Benny Tai Yiu-ting: Hong Kong Isn’t What It Was, Nor What It’s Supposed to Be

Hundreds of protesters marked the fourth anniversary of mass pro-democracy rallies, known as the Umbrella Movement, in Hong Kong on Sept. 28. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Hundreds of protesters marked the fourth anniversary of mass pro-democracy rallies, known as the Umbrella Movement, in Hong Kong on Sept. 28. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For years, this city was neither genuinely democratic nor entirely authoritarian. Its politics had both democratic and authoritarian elements, though on balance those were more democratic than authoritarian. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement with the Chinese government in Beijing afforded it a high degree of autonomy. The territory was able to maintain the rule of law by constraining the local government’s powers and protecting citizens’ fundamental rights.

Not anymore. In the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement in late 2014, a series of protests and an occupation that paralyzed major Hong Kong streets for 79 days, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has adjusted its approach. The Chinese government in Beijing has increasingly cracked down on Hong Kong politically, while steadily integrating the city’s economy into the mainland’s.

Hong Kong is now linked by high-speed train to mainland China, and a new mega-bridge connects the city with the Pearl River Delta. But the glossy surface of greater economic ties cannot mask dark sociopolitical realities. Through many agents in both the public sector and civil society here, the C.C.P. is using a combination of coercion and economic might, as well intimidation, deception and confusion to weaken remaining forms of dissent. Having placed a lackey at the head of the Hong Kong executive branch and muffled pro-democracy voices in the local legislature, known as LegCo, its principal targets today are what is left of the political opposition, civil society and the independent judicial system.

Hong Kong’s fundamental laws, called the Basic Law, are subject to the final interpretation of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Resort to that power, after long being treated as an exception, has been normalized in recent times, in an effort to provide a semblance of constitutional backing — seasoned with arbitrary meanings — for the Chinese government’s repressive measures.

In 2016, for example, legislators from various factions of the pro-democracy camp were removed from LegCo on the basis of a Standing Committee interpretation of a Basic Law provision about the oath of office. That reading has also been used to disqualify candidates to the legislature simply for holding political opinions that displease the government in Beijing. Candidates supporting the independence of Hong Kong were the first to be barred; then it was people advocating self-determination for the city.

After the removal of a half-dozen legislators from the pro-democracy camp, the pro-Beijing faction in LegCo has come to control a special majority — and has used it to amend LegCo’s rules of procedure. As a result, the opposition can no longer filibuster to challenge controversial decisions by the government.

The practice of barring unwelcome persons from running for office continues. The latest example concerns Lau Siu-lai, a member of the Labour Party and a democracy advocate. Ms. Lau was elected to LegCo in 2016, only to be removed the following year for the irregular way in which she had first read her oath of office (namely, very, very slowly). A by-election for her vacated seat is to be held in late November. Ms. Lau had announced that she would run again, but last month the electoral authorities disqualified her, without bothering to hear from her. They argued that comments she made in 2016 supporting “democratic self-determination” were evidence that she contests China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

The onslaught against free speech extends beyond candidates for political office — and doesn’t seem to require making any offending statement at all.

In September, the city’s secretary for security repurposed a law aimed at combating organized crime syndicates to ban the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, claiming that the party’s activities were a threat to national security. The ban was then invoked to punish people who had given the party a platform to express its views.

In July, weeks before the Hong Kong National Party was outlawed, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club organized a panel discussion with the party’s founder. Victor Mallet, the F.C.C. vice-president who moderated the discussion and a British national, has since been barred from returning to Hong Kong. Immigration services first refused, without explanation, to renew his work visa; he was then denied entry even as a tourist.

Beijing’s political red lines here keep shifting — but always in the direction of more repression.

No longer facing any significant opposition in LegCo, the government is likely to soon propose new authoritarian laws. The most significant would be national security measures to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law, which provides that Hong Kong must prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against the Chinese government. Mere speeches supporting the independence of Hong Kong or self-determination could fall under those measures.

Prosecutorial power is already being used to deter people from organizing any form of civil disobedience. Eight other leaders of the Umbrella Movement and I will be on trial starting Monday simply for organizing and leading protests that called for respecting the Hong Kong people’s existing democratic rights. We are charged with vague common law offenses: conspiring to cause a public nuisance, as well as inciting others to cause a public nuisance and inciting others to incite others to cause a public nuisance. We face seven years in prison, a far more severe sentence than more modern laws provide.

Not many people, inside or outside Hong Kong, seem to notice these changes or to take them seriously enough. Perhaps it’s because the deterioration is incremental and individual measures of repression are disguised as legal rules or sugarcoated in economic benefits. Yet Hong Kong no longer is what it was, nor what it is supposed to be.

But it isn’t dead either. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was right to say, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars”. Many people in Hong Kong continue to strive for democracy and to nonviolently resist Beijing’s creeping crackdown. We may not be able to stop the advance of authoritarianism. But we must do what we can at least to slow it down.

Benny Tai Yiu-ting is an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.

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