The new normal? Armed police officers clear the streets in central Hong Kong. © David Ogg/Alamy Stock Photo

China is tightening its grip on Hong Kong

The space for free expression is narrowing dangerously
January 25, 2021

In mid-2020, one of the biggest shows on Chinese television was Autumn Cicada, a spy thriller set in Hong Kong just after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941—a compelling watch featuring glamorous mainland Chinese stars. (It’s available on YouTube with an English translation.) The story is about fiercely patriotic young Hong Kongers under the Japanese occupation who work for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) underground. The implied contrast with the city’s youth today, whose dedication to the CCP is rather less enthusiastic, is not hard to see.

On 6th January 2021, a dawn raid saw the arrest of 53 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, mostly former legislators, charged with “subversion” under the terms of the new Hong Kong National Security Law. The charges related not to violent activity, but the suggestion that if elected again to the Legislative Council, they planned to use complex parliamentary tactics to undermine the city’s budget. If convicted, they will be disqualified from standing in future elections.

The National Security Law is the most visible aspect of China’s crackdown, which seeks to bring to heel the “Rebel City” (to use the title of a recent essay collection edited by South China Morning Post journalists Zuraidah Ibrahim and Jeffie Lam). Many observers see this as the moment when Hong Kong becomes in practice just another mainland Chinese city—an end to the “one country, two systems” compromise. Yet there are still areas of openness: opposition voices in the press, foreign judges on the Court of Final Appeal and debate in the universities (such as on the direction of Chinese politics) that is unthinkable in colleges in Shanghai or Beijing. But the spaces for free speech and opposition politics are far narrower than they were a year ago. Will the rising tide of Beijing’s power destroy the remaining freedoms? 

Hong Kong has been a political anomaly for decades, both before and after the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China on 1st July 1997. The island and the mainland territory across the water from it were seized in the Opium War of 1839-1842. A later conquest in 1898 saw the extensive New Territories to the north placed on a 99-year lease that expired in 1997. In the last decades of British colonial rule, there were efforts to make the government more accountable to the electorate. Yet half of the Legislative Council—which allowed limited democratic representation to make laws and approve budgets and appointments—was chosen by a small constituency with close links to the political elite. 

[su_pullquote]“Hong Kong is both utterly distinctive and inexorably Chinese. Its history is also tied up closely with China’s”[/su_pullquote]

That form of semi-representative democracy is still in place. Nonetheless, from the 1970s and even after the return to China, Hong Kong maintained a remarkably liberal public sphere and its press and universities were free. Political demonstrations were supported enthusiastically, such as the 2003 campaign against an earlier proposed National Security Law. The city’s judiciary prided itself on its independence from political interference. While the 2010s saw the troubling growth of illiberal democracies worldwide, Hong Kong seemed a rare example of a liberal non-democracy.

Yet as that decade drew on, a powerful range of factors came together to disturb the equilibrium. Hong Kong’s economy suffered badly, provoking popular resentment against the government. Attempts by Beijing to create a more managed form of democracy, such as choosing the Chief Executive (the role that replaced the old Colonial Governor) from a pre-approved list, led to mass protests. In 2014, there were student demonstrations—the “Umbrella Revolution”—against the lack of democratic progress. In 2019, clumsy attempts by the current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to institute a new law that would allow easy extradition to the mainland led to even larger protests: hundreds of thousands of
people filled the streets, capturing the attention of the world. Most protests were non-violent but some caused significant disruption, including a near-shutdown of Hong Kong’s international airport. By the middle of that same year there were a disturbing number of cases of violence against Chinese mainlanders living in Hong Kong, and public buildings were attacked with Molotov cocktails. 

In the end, it was the emergence of Covid-19 that emptied the streets in early 2020. On 1st July, with no prior warning, Beijing announced the imposition of the new National Security Law for the territory, passed through the Chinese National People’s Congress and imposed on Hong Kong without any debate in the territory’s legislature. The law criminalised a swathe of offences, including “subversion” and “terrorism,” without clearly defining what these constituted. It operates extraterritorially: a statement about Hong Kong, even if you are a foreigner in an American university or a British think tank, could run afoul of the regulations. 

The Chinese authorities indicated at first that the law would only be used against a small number of violent protesters. In practice, recent months have seen the arrest of the city’s most prominent media mogul, Jimmy Lai, the prosecution and imprisonment of non-violent student protesters, charges against at least one journalist and the disqualification of pro-democracy legislators elected to the Legislative Council. The law is also being applied retrospectively to alleged offences committed before it was enacted.

One reason for Hong Kong’s crisis is a failure of leadership. The local government, an elite bureaucracy appointed by Beijing, has plenty of administrative experience but almost no political instinct, as the repeated attempts to force through the extradition bill in 2019 showed. Polling from the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies in December 2020 suggests that 62 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with the Hong Kong government, with less than 16 per cent happy. The last major electoral test of public opinion was the District Council elections of September 2019, in which pro-democracy candidates swept the board, winning 17 out of 18 councils. The Hong Kong government suspended the elections for the Legislative Council scheduled for September 2020, ostensibly because the pandemic would make proper campaigning too difficult.

