A year ago today, up to a million Hongkongers took to the streets – protesting China’s alleged undermining of the region’s autonomy. Recently, demonstrations have intensified. The Perspective spoke to some of the region’s pro-democracy activists – who say that the stakes are higher than ever.
“The new National Security Law in Hong Kong will kill future democratic movements”, Joshua Wong told The Perspective in an e-mail.
“All protests and other calls for democracy in the city will be classified as attempts of subversions of China’s authority, just like how the Beijing government does in China.”
Having been at the forefront of both the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the current protests, he is one the most prominent political activists in Hong Kong. He was the sole candidate in the 2019 local election to be barred from running.
Wong is referring to a new law recently voted through in China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress.
According to Xinhua News, the country’s official state-run press agency, The National People’s Congress has voted through the draft decision on “Establishing and Improving the Legal System and Enforcement Mechanisms” for Hong Kong, allowing the central government to assign national security agencies to operate in the enclave.
Pro-democracy activists and journalists in Hong Kong are worried that potential Chinese security forces will be established to target dissidents and to silent protesters.
Joshua Wong is one of them.
“I will be probably the prime target of the new law since many of Beijing’s officials have been criticizing me for attending overseas hearings and telling the truth of autocratic oppression and police brutality to the world”, he wrote.
Often sharing pro-democracy posts aimed at the Chinese central government on Twitter for his almost 600,000 followers, Wong is a force to be reckoned with for Beijing.
“This is the critical moment of the beginning of the end for every single citizen in Hong Kong”, Wong writes, arguing that the new law will spark new rounds of protests in the city, and that “Hongkongers are prepared to fight to protect our vanishing freedoms”.
Questions have been raised regarding the legality of the implementation – and they may contradict the current juridical arrangements.
Hong Kong has been governed by the Basic Law – the part of the Chinese constitution covering the autonomous region – since 1997, when China resumed sovereignty over the enclave after 156 years of British rule.
Article 5 in the Basic Law states that “the socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”, which means the region retains a high degree of autonomy until 2047.
Article 22 promises that no department of the Central People’s Government may interfere in Hong Kong affairs. While local democrats are criticising Beijing’s constant interference in the Legislative Council as a disrespect for the Basic Law, the Special Administrative Region argues that the intrusion was entirely appropriate as the central government has its rights to exercise its supervisory power over Hong Kong.
And while Article 23 states that Hong Kong “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government”, this new legislation was passed in Beijing – not Hong Kong.
Wong is especially vocal in his opposition to the new law.
“Beijing’s move is actually ramming this most controversial and unpopular law down Hongkonger’s throat without any legislative scrutiny. It is foreseeable that Hongkongers are prepared to fight to protect our vanishing freedoms”, he wrote.
On July 9, a year ago today, a million people took to the street to protest against a proposed extradition bill which would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China.
Protesters are afraid the existence of independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong will be withdrawn once the bill has been successfully implemented.
After months of protests and demonstrations, the SAR government finally announced the withdrawal of the bill in September. However, the protests have continued to urge for political reforms and an individual inquiry that investigates police’s abuse of power during the movement.
According to Marina Svensson, Director of Studies for Lund University’s Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, this gradual undermining of the region’s autonomy is a carefully planned strategy from China – and both the current pandemic and nationwide protests in the US may provide a beneficial smoke screen for Beijing.
“A year ago I would never think that China would go this far, but in times like these, there may be hawks in the Chinese leadership that see this as the perfect opportunity to push further”, she told The Perspective.
“China is testing the waters, awaiting international reactions – if especially the US and Great Britain strongly oppose these developments, they may be slowed down”, she said, adding that there is always the risk that more violence and activism could result in a downward spiral of escalation.
According to Svensson, there are two main issues that President Xi Jinping is considering when deciding on how far the escalation will go.
“China has their own domestic issues, especially in regards to their economy. Xi Jinping has successfully become the strongman of the country, and while many ordinary Chinese citizens believe in his fight against corruption, his handling of the initial stage of the corona crisis was perceived badly”, she said.
In 2018, Xi Jinping successfully amended the country’s constitution, abolishing term-limits and other safeguards implemented in 1982 – allowing him to serve for life. This endeavour may have forged rivalries between him and other aspiring politicians within the Communist Party.
“While it is impossible to know what happens within the corridors of power, it is not an unlikely scenario. And the Hong Kong protests could also have a spillover effect in mainland China – not against the system itself, but Chinese citizens may take inspiration from the region to protest against the faltering economy”, Svensson said.
Xi Jinping is likely taking these notions into careful consideration when deciding on how far he may escalate China’s involvement in Hong Kong in the wake of opposition, according to Svensson.
In a press release from 8 June, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying stressed that her country’s actions are fully lawful, and that the proposed law will not impact the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents.
“The legislation targets only a very small number of people whose behaviors gravely jeopardize national security”, she said, further commenting that around three million Hong Kong residents expressed their support in signature campaigns and that foreign investors or law-abiding Hongkongers should not worry.
Instead, she suggested that the US administration and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not genuinely care about the freedom of Hongkongers, but had more sinister objectives – sabotaging China’s national security.
“Pompeo once said that what is at stake about Hong Kong is that it is a bastion of freedom that can be used to influence China, by which his underhand intention cannot be revealed more clearly.” Chunying said.
Although some in Hong Kong are strongly at odds with Chunying’s remarks. Chloe*, a Hong Kong local in her twenties who has been actively protesting, partly China’s escalation since 2014, see this new law as threatening to her and all Hongkongers’ way of life.
“Once the new law is implemented, it can be predicted that the current indiscriminate arrestment will continue, and people will be charged with this much heavier accusation in order to increase the cost of protesting”, she told The Perspective, saying that people with very strong beliefs will still continue their actions at all costs.
To her, the reason why the Chinese government is trying to implement this law is to gradually cut Hong Kong off from the rest of the world.
Before this law, actions of promoting and distributing information of the protest or anything against the CCP were not easily prosecuted – something which, according to Chloe, may change soon.
“The Chinese Communist Party is afraid that the situation will soon be uncontrollable – they have to act fast before things go beyond their control”, she said.
For Chloe, her future is unclear. Like many Hongkongers have already done, she contemplates leaving the region in case China’s control grows too large. But it would be a difficult decision.
“If people are still united and willing to fight against the dictatorship, I will still choose to stand up and do what I can to protect this place, which I call “home” – like my decision to stand up at the very beginning.”
* Due to her active part in the protests, according to herself on the “front-line”, Chloe has requested anonymity, fearing persecution from Chinese authorities.