“A Study of Self-Mutilation”
Note By Translators
The incumbent under secretary of education, Dr Choi Yuk-lin, is a figure of controversy in Hong Kong’s political scene. A pro-Beijing figure in the pan-democrat field of education, her nomination for office at the education bureau was regarded as either contempt towards the will of teachers (not an unfounded suspicion for her unsuccessful candidacy at the LegCo functional constituency election for education) or that she carries with her an ulterior agenda, possibly National Education due to her own political leanings. Her eldest son committed suicide recently and the tragedy drew polarised and varied responses from the Internet, social media, and amongst politically-active university students, epitomised by a slogan stapled on a public display board congratulating her loss at a local university. A good portion of fury directed against Dr Choi seems to be founded in frustration against former office holders of the Education holders, including the former Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim and Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun. The media and government officials have generally condemned the Schadenfreude aimed at Dr Choi in the past week.
A Study of Self-Mutilation
Some people deny the inevitable nihilism that stems from such disillusionment; they insist on being back at the negotiating table and maintaining dialogue with the “Central Government”. These are usually men of age who have lost their sensitivity in life. That is their blessing. The searing reality of the scorched earth under our feet can be too much to bear for some. Those who are too young are spirited and their senses sharp as a blade; they are acutely aware of the situation, unable to lull themselves into self-deception. When one cannot fool oneself, then it all boils down to that critical moment when we ask ourself “to be or not to be”, whether to continue our hollow existence or put it to a sharp halt?
Choi Yuk-lin has lost her son. As the elite jump to castigating students for rubbing salt in her wound by congratulating her loss, two more suicides have taken place. One of the victims is twenty four, the other sixteen. Both of them jumped off a building.
Since 2015, there has been more than 70 cases of student suicides. Every case has been equally tragic. And yet, the elite have never taken the issue to heart. The deceased are criticized for their fragility, their lack of endurance and their “lack of life-planning”. When the elite make such remarks, the Righteous and the Morally Upright Gentlemen of our society never stand out to comment on their cold-bloodedness; no denouncement at press conferences, nor evisceration in the newspaper.
It has been asked: Why do Hong Kong’s youth keep killing themselves? This is a great question indeed! Upon finding an explanation, you will see Hong Kong’s “Zeitgeist”. If you want to understand the circumstances Hong Kong’s youth or the majority of Hongkongers are facing, you should go and watch the animated movie Sausage Party.
Although the movie is filled with profane jokes, it meditates upon an austere subject — how man faces fear when the mythical powers of legends and paradigms have been extinguished. The main characters of Sausage Party consist of a band of food products, such as hot dog buns, sausages, tacos, chewing gum and so on. They are all waiting at the supermarket to be purchased by their human patrons. These food products believe that they will enter a better world after they have been purchased. Although they do not know what the afterworld is like, nor have food products come back to report on what happened to them, they believe that the future would be bright, and that it holds nothing worrisome in store.
Later, a bottle of mustard found out about the “truth.” Human beings would slice them apart, cook them, and digest them in their stomachs. They would be brutally tortured by human beings in the kitchen. And thus the religion of the food products shattered, with them descending into a flight of panic. But of course, the protagonist was a strong-spirited food product. He gathered himself and led his fellow food products in search of the supermarket’s exit, uniting them in a fight against the ruthless humans.
This story is postmodern and chthonic — for the food products, human beings are supernatural gods. The food products realize only too late that these gods may not be benevolent — gods too, may be brutal; the humans of the contemporary world too abruptly realize that the laws made by God no longer exist; that everything is but a kangaroo court. The abrupt implosion of their strongly held beliefs can be too much for the average person to bear.
When the food products were told the truth, some were in denial, planning to return to the shelves to be purchased, while others went crazy and mutilated themselves.
What young Hongkongers are facing is a battlefield that weaves together the degenerate economy, rapid circulation of information created by the expanding internet and psyches that mature too early. Young Hongkongers will have to face fierce competition from all over the world, and the adults tell them that, should they be able to endure all of this, good will come to them – and perhaps – meaning may even be found in this pursuit.
But young Hongkongers do not have to mature into adulthood to understand that this isn’t true. Through various channels, they become aware that the successful endurance of all this merely leads into another hell, perhaps another hell of a deeper layer. When they become entrapped in the fierce struggles created by the educational system, only to realize that what is waiting for them are student debts repayment, routine working hours from nine to five — all of which fails to garner them even a pinpoint of space on which to carve out their livelihoods, that they have no control over their own destiny — then they realise the futility and hollowness of their suffering and endurance today.
Like followers of Jesus who endured the jaws of lions, oppression, crucifixion, they endured because they believed that their suffering would end one day, that their suffering meant something, and that they will ultimately be rewarded. Even terrorists who release bombs hold the image of the 72 virgins and that of heaven in mind. But young Hongkongers already know what the future holds for them. Through objective salary figures and prices indices, they are already prescient of what life holds in store for them.
