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Democracy activist Joshua Wong during his arrest at a protest in Hong Kong the day before a visit from Chinese president Xi Jinping, June 2017

In late 2015, Chinese security agents kidnapped five men associated with the Causeway Bay Books store in Hong Kong. Popular with tourists from the mainland, the shop specialized in salacious works on the private lives of Chinese Communist Party members, as well as studies forecasting the Party’s imminent downfall. Sandwiched between a pharmacy and a discount clothing store, the shop is now barricaded behind a steel gate and heavyweight padlocks. There is a screen across the window, and a heap of unopened mail and takeout menus on the floor. A message of support written on the wall outside reads: “Freedom ends when we are all silent.”

Over the course of a few months, each of the kidnapped booksellers appeared on Chinese television to “confess” to a range of crimes, from a hit-and-run incident to selling books without a license. Lam Wing-kee, who was captured on the Chinese border, is the only one who has returned to Hong Kong and spoken publicly about how he spent five months in a prison on Hangzhou Bay, about seven hundred miles northeast of the territory.

“These kidnappings were scary for the people of Hong Kong,” Lam’s lawyer, Albert Ho Chun-yan, told me. Ho is a veteran of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, which emerged in May 1989 when activists held rallies in support of the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing. Braving torrential rains and gale force winds, 50,000 protesters huddled under umbrellas at the city’s Victoria Park. Concerts were organized to raise money for the students encamped on the square, while planes were chartered to dispatch medicines and tents. Pro-democracy groups were established, such as the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. On May 28, over one million people marched through the streets, chanting “Long live democracy!” The signs they held aloft read: “Today China, Tomorrow Hong Kong.”

One year later, Ho cofounded the city’s first major pro-democracy party, the United Democrats of Hong Kong, and he is currently chairman of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. He was also responsible for helping Edward Snowden escape the city in 2013. Ho said there was a widespread belief that forced renditions “would only happen to mainland people hiding from the authorities in Beijing. The people of Hong Kong had some sense of comfort that this wouldn’t happen to them. But since the bookseller kidnappings, that comfort is gone.”

Democrats like Ho have long been driven to protest by a sense of political exclusion. Only in the final stages of its rule over the territory, from the early 1990s, did the British colonial government promote the “core values” on which Hong Kong prides itself—the rule of law, a free press, the right to travel, and the right to engage (to some extent) in the political process. For most of the time, political offices were held by a succession of sinologues, taipans (non-Chinese business leaders), and plenipotentiaries. In 1967, at the height of anti-British rioting, the administration passed the Public Order Ordinance, granting the police wide powers of arrest and outlawing unsanctioned protests. The law is regularly applied against activists today.

For its part, China has sought to keep Hong Kong in a state of political subordination. Since the Taiping Rebellion of 1850–1864, the entrepôt has been a refuge for rebels and revolutionaries evading the Chinese authorities.1 Beijing views the territory as a potential staging ground for insurrections on the mainland, as well as a model for separatists in Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet. It is for this reason that in the mid-1980s, while negotiating with the British over how the territory would be governed under Chinese authority, Beijing made sure that the Basic Law—Hong Kong’s mini-constitution—had provisions that would prevent the formation of a popularly elected government.

The Basic Law establishes the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong’s residents, the composition of the territory’s political system, and its relationship to China. It enshrines Deng Xiaoping’s formula of “one country, two systems,” which promises Hong Kong a “high-degree of autonomy” from the mainland, and the continuation of its capitalist system and way of life until 2047. It also promised universal suffrage by 2017, since neither the chief executive (the head of the Hong Kong government) nor a significant number of lawmakers in the Legislative Council (LegCo) currently enjoy popular mandates from the electorate. The chief executive is selected by a committee of 1,200 mainly pro-Beijing representatives, while thirty out of the seventy seats in the LegCo are appointed by “functional constituencies,” drawn from several (usually pro-Beijing) industries, professions, and special interest groups.2 The result is a government that does not reflect the will of the people.


