When the dance critic Edwin Denby observed a group of dancers working out in class, he was fascinated by the attention they paid to a wealth of details that had completely escaped him while he was watching them perform on stage: they practised descending from a jump by landing not on the big toe but on the third one; they cared whether they should maintain the wrist in the same position when moving the arm. In their capacity to take pleasure in the rigors of their profession, they are in communion with not only their peers but also with previous generations of dancers, who had likewise been seized by a compulsion to get the many fine points of their art right. It is this sense of belonging to something larger than themselves that Denby thinks gives dancers “a feeling of dignity and of proud modesty.”
Denby’s takeaway from that dance class can shed light on a question that has long baffled me: why do I have this revulsion against doing English copywriting work for CCP-related outfits? I know I have what it takes to couch CCP propaganda in readable English, yet, instead of pouncing onto this ready means to earn a living, I’d rather exile myself to the world of independent news outlets, would rather - now that the national security law is in effect - bear the risk of being sent to prison in China should the authorities suddenly take a violent dislike to my writings. Why am I so hellbent on working against my self-interest?
The only answer I can think of is, like the dancers Denby scrutinized, my British-style education developed in me an eye for the subtleties of English, and putting my feelings for the language at the service of the thuggish regime that is CCP would be an affront to the senses - perhaps even more an aesthetic issue than a moral one.
By way of illustration, below is a paragraph from a press release the Hong Kong government recently issued (https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/202008/08/P2020080800317.htm ). Further below is my rewrite of it. Now, imagine being me: between writing about Denby at a dance class - things my education prepared me for - and getting sloppily-written propaganda like the copy below ready for its close-up, which preference would you have picked?
(Hong Kong government’s version)
“Taking advantage of anti-government riots in Hong Kong since June last year, the US Congress and the White House have passed successive laws and pronounced executive order targeting the HKSAR under the pretext of human rights, democracy and autonomy. It should be obvious to and resented by many people, locally and around the world, that the US acts are displaying double standards and hypocrisy, let alone blatantly breaching international laws and basic norms governing international relations.”
Dictatorships are used to a what-I-tell-you-three-times-is-true communication style, so it’s not unusual for their pronouncements to be as repetitive as the passage above. A job in polishing Newspeak would therefore involve making head or tail of such gibberish, and coming up with a concise and precise version of it:
“In the light of the US’s track record of disparaging other countries for committing deeds it itself has done, it is regrettable though hardly surprising that on the issue of Hong Kong, the US, which has its own security law, has the presumption to deem China’s enactment of such a law for Hong Kong as unjustifiable.”
Other than Denby, the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel is also helping me make sense of my options as a writer in Hong Kong under a belligerent CCP. “You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,” Havel explains, " you are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances." Havel cites the example of his immediate boss at a brewery he once worked for in the 1970s. That fellow was a rarity in a socialist country: he put his soul into his job, and was obsessed with improving the beer the factory produced. His enthusiasm alarmed management, and he was duly driven out of the plant.
All I can say is, of the many vile things the CCP and the Hong Kong government have done to wreck Hong Kong this past year, one should perhaps add this to the tally: the fact that when someone like me reads Havel, she’d feel as if he had written his musings on the making of a dissident specifically with her in mind.
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