One day in court I asked my lawyer for a document. My lawyer said, “Gwyneth also has it so why don’t you two swap and read?” I almost reflexively said, “Of course we can’t!” The Correctional Services Department (CSD) staff next to me also banned the suggestion immediately. But thinking about it afterwards, I felt a chill down my back. Why did I reject a suggestion as ordinary as “swap and read” without thinking?
My reaction at that instance - deeming the lawyer’s suggestion as laughable and impossible - was in fact resulted from CSD’s training. The training placed strictly-maintained separation between one person and another, allowed no communication and sharing, even when it was as harmless as sharing a piece of document.
During the trial, Gwyneth and I often went in and out together but we were never allowed to talk freely. When we conversed slightly more, we would be immediately taken to two different rooms. Everything that arrived on my hands had been thoroughly examined including every single piece of paper from my lawyers. Nothing can belong to me without first getting someone’s approval and my prisoner’s number added. But that number is a wall that keeps everything else without it from my slightest touch. Don’t even think about arranging your stuff as you please because another approval must be obtained to even just return your things to your family, and tearing pages from your own notebook is a big better-not.
When you have to live under these rules day after day, it’s easy to forget about how normal people interact. The suggestion from my lawyer was actually a reminder: I could talk and communicate with anyone, I could exchange things with them, I could decide what I wanted to do and all these were really normal. I should not get used to the twisted rules or internalize them only because I have to live in a twisted world. This is probably something I have to stay alert of for a long time.
Human beings are indeed vulnerable to conditioning. It’s easier said than done “not to get used to”. And conditioning does not only exist in prison: LeaveHomeSafe has become part of our daily life, real-name registration for SIM card is inevitable, search of information in government-controlled registries is facing tightening control, “Hong Kong Add Oil” has become a tabooed phrase, political figures try not to talk about politics, some senior officials decorate their offices with portraits of Xi Jinping, June 4 books cannot be displayed in book fairs, even lobsters can threaten national security...all these, are conditioning us to accept a life where no rights, freedom or privacy is where, where the “state” is the paramount priority that can’t be supervised.
When the society is undergoing huge and profound changes, things that are not normal or right have all become the “new norms”. How to resist the unconscious influence of such mighty power, how to maintain our judgement of right and wrong, how to prevent being assimilated by the authoritarian logics, how to preserve our autonomy and agency, these are difficult questions we are facing together. We need to stay awake, to constantly reflect on ourselves and to remind each other all the time. We must try our best to live a normal life and speak our mind as much as we can afford. Even when we can’t break the rules, we must ask “why”.
When absurdity has become part of daily life, resistance is what everyone can do in every hour and every minute. Do not belittle your power. Because every bit of resistance is affecting the general society and influencing people around you so they won’t be so easily conditioned. While I am in my small prison, I also need your help to remind me how the normal world runs.