But “one country, two systems” was never designed to transfer political power to Hong Kong’s subjects.3 Since 1997, when Britain relinquished control of the territory to China, Beijing has aimed to keep Hong Kong rich, depoliticized, and at arm’s length until the mainland was economically able to reabsorb it. But as Hong Kong is no longer vital for China’s economic growth,4 democrats fear that Hong Kong’s way of life, its “core values” protected by the Basic Law, will vanish as the territory is integrated into the mainland.

Most of the democracy activists I spoke to said that Beijing began subverting Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal safeguards around 2003. In July that year, a demonstration of 500,000 people forced the government to suspend Article 23 of the Basic Law, which prohibits acts of treason, sedition, or subversion against the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. “This was a small victory,” said Leung Kwok Hung, co-founder of the League of Social Democrats and a seasoned campaigner for universal suffrage. I met him in a restaurant beside the Tamar Government Headquarters, a gargantuan slab of glass and granite near Victoria Harbour, which protesters stormed in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement. The seventy-nine-day uprising, named for the umbrellas used to deflect pepper spray, was in response to proposed electoral “reforms” that would enable Beijing to prescreen candidates for the chief executive, thereby reneging on its promise of granting Hong Kong universal suffrage.

Last year, Leung was elected for a third term to the LegCo, but was disqualified along with five other pan-democrats for failing to swear the oath of office correctly, which includes pledging allegiance to the PRC. Leung said Beijing would allow universal suffrage only if it could silence those who criticized the PRC, which was the purpose of Article 23, and predicted the ongoing persecution of the democracy movement. But he described China’s approach as not so much boiling the frog as trying to “convince it that it’s enjoying a warm bath.” Indeed, Beijing’s encroachments into Hong Kong’s political and social life have been piecemeal, and resemble something like its strategy in the South China Sea. Just as it militarizes coral atolls, lays claim to archipelagos, constructs artificial islands, and extends its reach into disputed waters, so its efforts to control Hong Kong occur at the same incremental speeds.

Consider the checkpoint for the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which connects the territory to China proper. Once the West Kowloon terminus is built in July 2018, Hong Kong is to relinquish areas of the station to mainland officials, who will enforce Chinese rather than local laws. Only a quarter of the station will fall under China’s jurisdiction, but it’s the first instance of mainland laws supplanting those of Hong Kong. Democrats argue that this sets a worrying precedent, warning that Hong Kong could just lease areas occupied by future protesters back to the mainland where the Basic Law will not apply.

Brusque rhetorical assertions, like the one made by Wang Zhenmin, the legal chief for the China Liaison Office, that “one country” comes before “two systems,” are a sign of the times. The BBC World Service has been replaced with the state-run, Mandarin-language China National Radio Hong Kong Edition. The government has proposed that it should be illegal to disrespect “March of the Volunteers,” the national anthem of the PRC. The history of working-class riots in 1967 and the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989 will be left out of a revised school syllabus, while there are plans to open a Hong Kong branch of Beijing’s Palace Museum in 2022, which some fear will become a vehicle for promoting Chinese nationalism. Many of the people I spoke to for this article mentioned the growing influence of pro-Beijing voices in unions and on university boards, school councils, and business committees.

Reporters Without Borders has downgraded Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking, while one local professor I spoke to said that academic appointments are increasingly determined by the candidate’s political views. Lawyers are agonizing over the steady erosion of judicial independence, as China ensures that the Basic Law serves the party’s interests. Many also fear the use of mainland immigration to “sinicize” the territory and enforce the use of Mandarin over Cantonese—a strategy Beijing has used in Xinjiang and Tibet. The Hong Kong government is also targeting dissidents through the courts, waging a sustained “lawfare” campaign that involves judicial review and retroactive prosecution.

Last year, Sixtus Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, two legislators from Younspiration—a pro-independence party established after the Umbrella Movement—were stripped of their seats in the LegCo.

