to report any suspected national security violations. Apparently it has been ringing off the hook.
For all we know, there could be a lot of suspicious cats stuck up trees, conspiring to take down the government. So we go on laughing at ourselves for acting ridiculously. Chatting about Xi Jinping is not a crime. But the fear spreads. Last week I watched and waited as my formerly level-headed lunch guest insisted on switching off his phone before indulging me in a business-related natter about China – something I had only ever witnessed on the mainland. Such small, subtle changes of behaviour will probably go unnoticed by most visitors to Hong Kong; unless, that is, they also get shushed by a friend for talking too loudly about our own version of the Thai king. If that day comes to Hong Kong, it really would be unspeakable.