Hong Kong’s universities reopened in September to a small on-campus fracas that soon ignited into a virulent controversy about the future of the most basic freedoms in the territory.
It started when a student from mainland China at Chinese University of Hong Kong tore down posters calling for the city’s independence from the so-called Democracy Wall, a space for free expression under the management of a student union. The university’s president, previously thought to be liberal-leaning, asked for the signs’ removal, suggesting that the very notion of independence was illegal under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.
Yet, Article 27 of the Basic Law stipulates, among other things, that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication.”
Student unions on other campuses objected, and more posters went up. Leonard Cheng, the president of the liberal arts Lingnan University, said that independence was an appropriate topic of academic discussion — but also that “we will absolutely disallow advocacy on Hong Kong independence.”
>The China-owned newspaper Wen Hui Pao then criticized Mr. Cheng, calling him irresponsible and an appeaser, and urged local universities to ban talk of independence. The next day, 10 universities issued a joint statement saying, “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses,” adding that independence “contravenes the Basic Law.”
Soon after, Wang Zhimin, the new head of the Central Liaison Office, Beijing’s formal representation in Hong Kong, said during a ceremony marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China, “All Chinese people including over 7 million Hong Kong people have ‘zero tolerance’ to the ‘Hong Kong independence’ notion.”
Beijing bristled, and the chancellors bowed.
More and more of Hong Kong’s elite is caving to increasing pressure from China. Business magnates, current and former government officials, prominent professors trained in the West, religious leaders, media owners, celebrities and even barristers who once advocated democracy for Hong Kong are denouncing calls for independence, sometimes viciously.
They tend to invoke patriotism to explain their embrace of Beijing’s political preferences, but their realignment often brings material benefits.
Some Hong Kong celebrities like the kung fu film star Jackie Chan have abruptly become patriotic. That has earned him good press in China and opened up access to its vast, lucrative entertainment markets. On the other hand, artists who express pro-democracy sentiments, like the singer Denise Ho, have been publicly vilified and prevented from performing. Some of them have been rehabilitated, but only after making public mea culpa, broadcast countrywide.
The Chinese Communist Party, in its almost 100 years of existence, has perfected a highly sophisticated system of punishments and rewards, and it extends well beyond the mainland. Known as the United Front, this patronage network operates informally, but deliberately, in Chinese communities throughout the world, handing out various benefits to people willing to perform services for party and country.
In Hong Kong, the United Front is being deployed, often in the name of patriotism, to dismantle the best vestiges of British colonial administration — the rule of law, a professional and apolitical civil service and police force, a free press and now, free speech.
The publications Ming Pao and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, once bulwarks of independent journalism, have adopted a much more pro-China stance in recent years, dismissing journalists and editors who sounded critical views. (I was among them.) The remaining pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, is having to sell its weekly sister magazine, which used to be a major source of profit but has become insolvent as major companies in Hong Kong stopped placing ads in it at the behest of Beijing.
The rule of law in Hong Kong has been under siege at least since 2008, when Xi Jinping, then a state vice president of China, reportedly told Hong Kong leaders during a visit to the city that the judiciary, the legislature and the executive branch should cooperate.
The civil service, at least at the top levels, has been thoroughly politicized. It was the Hong Kong justice secretary, for example, who asked for a new trial for three leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, which led to much heavier jail terms than those they had received earlier.
Secretaries and deputy secretaries of major bureaus are selected for ideology, not competence.
Eddie Ng, the education secretary under the grossly unpopular previous chief executive C.Y. Leung, was nicknamed “Ng The Inept.” One of the first measures he undertook on the job was to push for so-called patriotic education modeled after the curriculum in mainland China. But the effort failed in the face of widespread opposition from the public.
Paul Chan, the current financial secretary, was the owner of a small accounting firm before joining the government. He lacks the deep understanding of economics and finance required of his post, but no matter: He has professed his patriotism and has diligently implemented Beijing’s economic policy to “fuse” Hong Kong and the motherland.
The police force, once the pride of the city, has fallen in residents’ esteem. It earned itself a black mark when, grotesquely, seven policemen ganged up on one harmless protester and beat him during the Umbrella Movement. The force became a laughingstock in 2015 after suing a female protester for allegedly using her breasts to assault a policeman.
It is in this climate of Chinese encroachment that the disillusioned youth of Hong Kong, led by university students, are now raising the banner of ultimate resistance: the call for full political independence.
But the immediate issue at stake, more basic than independence, is freedom of speech.
In 2003, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s leader at the time, tried to enact laws to restrict political freedoms in the name of protecting national security. More than half a million citizens marched against the laws. The proposed legislation would have outlawed “acts” of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against the Central People’s Government. Even that was never intended to ban mere speech.
But today simple talk of Hong Kong’s independence is off-limits — and the first ones to say so are our own university presidents.
Yi-Zheng Lian is a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs.