In the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution, when for intellectuals the mere act of meeting in the privacy of their own homes took courage - they lived among busybodies who were all too happy to report on them - the writer Zhang Yihe (章詒和) was present at one such gatherings when she caught sight of the exquisite embroidery on a fellow attendee's cheongsam.
"It's almost a prank," Zhang pondered to herself "this Chinese habit of placing such fragile handiwork on the very parts of the garment that are most prone to fraying. And yet, aren't such trimmings a haunting lament on the fate of all authors who have run afoul of the authorities?"
I guess I could have used "the moral fabric of Hong Kong was on full display" to describe the surprisingly large turnout at Hong Kong's primary election last weekend - the organizers had cautiously hoped 170,000 would come out and vote; 6000,000 eventually did. But Zhang's embroidery metaphor would have been a more fitting vehicle of expression, for it would have evoked something of the poignancy of so many people baking in the sun while they waited for their turn to cast the ballot, of them braving the government's threat that voting could cause them to run afoul of a newly-imposed (and vaguely-worded ) law aimed at quelling voices of dissent. Not that they weren't afraid. It's just that, in their desperation to (in the words of Benny Tai, who organized the election) "show Beijing and the world that Hong Kong hasn't given up yet," they were prepared to disregard a law that made them feel small.
This "when I am weak, then am I strong" conviction that the election has set alight in those who voted will confirm Chief Executive Carre Lam's worst fears. Last year, when the protests showed no signs of abating, Lam deplored in a private meeting the large number of civil servants who were supportive of the protests. "There are so many weak parts in the government," she fretted. "We did realize a bit, but we did not fully realize that it could be (this) bad, when we are going into...a crisis." How it must have irked her, then - with the police of late deliberately applying the new law arbitrarily in an effort to clamp down on all anti-government gestures - that so many Hong Kong people have seized upon the chance to vote as their one remaining act of revolt.
Tai has admitted he's ambivalent about the number of voters so wildly exceeding his expectations. "Based on past experience, every time the people of Hong Kong create a miracle, the authorities will only feel more intimidated and will retaliate by imposing even harsher measures." I think Tai is right, and as I brace for worst days to come - perhaps the time will come when I can compare notes with the writers who lived through the Cultural Revolution - I need to work on wrapping my mind around the paradoxical nature Hong Kong's civil society: so fine-spun that it can be ripped apart in a flash, yet so feared by the Chinese Communist Party all the same.
Michelle Ng is a bilingual writer based in Hong Kong. She is also an English writing coach.