Over the past year, China’s suffocation of Hong Kong’s independence, including the recent charges against 47 activists and the rewriting of election rules, has stabbed at my heart, because for me and thousands of other Chinese, Hong Kong is more than a city. It’s a beacon.

When I was a young man in the 1970s, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and China’s darkest years under Mao, I joined hundreds of thousands of desperate Chinese willing to risk our lives to get to freedom. Between late spring and early fall and in the night, we crossed the mountains to reach the sea, and from there, we would swim across the water, as far as six miles depending on the route, to reach Hong Kong.

On my first attempt in 1972, I was caught on the coast by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. A year later, I was caught by Chinese fishermen near Hong Kong after I had struggled for eight hours in the rough sea. Choking on seawater, I thought of death, but I kept reminding myself, “I must reach Hong Kong, for my mother, father and myself!”

Thousands of freedom swimmers died in the water; three of them were my friends. When I finally stepped on the soil of Hong Kong on my third attempt, I believed I had reached paradise.

Kent Wong’s memoir, “Swimming to Freedom.” (Abrams Press)
Kent Wong’s memoir, “Swimming to Freedom.” (Abrams Press)

At that time, Hong Kong was everything that China was not: dazzling neon lights, morning crowds of neatly dressed businesspeople threading through jampacked skyscrapers, and bustling cinemas that played discounted Hollywood movies at midnight. Hong Kongers proudly proclaimed: “Hong Kong never sleeps!” My heart cheered: “Hong Kong is the pearl of the Orient!”

My father was working in Taiwan’s customs office in Hong Kong when Mao took over China in 1949. In 1950, he joined a patriotic insurrection in his office and took our family to China to help the newly formed People’s Republic.

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Later, he was denounced and punished as a “capitalist rightist” during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” campaign. Because of him, I was called a “little bastard” during the Cultural Revolution and sent to a primitive village to be reeducated by peasants. After three years of harsh labor and witnessing the public executions of a group of “counterrevolutionaries,” I decided to escape to Hong Kong — the promised land for me and thousands like me.

Though I have traveled to many places around the world in the decades since, only Hong Kong evokes an indescribable longing to return whenever I leave. But now, even as an American citizen, I dare not visit Hong Kong again.

In 1950, China “peacefully liberated” Tibet by armed invasion. In 1989, the world witnessed the image of a young man, alone, blocking the tanks during the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, 140 countries have joined China’s Belt and Road initiative, which runs through Xinjiang, the province of the Uyghurs. Yet only 39 countries have condemned the genocide of the Uyghurs by the Chinese Communist Party.

China has won. It will keep winning against the democracies of the world by using its soft power — a hardworking and still cheap labor force and rising consumer-purchasing power — and hard power, as well as a global network of hard-core Chinese nationalists and internet vigilantes who support and defend its every action.

China’s growing dominance should frighten every democracy, even our own. Now that the most ambitious and dictatorial leader since Mao is in place, who will be Beijing’s next target? If it is not Taiwan, who else? And after Taiwan, will China, with all its economic power, become a truly global empire?

And what about Hong Kong?

Hong Kong’s students are idealistic, positive and full of life. Hong Kong’s residents filled the streets to demand change, to protest history textbooks that the Chinese Communist Party use to spread propaganda and to support Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which was supposed to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 but has been severely undermined by the Chinese Communist Party.

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I’ve made many trips to Hong Kong after I left for America in 1975. I was there in 2014 during the students’ Umbrella Movement. They were protesting the Chinese Community Party’s prescreening of the candidates for the chief executive of Hong Kong, which is not in the Basic Law. It was a strange political scene. Students used umbrellas not for the unpredictable subtropical rains but to shield themselves from the police’s tear gas. They set up tents on the main streets in the Central, the business district, to get the attention of the public.

Life outside the Central seemed as normal as it could be. I talked to multiple small shop owners, some inside the Central, and was surprised by the almost uniform support for the students, and not a single voice of direct criticism.

One taxi driver said about the student crowds, “It’s fine. I just drive around the occupied area, no big deal.” He added, “A free election would never yield a chief executive appointed by China!” I responded, “This will end very badly.”

I had planned to visit Hong Kong after the pandemic, but that seems impossible with darkness falling on that city. My heart now cries, “Hong Kong, once my paradise, is forever lost!”