Opposition lawmakers have long used the swearing-in ceremony as a way of declaring their resistance to the undemocratic nature of Hong Kong’s political system. They’ve usually gotten away with it, too. But in the case of Leung and Yau, who unfurled banners that read “Hong Kong is not China,” Beijing spotted an opportunity to counteract a growing independence movement and deplete the number of democrats in the LegCo who could frustrate pro-Beijing legislation. Both Leung and Yau were disqualified, and China quickly introduced a new interpretation of the Basic Law preventing oath-takers from retaking their pledges if they did not previously swear them “accurately, completely and solemnly.”


I met Leung and Yau for coffee at Pacific Place, an upscale shopping mall where people seemed too concerned with spending money to notice the most divisive activist-politicians in China. As it was for many of their generation, the Umbrella Movement was formative in shaping their political views, which concern defending Hong Kong’s local culture, narrowing economic and social inequalities, and resisting political influence from the mainland. When I asked them about their oath-taking ceremonies, they expressed regret about what they did, but also clarity about their reasons for doing so. “When I think about the people who voted for our party last year,” Yau said, “many of them have strong anti-China feelings. It was one of the reasons they voted for us. So, I felt like I had a responsibility at the oath-taking session to reflect those opinions, even if that meant altering the words. The oath is the sentiment of the Chinese Communist Party, not those of my voters.”

Groups like Younspiration represent a budding “localism” that emerged in the early 2000s. Hong Kong identity was once based on an apolitical sense of belonging, rooted in consumerism and Cantonese pop music and compatible with an ethnic, pan-Chinese identity. But a new generation consider themselves citizens of a distinct political community, and reject the paternalistic nationalism promoted by Beijing in favor of a common good based on values like human rights and the freedom of speech. The two main factions of localism are the self-determinists and the independence movement. While self-determinists support universal suffrage and a referendum in which Hongkongers could decide their political status (which could include a vote for either independence or closer ties with China), independence groups represented by activists like Leung and Yau demand complete secession regardless of the people’s will.

Yet Hong Kong is a speck on China’s southern edge and will always need to deal with the mainland on questions of economic integration, crime, water resources, and immigration. The independence movement seems to have only half-baked plans about how to deal with these issues. Ray Wong Toi-yeung, the twenty-four-year-old cofounder of HK Indigenous, a group committed to defending Hong Kong culture through militant action, accepts this criticism. But he’s quick to point out that Hong Kong’s independence movement is comparatively young, and that even Taiwan, “after years of self-declared independence, still hasn’t resolved key political issues, such as its relationship with China.”

Wong’s political awakening began in 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, when he heard adults applaud the “great motherland” for putting on such a spectacular event. He started reading books on Chinese history and politics, and “what I gradually realized,” he told me, “was that this greatness was an illusion. The more I learned about the country’s human rights record, and its poor response to human tragedies like the Sichuan earthquake [in 2008], the more I understood that the People’s Republic is not really for the people at all. I began to worry that Hong Kong might become like this.”

Wong’s faith in “one country, two systems” ended in 2011–2012, when the government proposed a Moral and National Education curriculum. This was meant to encourage a deeper affinity among Hongkongers with the ethno-communist ideology of China, while criticizing ideals of self-determination, freedom, and democracy. Wong saw this as a “blatant effort at collective brainwashing,” and he joined the civil disobedience campaign led by Scholarism, a student group that dissuaded the government from implementing the syllabus. Wong became widely known in 2016 after he helped instigate the “Fishball Revolution,” in which protesters violently resisted the police crackdown on unlicensed street hawkers during Chinese New Year. The Economist described the unrest as “the worst outbreak of rioting since the 1960s,” and Wong was arrested.

Wong acknowledges the limitations of the independence cause—“HK Indigenous can’t even open a bank account,” he said, because of government restrictions on the party—but thinks that sooner or later, the whole democracy movement will realize that independence is the only path to genuine freedom. This seems unlikely. When the subject of Catalonia’s recent referendum was raised, Wong laughed: “We’d never get to that point. They would arrest us all before we could even organize it!” But a poll last year by a local university found that nearly 40 percent of people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four support independence. (The figure is significantly lower across all age groups.) At the start of this new academic year, independence banners went up across the Chinese University of Hong Kong, while its statue of the Goddess of Democracy—a replica of the original erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989—was clothed in banners declaring support for “political prisoners,” like Nathan Law Kwan-ching and Joshua Wong Chi-fung.5

