The Hong Kong we once knew is now gone forever. Sadly, it’s never coming back.
By Keith Richburg
Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese sovereignty came at midnight on July 1, 1997. But China’s makeover of Hong Kong began exactly 23 years later, midnight July 1, 2020.
Over the past nine months, China’s Communist Party rulers in Beijing have launched a wholesale transformation of nearly every aspect of life in this prosperous territory – in the schools, the courts, the civil service, the media, the elected legislature, and even the relatively powerless local neighborhood councils. Only the local business community has been largely spared – but not untouched – by the changes.
As a result, in less than a year, this once freewheeling city known for its frenetic energy, lively debates, rambunctious local media, and long tradition of street protests has become hardly recognizable. This longtime British colony which once embodied the perfect blend of East and West now resembles every other sprawling megacity on the Chinese mainland, marked by soaring skyscrapers and impressive infrastructure, but stifled by repression and fear.
The vehicle for Hong Kong’s rapid transformation is the new draconian national security law (“NSL”) imposed by Beijing and handed down last year. Hong Kong’s China-appointed local government was supposed to draft and implement its own version of the national security law immediately after the ‘97 handover, but successive leaders repeatedly demurred in the face of intense local opposition.
Finally, Beijing’s leaders decided to step in and do it themselves. The proximate cause was a series of large-scale and often violent anti-government protests that erupted here in June 2019 and continued unabated for the next seven months, until the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic early last year brought a ban on all public gatherings.
The demonstrations were sparked when the city’s Beijing-appointed administrator, called “Chief Executive,” Carrie Lam, introduced an ill-conceived criminal extradition bill that would have allowed suspects arrested in Hong Kong to be shipped over the border to stand trial in China’s opaque and unjust legal system. In the face of government intransigence and increasingly brutal police tactics, the demonstrations soon morphed into a broader movement that began to challenge China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.
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The 2019 protests saw unprecedented scenes of masked, black-clad demonstrators armed with rocks, slingshots, Molotov cocktails, and even bows and arrows battling riot police who fired tens of thousands of rounds of tear gas, water from a spray cannon, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. High-end shopping malls, subway stations, university campuses, and even the upscale financial district of Central came to resemble a single fluid and shifting battle zone. Thousands were arrested under the charge of “rioting,” which carries a lengthy prison term.
At first, China’s Communist leaders tried to ignore the protests. In the early days, there was almost no mention of the riots made in the tightly controlled, heavily censored state-run media. When stories eventually did begin to appear, it was almost always to depict the demonstrators as a small band of “rioters.” But when protesters attacked the Beijing central government’s main office in Hong Kong and provocatively defaced the Chinese emblem with black paint, defiantly tossed the Chinese flag into the harbor, and began targeting China-affiliated banks and mainland-owned restaurants, authorities in Beijing decided enough was enough… And the result is the new NSL.
China’s version of the law, imposed on Hong Kong with no local input or debate, defines four broad categories of offenses: terrorism, secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces.
The national security law is actually somewhat a misnomer. The new law is much more an Internal Security Act of the kind commonly used in Britain’s other former colonies like Malaysia and Singapore, which is aimed at crushing internal dissent, not deterring an attack from abroad. China’s version of the law, imposed on Hong Kong with no local input or debate, defines four broad categories of offenses: terrorism, secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces. Those sweeping categories are left deliberately vague, meaning the NSL can proscribe virtually anything police, prosecutors, or the Chinese government wants it to.
Under the law, singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem of the 2019 protest movement, or chanting the movement’s slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time,” can now be deemed a national security offense. Carrying a banner, wearing a T-shirt, or posting a social media text advocating Hong Kong independence can lead to arrest and a lifetime prison sentence. Under the new law, inciting hatred against the local government, the Communist authorities in Beijing, or against the Hong Kong police is now a national security crime.
The law is so broadly written that even criticizing the NSL itself is a crime against national security.
The NSL has created an entirely new enforcement infrastructure. The police now have a special national security unit, with broad powers of surveillance, arrest, and interrogation of anyone suspected of breaching the law. Mainland China has brought its own national security officers into Hong Kong, initially taking over a 33-story, 266-room hotel in the middle of the city for some 200 new officers who can operate freely without any local oversight or scrutiny – local police are not even allowed to pull over these officers’ cars.
A separate, parallel court system has been set up to hear national security cases, with select judges named secretly to a pool allowed to hear sensitive NSL cases. The immigration department is said to have a new unit specifically to scrutinize sensitive visa applications and work permits on national security grounds. Schools, from kindergarten to high school, have been ordered to implement “national security education” into all aspects of the curriculum, including use of a cartoon owl teaching the youngest children to recite the four NSL crimes. Hong Kong’s autonomous, publicly funded universities have also been told to submit detailed plans on how they intend to teach national security on their campuses.
Hong Kong government officials, and pro-China supporters in the population, defend the sweeping new law as necessary to restore calm and a sense of order after months of protests. In this, they say the law has largely succeeded and the protests have been quelled. But critics – or those who still dare to speak out openly – say the law has been used to muzzle legitimate dissent, stifle individual liberties, and transform Hong Kong into a “typical mainland city,” devoid of any political life or freedom of thought.
The power of the new NSL has been felt here quickly and dramatically, both formally in the rising tally of arrests and informally in people’s voluntary changes of behavior. As of this writing, around 100 people have been arrested under national security violations. A large part of that number comes from when 47 of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy politicians and activists were taken to court in handcuffs and charged with subversion.
The 47 were picked up in a mass arrest in January and hauled back to court in March. Their crime? They participated in an unofficial primary election last July to select the strongest candidates to run in legislative council elections planned for last September, which have since been postponed indefinitely. Prosecutors say the pro-democracy candidates were conspiring to win a majority of seats in the legislature which would have allowed them to block the government’s initiatives. In other places, trying to win a majority on the legislature might be called “democracy.” In the new Hong Kong, it’s subversion, punishable by life imprisonment, if convicted.
In early March, only four of the activists were allowed out on bail. The rest could remain in prison for months or years while the police say they continue to investigate the case.
Other actions and arrests have been equally chilling… The first person arrested under the law last year was a 23-year-old accused of running his motorcycle into a police line during a protest while carrying a flag that said, “Liberate Hong Kong.” He has been charged with inciting secession and engaging in terrorism, and he remains in jail.
Last December, eight Chinese University students were arrested – three of them under the national security crime of “inciting secession” – after donning black graduation robes, hoisting black balloons, and chanting some of the prohibited slogans from the 2019 protests. Another handful of Chinese University students were arrested earlier this year for throwing white powder on security guards.
Candidates running for seats in the Chinese University student union blasted the university administration for colluding with police to have students arrested, and they published a manifesto blasting the NSL as a violation of basic human rights. Chinese University administrators in response cut all ties with their own student union.
Meanwhile at the Hong Kong Baptist University, campus authorities canceled the planned “World Press Photo Exhibition 2020” the weekend before the scheduled March 1 opening, citing security and safety concerns. But the real reason seems to be several of the winning World Press Photo images were of 2019 Hong Kong protests, including policemen violently attacking demonstrators. The announcement of the cancellation came after a pro-Beijing website said the photos glorified rioters and incited hatred toward the police.
A new national security snitch hotline, which carries echoes of East Germany’s old Stasi state security services, has received tens of thousands of tips about supposed national security violations. Civil servants and teachers are being forced to take “loyalty oaths” to China. Some teachers say they fear saying anything in their classes that might be considered a violation of national security. One pro-Beijing lawmaker has called for cameras to be installed in classrooms to monitor what teachers tell their students.
Hongkongers are on edge. They have been deleting their social media accounts, scrubbing their Facebook pages of past pro-democracy statements, and deleting old Twitter posts supporting the protests or criticizing the government. Political parties have disbanded. Public libraries have removed books from their shelves that might be considered subversive. Journalists have said sources who they once conversed with regularly are now too afraid to talk or meet openly. More and more, Hong Kong is becoming like mainland China.
Beijing’s Communist rulers are also making certain that the postponed elections for the local Hong Kong legislature – if they happen at all – occur under strict new rules that guarantee only friendly pro-China forces prevail. In meetings in Beijing, Communist authorities have empowered a handpicked election panel to vet all candidates for the legislature and to appoint a majority of loyalists to the body. The goal, Chinese officials say openly, is to guarantee that only “patriots” are running Hong Kong.
They seem to be operating under the theory that if you cannot win the election fairly, just change the rules of the game.
Foreign condemnation of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong has been strong. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on several top Hong Kong officials deemed responsible for eroding the city’s freedoms, including Carrie Lam and Commissioner of Police Chris Tang. Lam has complained that she’s unable to use any credit cards or banks because of the sanctions, and now sits on piles of cash at home to pay her bills.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of colonial Hong Kong, said with the planned changes to the election system, “China’s communist parliament has taken the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong’s freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law.”
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong recently surveyed its members and found that 40% of respondents were pessimistic about the future there, and one-third said Hong Kong had become less competitive as a global financial center. Some 61% of respondents said Hong Kong’s business environment had deteriorated over the last year, and many named the national security law as well as the COVID pandemic as the cause. Still, there’s no rush to the exits – Hong Kong remains a key financial hub, with the world’s second-largest stock exchange and the key gateway to China’s vast market.
Some Hongkongers, though, appear to be voting with their feet. A few opposition leaders managed to flee into exile, and as many as 300,000 eligible former British subjects are expected to take up an offer from the British government to relocate to the United Kingdom to escape the crackdown. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. should similarly offer safe haven to Hongkongers trying to flee the repression.
Could this have been avoided? And is there any way to reverse the changes and take Hong Kong back to a place we all recognize?
The first answer is yes. Hong Kong reached this bleak state through intransigence – by a stubborn chief executive who refused to back down from her wildly unpopular extradition bill even when more than 1 million people marched in the streets. And there was intransigence, too, by the pro-democracy opposition camp, which over the years repeatedly refused to accept compromise offers of limited democracy “with Chinese characteristics” and continued to insist on universal suffrage, which Beijing would never allow. The pro-democracy activists were also reluctant to vocally condemn the violence by the more radical protesters among their ranks who attacked police and damaged businesses.
China’s extreme makeover is now nearly complete. Almost every prominent pro-democracy figure is either in jail or in exile. Dissent has been crushed, and the opposition largely decimated.
And to the second question of could Hong Kong get back to how it was before… the answer is no. China’s extreme makeover is now nearly complete. Almost every prominent pro-democracy figure is either in jail or in exile. Dissent has been crushed, and the opposition largely decimated. The electoral changes ensure there will be no dissenting voices in government, and the NSL – and the heightened police response – means that Hongkongers’ tradition of street protest has essentially ended. And foreign governments, including the United States, seem unable and unlikely to do much beyond the normal verbal protestations.
In other words, the Hong Kong we once knew is now gone forever. Sadly, it’s never coming back. And Hongkongers themselves must share part of the blame.
Keith B. Richburg is Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. He spent 33 years with the Washington Post, serving as Foreign Editor and Bureau Chief in Manila, Nairobi, Hong Kong, Paris, Beijing, and Shanghai, and covered the Hong Kong handover in 1997. He is the author of Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, published in 1997.