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INTERVIEW: ‘I don’t know if it’s possible for me to ever return to Hong Kong’

A photography professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Art and Design has been refused entry to Hong Kong for the second time, further evidence that an ongoing crackdown on dissent under a draconian national security law could affect which foreign nationals are allowed to travel to the city.

Matthew Connors, who was denied entry in 2020, immediately after the 2019 protest movement, but who is still allowed to visit North Korea, told RFA Cantonese in a recent interview that he was given a brief, bureaucratic explanation that he “didn’t meet the criteria” for entry, while the Immigration Department has declined to comment on the decision:

RFA: When did you try to enter Hong Kong?

Connors: On Aug. 16, I’d originally planned to come to Hong Kong as a tourist, and I especially hoped to visit art exhibitions, including the newly opened M+ museum. At the same time, it was also primarily to test the waters, because the last time I came to Hong Kong, at the beginning of 2020, I was refused entry by the Hong Kong Immigration Department, which made me always confused [about] whether I could visit Hong Kong again. And I couldn’t see any reason why I would be refused entry, and I couldn’t really understand what possible danger I could present to the Hong Kong government. I happened to be traveling in Asia for several weeks, and I was in Thailand. 

Since the last time I was refused entry back in early 2020, I’d had a lot of uncertainty about whether or not I’d be allowed to return to Hong Kong. And that had been bothering me. So I was hopeful I’d be able to visit and then when I didn’t really see any reason why I shouldn’t be refused, again, because the protests are no longer going on. And I couldn’t really understand what, you know, one possible danger I could present to the Hong Kong government. So I figured I would give it a try.

RFA: What happened when you arrived?

Connors: I was taken aside, again, by immigration, and I was told that I did not meet the qualifications for entry into Hong Kong at this time, which was a very bureaucratic answer. And it was the same reason that I was given the last time I was refused entry back in 2020. My trip was supposed to be an overnight trip, [and] I didn’t really tell anyone I knew in Hong Kong that I would be coming. Because I didn’t really know what risks that might have posed for anyone who would be seen associated with me. 

So when I was interviewed in the airport by immigration officers, I identified myself both as an artist and a professor that was visiting for the purpose of tourism. But despite this, in a very short interview, I was just given the generic reason that I do not meet the qualifications for entry at this time. So I knew from my past experiences that trying to get more nuanced or detailed answers from any of the immigration officers would really be futile.

I actually had this feeling that no one that I actually encountered in the immigration office actually had the authority to make the decision about whether I could enter Hong Kong at the time or not. And so I really believe that I’m on a list of people whose access to Hong Kong is restricted, perhaps permanently, I’m not sure. 

RFA: What makes you think that?

Connors: Part of the reason I think this is just the way they proceeded with the interview process, and it more or less mirrored exactly what happened to me last time. And so when I reached the immigration kiosk and presented my passport, they looked me up in the system. And then they called over immigration officer over to the window and he escorted me back to the immigration officers room and I sat in the waiting area and this was a designated area where I think they bring a lot of travelers that are flagged for further questioning, and I waited there with other travelers but ultimately, they never questioned me in this area, and they escorted me to a separate area, like a secondary interview area. I believe this is the place where they process people who they’ve already decided to refuse entry into Hong Kong. [It was] exactly where I went last time before I was refused entry.

A screenshot from photographer Matthew Connors’ personal website. Credit: matthewconnors.com

RFA: Do you think there’s anything you can do about your situation?

Connors: I don’t know. I want to seek advice about that. You know, the last time I was refused entry, I started discussing it with an immigration lawyer, but that whole process really got derailed by the COVID lockdowns. I don’t know, to be honest. And I think that uncertainty is by design, because, you know, both with this refusal, and the sort of sweeping powers that the National Security Law gives the Hong Kong government they’re sort of instrumentalizing uncertainty in order to make people feel like their freedoms are being restricted.

RFA: Did you fear this might happen when you went to Hong Kong?

Connors: You know, I did. And I think some people that I consulted before left thought there was there was a higher risk, both because of the National Security Law had been passed, and because I had been denied before, but I think I had my instinct that I essentially, would be okay, that I think the worst case scenario was that I would be turned around again. I don’t have a lot of data or information to back that up. But I think I was just traveling under that assumption.

