In 1997, Hong Kong was restored to Chinese control after 156 years of British colonial rule. Many observers doubted the commitment of the Chinese Communist Party to its promise of a policy of “one country, two systems” with regard to the territory.

Surely, the naysayers commented, the freedoms of speech and protest that the people of Hong Kong had wrung from their British rulers would, in the years and decades to follow, come under attack from Beijing. Following years of simmering tensions, a mass, youth-led protest movement exploded in Hong Kong in 2019.

The movement began in response to extradition legislation brought forward by the Hong Kong government which was intended to enable those arrested for political crimes in the territory to be sent to the Chinese mainland for trial.

However, as the police sought to violently suppress the protests, the burgeoning movement broadened its criticisms of the state authorities, even being seen as a threat to Beijing’s governance of Hong Kong as a “special administrative region” of China.

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This great movement is the subject of the new documentary film Hong Kong: City on Fire. Directed by Hong Kong filmmakers Choi Ka-yan and Lee Hiu-ling, and produced for Dartmouth Films by Scotland-based film producer Sinead Kirwan, the film looks at the movement from the ground level, through the experiences of four young activists.

By turns intimate and dramatic, the film will be shown in cinemas across the UK on November 22. It aims to return the spotlight to a mass movement that has been in abeyance since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the Chinese government’s attempt to impose a “zero Covid” policy.

One important figure in Hong Kong civic life who welcomes the film’s release is Ronson Chan (below). A journalist of 18 years standing, he is chair of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association.

The National: Ronson Chan

Over the last 11 months, Chan has become very familiar with the methods of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government where repression of independent media is concerned. Following the notorious closure of the popular Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily in June 2021, the authorities cracked down on Chan’s organisation, Stand News, on December 29 of last year.

Chan’s house was searched and, in conjunction with a police raid on Stand’s newsroom, a number of his colleagues, including the two editors-in-chief, were arrested.

Having been placed in such an impossible position, the leadership of Stand News announced the closure of the organisation that very day. Ironically, the action against Stand was taken – not under Chinese president Xi Jinping’s notorious National Security Law for Hong Kong (which was passed in 2020) – but, rather, under an ordinance against “seditious publication” that was brought in by the British colonial authorities in 1938.

The last time this law was used was in the late-1960s, following a large riot against the British colonial authorities. Three months after the closure of Stand News – when he was working for Channel C, a news organisation established by journalists from Apple Daily – Chan was stopped by police officers and charged with obstructing police officers in the course of their duties.

Although his bail conditions allow for six months travel outside of Hong Kong, Chan is ordered to return for a court case in spring of next year. The maximum sentence he faces is two years in prison.

Chan is currently in Oxford, where he is working as part of his Reuters Fellowship in Journalism. Speaking to me from there, he explains the acceleration of Beijing’s interventions in HK since 2020.

The National: Protesters have demanded more freedom in Hong KongProtesters have demanded more freedom in Hong Kong

“In Hong Kong a lot has changed since the National Security Law has been enacted,” he explains. There have been a considerable number of arrests under the new legislation, particularly among journalists.

Eight Apple Daily journalists have been detained for more than a year.

I suggest to Chan that his being stopped and charged just months after he faced a house search in the Stand News case is an example of state harassment of a journalist.

His response is notable for both its journalistic insistence on keeping to the established facts and its diplomacy.

“I won’t regard this as harassment,” he says. “There is a very different ideology about journalism between China [on the one hand] and Europe [on the other]...

“From the European perspective, we think that journalism is about monitoring power and the use of power. Beijing has another ideology about that.

“They think it is a tool of propaganda, a tool to speak well of Chinese stories. They don’t think there is any need to monitor the power of the government.

“If you’re saying something different from the views of the government, they will think you have an intention to do so, which is possibly based on you being in alliance with a foreign power.”

Needless to say, the level of pressure being exerted by the Hong Kong authorities on the independent media has led to considerable caution, even self-censorship, on the part of many journalists. It is, says Chan, “quite laughable” that some HK media outlets have published disclaimers to try to protect themselves from accusations of trouble-making or “sedition” by operatives of the state.

Such disclaimers, Chan explains, say things like: “The purpose of this report is to help improve governance by the government, rather than to create any hostility between different classes of society or between the government and the people.”

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Chan is certain that Choi and Lee’s film cannot be screened publicly in Hong Kong. “I think this film can only be watched overseas,” he says.

The National: Hong Kong City on Fire (Dartmouth Films) (01)

“There were several documentaries about the 2019 protests. Most of them cannot be watched in Hong Kong anymore.”

Nevertheless, Chan is hopeful that international screenings of the film can keep the issues affecting Hong Kong in the global consciousness.

“The film can reflect the real facts”, he comments, “particularly about the youth and the students [of Hong Kong] at that moment.”

Hong Kong: City on Fire is screened at cinemas on November 22: