The imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, is a hammer blow to the city’s pro-democracy movement, which has all but disintegrated after several months of escalating police violence and government crackdowns. The Chinese Communist Party, impatient with the local government’s inability to pass its own laws in the face of mass opposition, bypassed Hong Kong’s lawmakers and kept even the loyalist chief executive, Carrie Lam, in the dark about the details.
Beijing has used the bogey of a “political scheme of external forces ... interfering in Hong Kong affairs” as its justification. “Extremist organisations advocating the so-called ‘Hong Kong independence’ and radical separatist forces have committed shocking violent crimes that are in the nature of terrorism”, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported last month after the Congress resolved to assert itself.
The Safeguarding National Security law, which came into effect on 1 July, outlines new criminal acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion in sweeping terms that give authorities a broad remit to arrest and potentially prosecute democratic activists on the flimsiest of pretexts. Unlawful attempts to organise, plan or participate in the disruption of the functioning of government or “damaging the premises and facilities used by” government are among the offences listed as subversion. The crime of collusion includes unlawfully “provoking hatred” toward the central government in Beijing. People found sabotaging transport or control systems – such as last year’s mass attacks on traffic lights, and attacks on the metro rail after it became a means of transporting police to protest sites – can now be charge with terrorism.
In all, the activities prohibited in the name of national security would have applied to perhaps tens of thousands of supporters of last year’s pro-democracy movement. Further, people deemed to have assisted or incited those facing primary charges also face potential jail time, putting in Beijing’s crosshairs any solidarity movement like last year’s mass support for student activists fighting for universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police violence. Already, local police have used the provisions to arrest at least 10 people, including a 15-year-old carrying a flag advocating Hong Kong independence. Presumably, the police reasoned that this schoolgirl was “organising, planning, committing or participating in” the separation of Hong Kong from China. For a “principal offender”, such a crime is punishable with life imprisonment under the articles on secession.
Beijing will also establish a mainland security intelligence division in the city, the Office for Safeguarding National Security. China’s secret police will legally operate in Hong Kong and are immune from local oversight when carrying out their duties. In some instances, defendants can be tried in mainland courts. And if the national security law anywhere contradicts local laws, the former prevails. The legal firewall between Hong Kong and the mainland is irrevocably breached.
“This next period will be dark. It will be the most difficult period”, Winnie Yu, president of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, said over the phone from Hong Kong prior to the full details of the new law being made public. “Some colleagues are talking about emigrating. But for others this is not an option, they can’t afford it. Many of us will stay and fight. I’m not very optimistic, because our enemy is the Chinese Communist Party. It is so powerful. But we have to stay united and stay strong.”
Winnie is part of a new generation that has attempted to build a democratic opposition within the labour movement. On the back of last year’s mass mobilisations, several dozen new unions were formed. The hospital employees, registered in December, grew rapidly to cover around one-quarter of the sector and led a strike against the government in February. But the broader movement’s attempts to turn deep-seated anger into large-scale action have had diminishing returns. A city-wide survey of union members to gauge the mood for strike action against the national security law failed to draw a significant response, with fewer than 9,000 members voting. Of those, most were for holding a general strike. In a city of 7.5 million, it was nowhere near enough. “Most union members are strongly against the security law, but there are hesitations about going on strike or taking other industrial actions”, Winnie says, citing widespread fear and demoralisation.
Yet mobilisations did occur in response to the new law’s enactment. Despite a huge police presence, thousands protested on Hong Kong Island, filling side streets as the authorities blocked main streets. More than 350 reportedly were arrested. “There is an anger here. Desperation, demoralisation – but also anger and hatred. The good news is that there is still a will to fight and resist. At least 10,000 took to the streets, which was more than I had expected”, Au Loong Yu, author of Hong Kong in revolt: the protest movement and the future of China, says over the phone a day later. But his expectations had been incredibly low. It is a bad sign that only 10,000 turned out against the biggest attack on democratic rights since the reversion of the territory to Chinese sovereignty. And by his estimation, the numbers have nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic.
“The weaknesses in the movement were there from the beginning. But after a year, it is just as atomised as before”, Au says. “Civil society here is very weak. No layers of activists to give cohesion to the movement in a downswing. In a police state, things are even worse in the absence of this. The frontal attack from Beijing – no one was prepared for this, not politically prepared, and we are organisationally weak. Among the pan-democratic parties [the mainstream liberal opposition], it was quite alarming that very few [of their leaders] took the initiative to march on the streets. Just three or four of them – a real failure here. And there are no new organisations [emerging] from the young people to take the lead.”
The more radical “localists”, small but influential and often xenophobic groups that advocate independence, seem to have gone to ground. Other advocates of self-determination have done likewise. One key small party, Demosistō, led by prominent former student activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Agnes Chow, has completely dissolved. Nathan Law has fled the territory. In the debates online, some have expressed understanding, saying that the group’s leaders clearly face long jail sentences under the new regime and that their decisions should be respected. (These figures, from the right of the movement, have openly courted the United States.) Others say that they have failed a test when it mattered most.
While the movement may not have been prepared, the signs have been apparent in recent months. April, the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, ushered in a new wave of attacks against those defending the limited freedoms, both outlined and promised, enshrined in the document. Under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, police arrested more than a dozen veterans of the democracy movement for their roles in last year’s protests. China’s Liaison Office declared that it was not bound by a clause prohibiting the Chinese government from interfering in local affairs. The Liaison Office was established in 2000, replacing the New China News Agency, and has long been known to coordinate Communist Party cells and mobilise electoral support for pro-Beijing candidates in the city. But this was an unprecedented public announcement.
