As you sail from the Central ferry piers out towards Hong Kong’s other major islands, the South China Sea opens up from the narrow strait of the Victoria Harbor. Huge cargo boats dot the landscape. Black smog plumes linger in the air, as the Hong Kong government still hasn’t found a way to legislate and regulate marine vessels emissions.
I stare out of the window of my ferry, trying to think what this strait must have looked like, some centuries ago. Today the harbor is narrower, after the endless reclamation that has created many real estate fortunes. And my impression of an open view is little more than that, as bridges and power stations and typhoon shelters interrupt the flat expanse of water in a way that was unthinkable to those who stared at this sea so long ago. Still, as China’s factories and Hong Kong’s lax regulations spread a brownish gray haze just on top of the horizon, I tell myself that today, as years ago, countless business-minded people have been attracted to this harbor from everywhere, making plans on the wealth that trade with China could generate.
Back in that past that I’m trying to visit with my thoughts, an emperor was sitting on a distant throne up north – and in Europe, rulers were being told of his extraordinary wisdom.
The water suggests two sets of parallel images that come back insistently. The recent ones are those that were broadcast from Shenyang on July 15, when Liu Xiaoguang, the elder brother of Liu Xiaobo, was dragged in front of a group of journalists for a sinister press conference. After a long statement in which the older Liu kept thanking the Party and the state, a screen behind him projected a few pictures of his brother. He was showed lying in a coffin as he was being prepared for a hasty cremation, and then, a “sea burial.” And photos of Liu Xia, his wife, looking ashen into the sea. This same sea I am watching from my boat, just many miles to the north, but this same sea.