This time, they did a much more rigorous search and my belongings, and then, when they escorted me through the airport, they actually took me through a separate security area and put me on a bus to the flight back to Bangkok. [During] this whole process, none of the immigration officers were really giving me any information about what they were doing with me. And so when they put me on the bus, I felt quite nervous that I was being transported to a longer term detention area. But I think in the end, they were just bringing me to the plane.

RFA: Do you think it’s because a lot of your work recorded what happened in 2019, and interviewed protesters?

Connors: I think it’s absolutely related. But, you know, I can only speculate why I would be on that list, because there are many people, local and international journalists and artists who were documenting, recording and interacting with those events. And, as far as I know, many of them have been able to travel freely back and forth. So it’s a little bit of a mystery to me, why I would be singled out, to be honest. 

My relationship with Hong Kong doesn’t run as deep as many of your, as many of your readers or listeners, but it’s a place I developed an affection for over the last 20 years and I have been considering partially relocating there and living in between New York and Hong Kong for the next few years. It was an idea I’ve been talking about with people that are close to me. And now I just don’t think it’s possible for me to do that, and I just don’t know if it’s possible for me to ever return to Hong Kong, to be honest.

RFA: Do you think more and more foreigners will be denied entry and removed from Hong Kong in future?

Connors: That’s my assumption. You know, I think a lot of people are looking at the National Security Law, and the way it’s being enforced. And the writing seems to be on the wall in a lot of ways — there’s an increasing instability there. And when things like this are happening, I think it’s a real sign of fragility on part of the Hong Kong government, a kind of insecurity on their part. I’ve been in and out of North Korea several times, doing more or less similar things, taking pictures, and then later publishing, and exhibiting them, but I’ve had no problem returning to North Korea [despite the fact that] the North Korean regime is notoriously insecure about how they’re depicted abroad. And I think it’s quite interesting that the Hong Kong government is trending in that direction. It does feel like Hong Kong has really become a kind of frontier of the new Cold War. So I think you can expect to see a lot of people who would normally have been interested in doing business or living in Hong Kong, looking to other major Asian capitals instead.

RFA: Does it feel like another Xinjiang, do you think?

Connors: I don’t know what all this augers for the fate of Hong Kong. But I do think that the surveillance capabilities of the [Chinese Communist Party], and the Hong Kong government [are] just going to get increasingly sophisticated. And that’s going to continue the trend of a kind of hyper-surveillance state where people are going to feel less and less able to navigate Hong Kong with any sense of freedom for themselves. I don’t know if that’s going to lead to the kinds of incarcerations that you’ve seen in Xinjiang, but there could be a real dampening effect on the freedoms that a lot of people who live in, grew up in, or who love Hong Kong are accustomed [to]. And I think you can already see that with the National Security Law. I mean, it feels really quite dystopian, the some of the things that I’ve been reading, [for example], people getting arrested for having flags in their backpacks. 

RFA: How do you feel about these experiences from 2019 to now?

Connors: The first time I got banned, it was in a state of shock, you know, and it was ultimately a much more arduous process, because it was something that I don’t think I was mentally or physically prepared for. When that happened, I was traveling from New York City, and I was detained in the airport for about eight hours, and then sent all the way back to New York City. And so, you know, it was quite a long ordeal. And, you know, that was extremely difficult because of everything that was going on. And I was quite enthusiastic about being in Hong Kong and continuing to experience and draw inspiration from all the protests that were happening. And I think this time when it happened, I more or less expected that that was a distinct possibility, so in a way, I think I was more mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared. It’s really sad.

The more difficult thing this time around was not quite understanding the rationale. I can understand back then, as odious as I think it was, that there could be a rationale for the Hong Kong government not wanting people, including myself, to be present, to be bearing witness to the ways in which the police were treating the citizens who were protesting. But now, this time around, there’s no protest activity happening. And I just really couldn’t fathom why they would think I, you know, an art teacher, an artist would pose any threat to the Hong Kong government. In a way, it’s a little bit more difficult, because, to me, it suggests that that ban could be permanent.

Edited by Luisetta Mudie.