Disillusioned, but still caged in our educational system, one is still subject to the endless competition and comparison; they have heard too many examples of corruption between officials and corporations – the myth that you reap what you sow has become bankrupt. The belief that the Chinese is the paradigm of gentility, goodness, respect, modesty, and courtesy, has been extinguished by the implementation of the Individual Visit Scheme (自由行) as well. Hongkongers thought that by settling the dust of their past lives, by acknowledging their ancestors and returning to their roots, by learning to be “Chinese” — they could preserve their own freedom and human rights. And thus the myth that China would grant universal suffrage for the executive and the legislature was shattered too.
Some people deny the inevitable nihilism that stems from such disillusionment; they insist on being back at the negotiating table and maintaining dialogue with the “Central Government”. These are usually men of age, who have lost their sensitivity in life. That is their blessing. The searing reality of the scorched earth under our feet can be too much to bear for some. Those who are too young are spirited and their senses sharp as a blade; they are acutely aware of the situation, unable to lull themselves into self-deception. When one cannot fool oneself, then it all boils down to that critical moment when we ask ourself “to be or not to be”, whether to continue our hollow existence or put it to a sharp halt?
It is not that young Hongkongers are particularly fragile, it is only that they happen to be on the frontline of the battle, as reflected by the fact of their mass suicides. Hong Kong’s educational reforms led to the collapse of today’s norms, disorientating both students and teachers, eventually rendering the pursuit of life and education pointless. Thus suicidal behavior were most common among them. In comparison, psychological issues and suicidal behavior are absent among those whose interests and norms are not affected by the reforms (such as parents, officials, civil servants) because the paradigms of those with vested interests — the elite — their myths, their psyche, their sense of direction, have remained basically unchallenged in these twenty years.
Why have so many local university students been discussing localism and lauding the idea of Hong Kong independence? This is because they are the ones who suffer the most from the dissolution of Hong Kong’s myths and paradigms. Our universities have become swarmed with more and more Chinese people; more classes are now taught in Mandarin; requirements of academic exchanges to mainland China have been implemented; Chinese has been taught in simplified characters; a Mandarin language requisite must be fulfilled for graduation; the elite write off grievances by telling the youth to immigrate, demanding that they find employment in mainland China. University administrators keep a facade of morality whilst consuming and feeding on the oppressed. This set of actions is a foreign one which is utterly incompatible with the “Hongkongness” that they possess and have always insisted upon in action.
The legends of the past have become bankrupt, and thus they need to find other things as their anchor of faith, hoping it will bring them peace of mind. These things may be democracy, independence, student movements, or other forms of “resistance”. Although the reasons for which these 70 people killed themselves may be different, they are drawn against the same backdrop – drastic and sudden changes in society, the absence of guidance and order. When the Ice Age came, all the mammoths died. It was not that mammoths were particularly fragile, but because they could not get used to such drastic changes in climate.
Only in death can one sense the cyclical nature of life. The sensation of purpose and order helps one live on. Without them, any additional moment to life would seem a drag. To feel life is too long for one to live is an excruciating pain.
Hong Kong is being colonized. Injustices have been taking place regularly. The moral paradigm of “good and bad” has long since broken down. At the protests against national education, there was a banner that proclaimed, “I was taught to be humane, just, polite and astute when I was small, but then they taught me to bury my conscience when I grew up.” (細個教我仁義禮智，大個要我埋沒良知) When you understand this fact, what is the point in education? Since there is no meaning in education, the pain in going to school becomes even harder to withstand.
I cannot pretend to be optimistic. What I can be certain of is that the youth will continue to mutilate themselves, because we are living in a society where the older generation is extremely impatient with the young, where they unite and use society’s resources to eviscerate their own people, impose tyranny upon the young and demand the youth to vacate if they take issue with something. Until we can build a new and dependable order, a new paradigm, a new identity and a new home to which they are willing to commit and find shelter, until they could find a new way to survive in society. When all “movements” have been crushed and shredded to pieces by reality, self-mutilation is perhaps one of the rare opportunities with which Hong Kong people can experience “agency”. Of course there is nothing good about self-mutilation, and yet there is always a story and a mechanism behind each and every case.
The meditation of death can bring clairvoyance. And yet, those who step traverse the shadows of death may not have the strength to emerge from them. Should there be survivors, they will be no doubt be twisted by their experiences of death. And thus they will learn to hate, and they will fight for their lives. Forgive them for being primal beings with a survival instinct indeed, they are neither meek, mild, prim nor proper. And yet the animal’s howl of survival is better than many hypocritical mandarins being all “holier-than-thou” in their ivory towers; the vulgar, unforgiving cries of struggling beasts are better than cannibal chiefs who know how to be moralistic, and bloviate about Qian Mu, quote Mandela or whatever, simply because they know how to dine on human flesh with forks and knives.
Article translated by Joy Zhu with the help of the editorial team of Hong Kong Columns Translated. Joy is a recent graduate of Middlebury College. She attends The New Normal, Strelka Institute as of 2018. She translated Lam Wing-kee’s ordeal and her work also appeared in Brooklyn Magazine. Her portfolio can be found here.
This article originally appeared in SOS Reader in Chinese. The author of the article is Lewis Loud. Born in 1990, he is one among many Hongkongers who cling tightly to their Hong Kong identities. A popular columnist, Lewis is more commonly known as the “Hall-Master” (堂主) of his blog named “Hall of No Desire” (無待堂).