In May, nearly 400 protesters were arrested as authorities continued to crack down on civil disobedience, and 21-year-old lifeguard Sin Ka-ho, the first protester to plead guilty to rioting outside the Legislative Council on 12 June 2019, was sentenced to four years’ jail – ominous signals to demonstrators that the state was far from compromising. The city budget passed despite opposition from pro-democracy lawmakers, providing a 25 percent boost to police funding, and the Independent Police Complaints Council released a 1,000-page report on police conduct during last year’s protest movement. Despite receiving nearly 2,000 complaints, the council found that law enforcement acted according to guidelines. Later in the month, the government passed a law outlawing the mocking of the Chinese national anthem. “Anyone who publicly and wilfully alters the lyrics or the score of ‘March of the volunteers’, performs or sings the anthem in a derogatory manner, or insults the song, [faces] a penalty of up to HK$50,000 and three years in jail”, warned a Hong Kong Free Press explainer.
Now, with the imposition of the national security law, the character of the resistance in Hong Kong perhaps is irrevocably changed. The Communist Party talks about a “second return” of the territory. Part one was the 1997 handover, which Beijing now considers a failure. Part two is the city’s incorporation into the so-called Greater Bay Area – a megalopolis comprising Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Huizhou, Zhaoqing, Hong Kong and Macau. In an era of perpetual encroachment, the pro-democracy camp’s protests now will be direct challenges to the central government, not simply to local authorities.
Are there realistic paths to victory for those wanting to preserve the city’s freedoms and obtain a greater say in their own government? Winnie says that, despite the arrests of senior pan-democrats, much focus remains on the Legislative Council elections in September. The volume of arrests on the streets, more than 9,000 in the last year, and the ultra-aggressive police tactics have had an impact. “Society doesn’t want so many young people arrested. We need to be smarter; be water. A portion of the population thinks the Legislative Council is useless. I couldn’t say exactly how big that portion is. But probably most people think we need to diversify our tactics and the elections are part of that.”
The pan-democrats have invested a lot of hopes in the elections. But hopes will likely be shattered. The legislature is stacked against the democratic forces, and scores could be disqualified from running or taking office. One thing the strategy may have going for it is that an electoral show of force would at least be a decisive moral victory against Beijing’s overbearing and threatening posture. Yet if such a victory were not a catalyst for something bigger, a trigger for a further radicalisation, it would unlikely alter the existing balance of forces.
“It’s hard to feel any optimism about the Hong Kong struggle’s future right now”, Jeff Wasserstrom, author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the brink, wrote in June, “but it’s worth noting how hard it would have been to feel optimistic about Solidarity’s chances as its leaders were arrested and Poland fell under martial law at the end of 1981”. Solidarity (Solidarność in Polish), which emerged in 1980, was a mass movement against bureaucratic rule, whose leaders suffered persecution before triumphing in 1989, winning the country’s first free elections in four decades and releasing the country from Stalinist authoritarianism.
There are many reasons not to draw an analogy between Hong Kong and Poland. Solidarność was an independent trade union with a membership of 10 million, and as such was an expression not only of democratic sentiment, but of the power of Poland’s organised working class. While the independent trade union movement in Hong Kong has made strides, thus far it has been peripheral to the democratic movement – hence the central feature of the resistance has been street protests, rather than strikes or the formation of industry-based democratic structures to bypass the anti-majoritarian system of government in the city. Further, Solidarność evolved during a period of economic crisis in Poland and of existential crisis in the Soviet Union, Russian weaknesses being exposed by the failing occupation of Afghanistan and an economy stuttering under the weight of a renewed Cold War with the United States. The economic situation is now deteriorating in Hong Kong and China, primarily because of the global pandemic. But, relative to its global competitors, China appears stronger than ever and the Communist Party supremely confident.
Yet the comparison seems apt in other respects. The movements in both places were against a purported communism, and were lauded by conservatives and maligned by socialists in the West who, ignoring the democratic content of the outpourings, focused primarily on Central Intelligence Agency conspiracies and the “counter-revolutionary” implications of the victory of anti-communism. (The CIA did aid Solidarność, but this should have been as relevant to the question of support for the whole democratic movement as Irish Republican Army collaboration with German military intelligence was to the question of Irish national liberation.)
More important in the analogy is that Hong Kong’s democratic fate, like that of Poland, ultimately may rest on the crippling of its overseer. Polish workers gained their limited freedoms not only through their own struggle, but through the collapse of the entire Eastern Bloc of Stalinist rule with the spread of revolutionary movements in 1989 to Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, and the final dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Chinese Communist Party may seem more secure in its position than its Russian counterpart. But it is as vulnerable to rebellion as any totalitarian regime built on exploitation. At some point, the cohesion of Chinese society will be tested, and with it the rule of the Mandarins in Beijing. When that happens, the young Hong Kongers who have fought so valiantly may find their greatest and perhaps most unexpected ally in the Chinese working class. Several years ago, Joshua Wong expressed the fear of many that Hong Kong would become “no different from Shenzhen”, the city just across the territory’s border. But in the future, such fear may be transformed into a desire among radicals to emulate that city if the Pearl River Delta rises in its own rebellion against the one-party state capitalism imposed by Beijing.
This is a point that the small and marginalised socialist left in Hong Kong has argued, and organised around, for decades. With the lines of demarcation between Hong Kong and China being erased, it is a point more relevant than ever. “The game has changed and so must the Hong Kong movement”, Vincent Wong and JS wrote at Lausan, a left-wing website, when the far-reaching nature of the Communist Party’s moves against Hong Kong’s democratic opposition became evident in May. “With the fate of Hong Kongers now more intimately tied with those who are marginalized and oppressed in the mainland, Hong Kongers must realign their struggles with Chinese mainlanders who are similarly oppressed by the Chinese state. Now is not the time to look to the West. Now is the time for solidarity with Chinese workers, Chinese activists, and all who are oppressed in China.”