Aside from the disqualification and arrest of pro-democracy legislators, other efforts have been mooted to dilute Hong Kong’s democratic instincts. One suggestion by the Hong Kong government has been to allow those who live in Shenzhen, but who have residence rights in Hong Kong, the right to vote. But this has an air of panic about it. Allowing mainland residents to vote in Hong Kong might dilute the pro-democracy vote, but it would mean a new community on the mainland with a direct and at least superficially free vote on who governed them, even if they are pressured to vote for pro-Beijing candidates. This might not be a precedent that the central government wants to set.

Part of the Hong Kong authorities’ long-term response to the protests has been to try to reshape the narrative. This has been fuelled by a growing alarm that the identity of Hong Kongers is linked much more to their own city than to China as a whole: a 2019 survey published in the Economist suggested that over 60 per cent of people in the city aged between 18 and 29 identified as Hong Kongers, not Chinese. The Cantonese language has been a core part of the city’s identity formation: local broadcasters, poets and satirists speak in the language, which is incomprehensible to Mandarin-speaking mainland officials. Beijing’s response to this cultural autonomy has been to propose a clampdown on the teaching of history and related subjects in the local curriculum, encouraging a more “patriotic” viewpoint.

“Five demands, not one less”: protesters signal their position at demonstrations in 2019. © Vincent Yu/AåP/Shutterstock “Five demands, not one less”: protesters signal their position at demonstrations in 2019. © Vincent Yu/AåP/Shutterstock

“Five demands, not one less”: protesters signal their position at demonstrations in 2019. © Vincent Yu/AåP/Shutterstock

However, the view of Chinese history proposed by the authorities resembles the propaganda in mainland textbooks approved by Beijing: the idea that China has always been a single state with an essentially monolithic and continuous culture over thousands of years. Even more contentiously, mainland textbooks glorify the role of the Chinese Communist Party in building modern China by stressing development and economic change (perfectly legitimately), but make little mention of the disasters of the Mao era, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—and none at all of the 1989 uprising and killings. Few Hong Kong educationalists would support this selective version of history. In 2012, there were mass protests against proposed changes to the curriculum.

Yet it is worth nuancing the stark positions of separatists and propagandists. Hong Kong is both utterly distinctive and inexorably Chinese. Its history is also tied up closely with China’s. In 1925, the anti-imperialist demonstrations that rocked Shanghai and Canton spread quickly to Hong Kong, whose workers felt deep commonality with those in the mainland. The politics of the Cultural Revolution spilled over the border in 1966, causing near anarchy. An even-handed history would point out that British colonial rule was not synonymous with good governance, as shown by police corruption as late as the 1970s. Some of Hong Kong’s freedoms also came from Chinese sources: for instance, its formerly vibrant Chinese-language press was certainly not run by the British. The legal system might have been a colonial import, but by the time of the handover it was staffed mostly by Hong Kong Chinese judges and lawyers. Multiple forms of identity have always shaped China, much though Beijing would like to impose a top-down view of the nation’s sense of self.

China has its own view of the city’s fate. In economic terms, Beijing is determined to integrate Hong Kong into the Greater Bay Area, the region of Guangdong province that includes the massive conurbation of Shenzhen across the border. Shenzhen is the site of an innovative tech ecology, the success of which is partly dependent on Hong Kong’s immense pool of financial capital, which is in turn a product of the city’s well-regulated financial sector and independent legal system. Hong Kong occupies a much smaller part of China’s total economy than in 1997. But the city’s financial and judicial role is harder to replace; it is uniquely valuable to China, at a time when the rule of law in the mainland looks increasingly subject to opaque and arbitrary edicts from the CCP. It would seem folly for the Chinese government to crush such a valuable asset.

Yet Beijing’s attitude is not shaped just by economics or even power. Some influential Chinese thinkers argue that liberalism in Hong Kong needs to be resisted. One such figure is the academic and bureaucrat Jiang Shigong, professor at Peking University Law School, who spent the years 2004-2008 in the Hong Kong liaison office of the Beijing government, and remains a senior adviser on the city. One of Jiang’s major intellectual contributions is as a translator and analyst of the 20th-century German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt—a thinker who, although a prominent Nazi, is often cited to this day by both left and right. Schmitt rejected the idea of law as a liberal instrument, mocking it as a bourgeois indulgence that obstructed the power of the state. In recent years, Schmitt’s ideas have become immensely popular in anti-liberal Chinese intellectual circles. 

Jiang’s writing shows that Chinese political thinkers do not mindlessly oppose liberal ideas or fail to understand them. He and his colleagues are informed by a wealth of western (not just Schmitt, but figures like Foucault and Deleuze) as well as Chinese political thinking. But their aim is not to accommodate liberalism, but to eliminate it. 