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

A cardboard cutout of Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the democracy movement, at a protest in Hong Kong, July 2017

With his dorky stature, formidable rhetorical skills, and untiring, even fanatical, commitment to protest, Wong has become the undisputed face of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Derek Lam Shun-hin is his best friend and was, until recently, a senior member of Demosistō, a self-determinist party formed after the Umbrella Movement. Lam said that the legal campaign the government is waging against democracy activists is unsurprising. Traditionally, Hong Kong politics resembled “House of Cards—all bargaining and backroom deals.” But the new generation of democrats are channeling the spirit of the Umbrella Movement and seeking to bring politics into the open. “You have to fight for democracy in the public sphere, not behind closed doors, which is where Beijing and the government want to be.”

There was a time when people thought that Hong Kong could be the model for liberalization in China. In some sense that has happened: the mainland now boasts its own malls, metros, and movie stars, similar to those in Hong Kong, while the cityscapes of Shanghai or Shenzhen are just as spectacular as Victoria Harbour. But in other ways, according to Eddie Chu, Hong Kong is being transformed into “China’s idea of what a modern polity should be.” A former journalist who reported from Iran in the early 2000s, Chu became an environmentalist and community organizer in 2005. A prominent figure at the Umbrella protests, he subsequently won a landslide election for the LegCo in 2016, drawing attention to the collusion among government, business, and triads in the New Territory housing projects. An anticapitalist who advocates self-determination for Hong Kong, Chu is inspired by the Spanish Podemos party, which promotes economic equality, freedom of movement, and environmental sustainability.

I met him at his office in the Central Government Offices, which he described as “a very large building with a very weak government.” “What we’re experiencing in Hong Kong,” he explained, “is a mixture of Iranian-style electoral politics, Russian-style paramilitary force helping the police to crack down on activists, and the Singaporean method of bankrupting one’s political opponents.” (In Singapore the government has often destroyed political opponents through ruinously expensive litigation.) Chu admitted that he’s finding political life more frustrating in the corridors of official power than on his usual avenues of protest. “I have tried to find consensus with the pro-establishment legislators. But Beijing’s agenda is clear: the executive, legislature, and judiciary should cooperate, rather than check and balance each other. Pro-establishment politicians aren’t puppets. But they’re under huge pressure from Beijing to restrict themselves and not communicate with people like me.”

Most disturbingly, Chu suspects that Hong Kong has become a trial case in how to pacify a people that’s not China’s own. “Hong Kong has become a laboratory for social control, which China could export, along with its version of capitalism, to other Asian countries through its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.” But the idea that China could exert control over foreign populations seems far-fetched. Rather, it simply allows authoritarianism to endure, disregarding the oppressions and human rights abuses already engaged in by those governments, such as in Cambodia and Myanmar, that it has drawn into its economic and political sphere of influence.

A few doors down from Chu is the office of Alvin Yeung, the charismatic thirty-six-year-old leader of the liberal Civic Party, which was founded in 2006 by barristers committed to universal suffrage, civil liberties, and the rule of law. His office boasts stunning views across the harbor, and is lined with tomes on Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and FDR. Yeung worries about the growing sophistication of Beijing in shaping public opinion in Hong Kong. “The mobilization of public opinion was usually what gave democrats the edge. But since 2014, Beijing has mastered the game. They have their own counter-protesters, their own media and opinion leaders, especially online. It’s getting more difficult for the democracy movement to say to the rest of the world that the people are with us. They aren’t. Only part of them are.”

As Hong Kong is bound more tightly to the mainland by rail and road infrastructure projects, many fear its cultural and political “mainlandization,” in which the city would experience something like O’Brien’s promise to Winston Smith at the end of Orwell’s 1984: “We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” Writers and artists increasingly despair of Hong Kong’s oblivion after “one country, two systems” expires in 2047. The contributors in Hong Kong Future Perfect (2016) and Hong Kong 20/20 (2017), for example, two volumes of short stories, poems, and essays by the city’s most prominent authors, offer nightmarish projections of its physical destruction, the outlawing of Cantonese, the collective anaesthetizing of the population, and the imprisonment (and threats of execution) for members of the independence movement.

In September, Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing politician, said that independence activists should be “killed mercilessly.” But Agnes Chow Ting, a student leader of the Umbrella Movement, merely laughed when I mentioned Ho’s name, describing him as a “ridiculous figure.” Born in 1996, Chow represents the generation who came of age after the handover of the territory to China. These younger Hongkongers endure a brutally competitive education system, the world’s most expensive property prices, falling salaries, and a sense of political marginalization. While previous generations faced existential questions of belonging and cultural identification, people like Chow are more burdened by an oppressive sense of time, trapped between a past with little import and a future with little hope. The Umbrella Movement—with its festival-like atmosphere of creativity and communal camaraderie—allowed them to cast off the dead weight of inertia and reimagine a life with greater personal freedom, political power, and solidarity.

But Chow recalled how the pro-democracy camp fractured into competing factions in the years after the protests. “Sometimes people were unwilling to cooperate with each other not because of divergent politics or strategies, but simply because of some private quarrel.” But she said those divisions are narrowing. Both self-determinists and those who advocate independence confront the same authoritarian regime, and have been sent to jail or face that prospect. “So we’re now looking to find active ways to work together.”

Young activists have realized that the attainment of universal suffrage or independence will happen only gradually. Chow reckons that for Demosistō, this means building a movement, and doing community work to emphasize the correlation between people’s discontents and their lack of political power. Ray Wong wants the independence movement to think specifically about what separatism means, and perhaps reevaluate the use of violent action. “Maybe the older generation is right, maybe we have to awaken the people slowly to their situation, rather than jolt them as we wanted to.”

This long-term approach to political action reflects a shared powerlessness, and the hope that some kind of radical change befalls the mainland, allowing Hong Kong to take charge of its political affairs.6 “We know that no system of government can last forever,” said Benny Tai, a law professor at Hong Kong University and one of the original instigators of the Umbrella Movement. It is not an unreasonable prediction, since China faces a number of demographic, economic, and environmental challenges.

But even if China underwent some kind of democratic transition, there is general consensus—including among Chinese liberals—that it’s crucial for the nation to preserve its territorial integrity. Even a post-Communist leader is likely to take a dim view of greater autonomy for Hong Kong and would probably fight it vigorously. In any case, China’s growing economic strength and domestic censorship in the past decade suggest that the CCP is unlikely to collapse anytime soon, while many activists who spoke with me said they were running out of time to win the people over to their cause. As Chu said: “People are demoralized. They don’t know what we stand for, and we seem in their eyes to have lost a sense of purpose, with no goal or greater vision.”

Tai argued that democrats must prepare Hongkongers for self-governance, “so that when we have democracy we are able to really practice it.” Transforming subjects into citizens lies at the core of the post-Umbrella democracy movement. “The way of fighting for democracy,” Tai declared, “is to embed the principles of the future order into the methods of resistance. The end is in the means.” But he also thinks that for the foreseeable future, the democratic opposition should be more concerned with preventing greater repressions than in promoting democracy, the prospects for which are weak and infinitesimal. “We have to defend our existing position first before we can advance, and ensure there’s no further slide towards authoritarianism.”

On October 1, Tai led a demonstration of 40,000 people against authoritarianism in Hong Kong. Leung and Yau were there, too, distributing fliers on the virtues of independence. Groups dressed in black, their faces half-covered by scarves, waved Hong Kong Independence banners alongside the flag of Catalonian independence. Demosistō supporters held photos of their imprisoned leaders, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law (who have since been released on bail). Leung Kwok Hung stood on Hennessy Road, not far from Causeway Bay Books, urging the protesters on through a megaphone. And as the marchers approached the Government Offices, the rains fell, and the umbrellas opened up, just as they had done in May 1989, and again, against the tear gas, in 2014, seemingly condemned to rehearse this spectacle of dissent for a good while longer.