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In Hong Kong, Uncertainty Rules as Beijing Asserts Control

The protests of last year against the Extradition Bill convinced Beijing that it needed to intervene. Beijing has now chosen to sideline the Hong Kong government. It will impose its new law on the territory from Beijing.

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A participant displaying images on a tablet device at a vigil in Victoria Park linking pro-democracy protests with the 1989 Tiananmen Square in China, Hong Kong, June 4, 2020

Hong Kong has long been haunted by the thought of its future. Many of its citizens worry that it will become just another mainland Chinese city. This fear is often voiced as though to ward it off. But it is also spoken of as if it is already a reality.

That future, for many, was brought closer on Thursday May 21. The sky was clear, VPNs were jammed. China’s political elite entered the Great Hall of the People for the Two Sessions, the country’s most important annual political event. The fifth item on the agenda was a document, known in China as a “decision,” that stated the official intent to draw up a National Security Law for Hong Kong.

At this moment, there is only the decision to draft a law—a commitment that it is on its way. The earliest the law will come into force is later this month, when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress next convenes. If not this month, then at its next session, in August. The law will target secessionism, subversion, terrorism, any behavior that seriously endangers national security, and foreign interference. If necessary, said the committee’s vice chairman, Wang Chen, Chinese national security organs will be set up in Hong Kong, an addition to the existing three (for foreign affairs, the liaison office, and the army garrison).

Those in favor of Beijing’s intervention point to Article 23 of Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which requires the region to enact its own national security laws. The Hong Kong legislature tried to enact a National Security Bill back in 2003. In response, at least half a million people took to the streets, and pro-establishment politicians crossed the floor. Without a two-thirds majority, the bill was shelved. No one in the legislature touched Article 23 again; it seemed not to be a political priority.

The protests of last year against the Extradition Bill convinced Beijing that it needed to intervene. The eruption of political differences into unprecedented violence on the streets closed public transport links and businesses. They disturbed the life of the territory. Blame was laid at the feet either of the government and its police arm or at those of the protesters, depending on one’s political perspective. People took on colors to represent their political affiliation: blue for pro-government; yellow for pro-protest.

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President Xi Jinping voting on a new draft National Security Bill for Hong Kong at the National People’s Congress, Beijing, China, May 28, 2020 in

Beijing has now chosen to sideline the Hong Kong government. It will impose the law on the territory from Beijing. Pro-establishment politicians in both Hong Kong and Beijing have tried to offer reassurances that this is not an end to “One Country, Two Systems.” Beijing’s official statement maintains that the law is needed to deal with independence advocates, flag-defacement, undermining of national unity. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said that the law is only aimed at a small number of illegal and criminal acts and activities, and there is no need to worry: Hong Kong’s freedoms, she said, will be preserved.

The overriding feeling in the territory is uncertainty. Since details are absent for now, questions are taking their place. Who will be safe under Beijing’s interpretation of what security is? How will terms like subversion be defined, and how broadly? Those attending protests like to hold up placards with President Xi Jinping’s face on them—will that be allowed? Some are wondering whether political satire and speech will survive: Pepe the Frog stickers are popular among those who resent the government (he may be a white supremacist symbol in the US, but in Hong Kong this sardonic amphibian now represents anti-government protest).

This law is the latest in a series of decisions Hong Kongers have been excluded from. They can challenge neither the decision to legislate nor the law itself (which will become part of Hong Kong’s Basic Law). Professor Johannes Chan, the chair of public law at Hong Kong University, believes the law’s enforcement will inevitably extend to other areas of citizen action, such as peaceful advocacy of what Beijing chooses to regard as subversive speech or acts. In his view, there are already existing laws that cover every threat to national security—including the street violence seen in some of the mass protests, which falls under criminal law. “If [Hong Kong’s judiciary] find some part of the law inconsistent with the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights and strike it down,” he asks, “will the central government say ‘well done’?” 

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The protesters are facing a regime in Beijing that has changed a great deal since 2003. Article 23 was the most controversial topic during Alvin Yeung’s time at Peking University. He remembers it as a liberal campus, where he could put his views forward to professors as well as classmates. “Not that I was able to convince everybody, but at least I put the Hong Kong case forward,” he told me recently. Sometimes, he was the only Hong Konger in the room. From what he hears, voices like his are no longer heard in Beijing’s classrooms.

Yeung now heads Hong Kong’s Civic Party, a pro-democracy political party with five seats out of seventy in the Legislative Council. The proposed National Security Law, in his view, will be a threat to fundamental freedom. “You can’t use a worse solution, or a worse tool, to replace something you have done wrong,” he said. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections will take place in September. I asked him whether he thinks the law will affect the elections. The better question, he said, is to ask why Beijing is doing this now—in spite of the fact that the Chinese authorities know the Hong Kong election is coming.

Professor Albert Chen, who sits on the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee, which comes under China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and chairs the constitutional law department at Hong Kong University, identifies as pro-government. He was surprised, though, that Beijing had decided to enact the law itself, rather than leave it up to Hong Kong’s legislature. The best scenario, in his view, is that people will back down and accept there is nothing they can do about the law. “One cannot be too optimistic,” he said. “There will be protests and also international criticism.” He thinks Hong Kong is now trapped in a vicious cycle: “The more people engage in activities Beijing considers subversive, the more active Beijing will be in trying to control or contain those.”

It is no surprise that protesters’ online forums are full of debates on how to respond to Beijing’s gambit. Dates and routes for protests swiftly circulated (May 24 and 27; Sogo, Causeway Bay to Wan Chai’s Southorn Playground). One post proposed a new flag, half-yellow, half-black—the colors of the protests. These protesters do not accept the National Security Law and are convinced it will encroach on their civic freedoms.

On the Sunday after the announcement, thousands marched in the streets. They held up their open hands: five fingers, one for each demand. It was an illegal protest; the authorities had not approved the gathering. Hong Kong still has social-distancing requirements in place. Groups of more than eight people are not permitted to meet; if they do, they will be subject to a HK$2,000 ($256) fine.

The police arrested more than a hundred people. There was a post-arrest ritual that gives a measure of protesters’ underlying sense of insecurity in the face of authority. Once an arrest was made, civilians made sure to take a picture of the arrestee and posted them on online channels. What might be a breach of privacy elsewhere is a necessary safety measure in Hong Kong, where there is a widespread belief that people disappeared during last year’s protests. Those who knew the person in question called legal hotlines and passed on information to pro bono lawyers. (Lawyers cannot turn up at police stations without knowing who their client is.) On Sunday, some of those arrested were as young as sixteen. This was already a trend during the anti-Extradition Bill protests of last year.

“It’s heartbreaking to see that society requires even young kids to take to the streets,” said Yeung added. “On the other hand, I’m proud of them. At the end of the day, they will be the ones in charge.” When he is not busy being a politician, Yeung acts as one of those pro bono lawyers representing protesters and making sure they know their rights. He is active on Twitter in calling for international attention to what is going on in the streets and beyond. Does he worry about his own safety?

“My wife does. My mother does,” he acknowledged. “Personally, if I say, ‘absolutely no worries,’ I’d be lying.”

Part of Yeung’s family had moved to Canada. But Hong Kong was home to him. He gave up his Canadian citizenship to run for political office. He is perhaps atypical both for his outspoken stance and for his commitment to stay. Many in Hong Kong are seeking ways to escape.

One prospective migrant has been following updates on British National Overseas status (he asked that I not use his name, for fear of reprisals). He, along with others, have been behind a spike in Internet searches for “emigration.” He does not believe independence for Hong Kong is possible, and the law has made him think about leaving.

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He witnessed a subtle silencing starting in Hong Kong’s private sector last year. He worked at a company that “turned red”—that is, its management took an anti-protest stance—and told me how his colleagues were summoned to appear before senior executives. Printouts of their personal Facebook and Instagram posts were laid before these staff. Is this your account, each was asked. Those who had no way of denying the posts were theirs were fired. After that, this employee made his accounts private; that helps, but he also worries that even colleagues in his private networks might report his posts.

Already, people are using the word “sensitive” more and more to signal the need for caution. For self-censorship, in effect.

Even before the law has laid out its red lines, people are drawing their own. A middle-school teacher, whose name I am also withholding for her protection, knew this only too well. Phased reopening of schools after the Covid-19 lockdown had started, about a week after the announcement from Beijing, when she went into work on May 27. On TV that day, she saw young people being arrested—some still in school uniform. None of those she saw were her students, but they could have been.

She teaches applied English to classes of thirty-odd students. When it came to a discussion of professions, and the part played by the police in maintaining security, she skipped the topic. Too sensitive. Last year, when her students talked about joining the protests, she pretended she hadn’t heard. It was safer to cultivate a kind of willful unknowing. Of course, she had her own stance, she said, but she didn’t show it. Again, too sensitive.

Increasingly, though, the professional and political lines are blurred—and it is more difficult not to take a side. The question of political loyalties has become one to which institutions and the individuals that staff them increasingly find they must have an answer. The middle-school teacher finds herself caught between the establishment and the students she teaches.

Last year, her students argued online, they argued in school. They staged class boycotts to protest the Extradition Bill. She knew the Education Bureau did not approve, but at that point the agency hadn’t given any specific directions to schools. She and other teachers worked out their own compromise. They allowed students not to attend regular class and organized a separate study area where they could sit and write about their ideas on the political situation and the protests.

She is now in the impossible position of trying to manage a compromise that neither side will accept. Over the past week, she and her fellow teachers received notices from the Education Bureau: class boycotts are not allowed. She already knew how protesters might react to that edict. As for students who are recent migrants from the mainland, she’s seen many of them quit her school.

Although she did not join the protests herself, she browsed Telegram groups occasionally to check what students were saying about the school and those working for it. Some schools have been “renovated,” as protesters like to call it when they break windows, throw eggs, and paint graffiti. Now, feeling the need to be more careful about her own Internet use, she’s considering deleting her Facebook account.

Simon Jankowski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A protester holding up a placard at a commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre held in defiance of a police ban, Hong Kong, June 4, 2020

“One Country, Two Systems” has been an elastic concept, stretching to accommodate different political opinions and futures for Hong Kong. People of divergent political stripes point to it as a vindication of whichever view they hold: a transition, a preparation for eventual convergence in 2047; or the status quo, a sanctuary of civil liberties.

The National Security Law is not merely a legislative or legal matter; it goes to the heart of who gets to decide what “One Country, Two Systems” means. Beijing’s decision to intervene is an aggressive assertion that in the name of “One Country,” it can redefine “Two Systems.” What once worked by seeming to accommodate a spectrum of views now appears more like a fundamental contradiction. The space for different readings of what the coexistence of Hong Kong and mainland China means is contracting.

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