An existential crisis is looming. Realistically, the chances of Hong Kong returning to the freedom and openness that it enjoyed for 23 years after the handover are minimal. The question is whether those who uphold liberal values—politicians, judges, journalists, academics—can find ways to preserve what is left, or whether Hong Kong’s freedoms should be given up as lost.

Liberals have not always been their own best allies. For a brief period in the summer of 2019, it looked as if dialogue might be possible. Yet the seeds of the democrats’ downfall may have lain in the slogan of the protesters: “Five demands, not one less” (these included not only targeted issues such as an inquiry into police brutality but also a wide-ranging commitment to universal suffrage). Staggering their demands might have led to more success. Of course, there is no equivalence between a city government with the might of an authoritarian, highly-armed state behind it and a protest movement that mostly used non-violent tactics. Yet the democrats may have missed a chance to take “Yes” for an answer—even if it was a very hesitant yes. The choice of some activists to accept the invitation of Donald Trump to be present in Washington for the signing of the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act also looks unwise in retrospect. It gave Beijing a chance to put flesh on the bones of its claims that “foreign forces” were seeking to undermine its sovereignty in Hong Kong.

Lo Kin-hei, the new leader of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, is now faced with a dilemma, assuming that he is allowed to stand in elections currently slated for 5th September 2021. One path is to refuse to participate in the current political system. But this tactic opens the way for Beijing to allow elections in which the opposition will be deemed to have absented itself. The other path is even harder to navigate. The democratic opposition would probably need to make a clear statement about observing Beijing’s red lines, such as no advocacy for Hong Kong independence and a rejection of violence. (It’s notable that one of the most prominent protesters, Joshua Wong, who was recently charged under the new security law, has always adhered to these two points.) The democrats could not row back, however, on upholding key freedoms of press, assembly and judicial independence, and the ability to call the city’s leaders to account for their behaviour—all of which are guaranteed, on paper, in Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution,” the Basic Law.

There is no guarantee that such a deal would meet with a softer response from the Hong Kong authorities. Democrats who follow a path of compromise might be considered sell-outs by their more radical comrades. But at least participation might demonstrate that they have tried every attempt to engage with the government’s demands. There are precedents for uncomfortable compromises, even in full democracies. During the Cold War, Finland censored its public culture to avoid angering Moscow (a process that came to be called “Finlandisation”), sacrificing some freedoms to preserve a broadly democratic structure and acknowledging the reality of the autocratic USSR as a neighbour. There are also countries—Singapore and now Hungary among them—that maintain a significant public space while being very far from
liberal democracies. 

Yet the fact that Hong Kong’s democrats will have to make such choices exposes that the real responsibility for the next stage lies with the Hong Kong authorities, and Beijing. The slow asphyxiation of the city’s open traditions is already having powerful negative effects on China’s reputation in the world. Beijing seems curiously unconfident about its National Security Law. When Britain announced, in response to the law, that it would allow large numbers of Hong Kong British National (Overseas) passport holders to take up residence in the UK, China responded with rage. You might have expected them to say that they had so much faith in the popularity of their measures that they were happy for anyone to come and go as they pleased. Hong Kong’s fate is also being watched closely in independent Taiwan, which since 1949 Beijing has made clear it wants to reunify with the mainland. So far, it has done little to suggest that becoming a second Hong Kong holds any attractions for Taiwan’s robust democratic culture.

[su_pullquote]“When a society has to arrest and make an example of so many of its bright young people, something is seriously wrong”[/su_pullquote]

Hong Kong’s future as a commercial centre is also in danger. The mainland Chinese media has been quick to condemn judges who offer bail to protesters on charges of subversion, and to praise the police for their January dawn raid. Yet if such propaganda is seen to have influenced Hong Kong’s judicial process, it will be a blow not just for the city’s business life, but also for China’s prospects as a global commercial actor. The wider world, unsure whether involvement with China’s huge Belt and Road investment and infrastructure initiative is a wise idea, will conclude that China’s willingness to allow neutral arbitration of legal disputes in Hong Kong has been compromised. Of course, since 1997, the CCP has always had ultimate control over Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. But the new willingness to exercise repression will quickly erode trust in legal standards. The same goes for the autonomy of Hong Kong’s press and universities. So far, there is still plenty of critical comment in the English-language local press, although the Chinese-language media has become much more cautious. If Hong Kong’s authorities essentially define “subversion” as causing inconvenience to the government, even this freedom will rapidly disappear. 

Hong Kong’s leaders need to make positive statements about freedom with urgency and sincerity; to praise the role of a more loyal opposition and urge its return to the legislature; to celebrate the role of Cantonese-language culture, and to laud the investigative journalism and awkward anti-government decisions by judges that make the city distinctive. They need to stop using the law as an instrument to prevent democratic activity.

A common image associated with Hong Kong is of teenagers in geeky glasses, their poor eyesight a consequence of years of study. One of the most jarring scenes from the protest movement has been countless numbers, glasses still in place, with their hands cuffed by police. When a society has to make a public example of so many of its bright young people, there is something seriously wrong. There is still space for Hong Kong’s politics to heal. But the signs are not good. And it is getting very late.