Hong Kong Activists Are Taking Note of Chinese Protest Successes

Beijing is still making an example of a rebel city.

By , a Kuala Lumpur based journalist who writes about Asia for a variety of publications.
People are detained as pro-democracy protesters gather in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 12, 2020.
People are detained as pro-democracy protesters gather in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 12, 2020.
People are detained as pro-democracy protesters gather in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 12, 2020. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

While all eyes are on China and the authorities’ decision to accede to protesters’ demands and relax stringent COVID-19 controls, in the Chinese city that spent years wracked by anti-government protests, political repression is tighter than ever. Years after the protests started, not a single one of the demonstrators’ demands have been met—and any dissidence is more dangerous than ever.

That city is, of course, Hong Kong, where millions of citizens marched for democratic rights in 2019 and 2020, only to succumb to the double whammy of COVID lockdowns and the passage of a draconian national security law. Now Hong Kong, for decades the freest city in China, finds itself in an upside-down world where it is arguably safer to take to the streets in Shanghai or Beijing than in the former British colony. While protesters in the mainland have been harassed and threatened by police, their Hong Kong counterparts are facing years in prison.

“Things in Hong Kong are worse than the mainland now,” said Simon Cheng, an activist who was detained for two weeks by the Chinese authorities in 2019 while on a work trip to the mainland. Cheng now lives in London, where he had applied for political asylum. Because of the repression by the authorities in his hometown, Cheng said, “The protest spirit is dying. We need to look at the protesters in China to rekindle it.”

While all eyes are on China and the authorities’ decision to accede to protesters’ demands and relax stringent COVID-19 controls, in the Chinese city that spent years wracked by anti-government protests, political repression is tighter than ever. Years after the protests started, not a single one of the demonstrators’ demands have been met—and any dissidence is more dangerous than ever.

That city is, of course, Hong Kong, where millions of citizens marched for democratic rights in 2019 and 2020, only to succumb to the double whammy of COVID lockdowns and the passage of a draconian national security law. Now Hong Kong, for decades the freest city in China, finds itself in an upside-down world where it is arguably safer to take to the streets in Shanghai or Beijing than in the former British colony. While protesters in the mainland have been harassed and threatened by police, their Hong Kong counterparts are facing years in prison.

“Things in Hong Kong are worse than the mainland now,” said Simon Cheng, an activist who was detained for two weeks by the Chinese authorities in 2019 while on a work trip to the mainland. Cheng now lives in London, where he had applied for political asylum. Because of the repression by the authorities in his hometown, Cheng said, “The protest spirit is dying. We need to look at the protesters in China to rekindle it.”

Very few people expected the protests in the mainland to be as dramatic, large, or effective as they were. Could Hong Kong’s demonstrations, the last round of which lasted for a year and a half and sometimes drew one in seven of the city’s residents onto the streets, start up again? Some analysts say that is unlikely, given the severity of the possible punishments—including life in prison—demonstrators could receive under the national security law (NSL). But activists still in Hong Kong, albeit keeping a very low profile, say new protests could break out at any time, given the right trigger.

“It was COVID that stopped the protests, not the NSL,” said one democracy activist who calls himself Tony, asking for anonymity due to the danger of the NSL. “Many ordinary people were scared of dying from COVID, so they stopped coming out onto the streets, so then we activists couldn’t go on.” As to the new security law and its all-encompassing scope: “There were already so many existing laws under which we could be prosecuted that the NSL was not that big a deal. Certainly not a game-changer.”

Tony, a 33-year-old, tousle-haired IT consultant, began protesting during the Occupy Central with Love and Peace protests in 2014 and became ever more deeply involved once the 2019 demonstrations started. He asserted that the anger that prompted many Hong Kongers to take to the streets is still there, and not just in the activists’ chat groups he frequents.

“Don’t forget that even after the NSL was in place, there was a guy who was willing to go out and try to kill a policeman,” Tony remarked.  On July 1, 2021, the first full day that the security law was in effect, 50-year-old Leung Kin-fai stabbed a police officer in the back and then used the same knife on himself. Leung died a few hours later. The policeman survived.

That is an extreme example. But there’s still a powerful and widespread desire for more representative government and ire at government inflexibility. Would a display of compromise matching the conciliation shown by Beijing help to diffuse that anger? Possibly, but there is no sign of anything forthcoming. In fact, the authorities seem intent on further tightening the screws.

While several thousand protesters are awaiting trial, the most prominent victims of the government’s hard line are probably the 47 democracy activists arrested in early 2021. After almost two years, only 13 of those arrested have been granted bail, and their trial has been repeatedly delayed. The prospect of languishing in prison for years has clearly prompted some of the prisoners to seek a compromise, with many renouncing politics and 30 deciding to plead guilty. The group’s trial is now set for early 2023.

Arguably the most-high profile defendant, former media tycoon Jimmy Lai, has remained defiant, entering a not-guilty plea and fighting to have a London-based human rights lawyer be allowed to enter Hong Kong to work on his defense. Lai, 75, is facing possible life imprisonment for allegedly conspiring with foreign forces by calling for international sanctions on Hong Kong and China. He has already been sentenced on several other charges, notably receiving a prison term of five years and nine months on Dec. 10 for flimsy fraud charges characterized as “grossly unjust” by a U.S. official.

It was the latest step in the Hong Kong government’s relentless prosecution of Lai. In late November, Hong Kong’s highest court dismissed an appeal by the government aimed at preventing Lai from hiring British lawyer Timothy Owen to represent him. Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed chief executive subsequently said he would appeal to Beijing’s top legislative body to prevent foreign lawyers from being involved in national security cases. The High Court in Hong Kong then delayed Lai’s trial until Dec. 13 so that the matter could be resolved.

Lai’s case is by far the most closely watched, not only because of his decision to contest the charges but also because he is a quintessential Hong Kong success story. He fled China for Hong Kong as a 12-year-old and subsequently went from working in a garment factory to being a billionaire clothing and media tycoon. Well aware that he was likely to be arrested, Lai nevertheless chose not to leave Hong Kong. He was arrested in August 2020 and has spent most of the time since in prison.

“The CCP’s approach to justice is like its approach to democracy,” said Steve Tsang of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, using an acronym to refer to the Chinese Communist Party. “It has no problem with either, as long as it can make sure it can determine the results beforehand. Not allowing British lawyers to represent Lai is a step to make sure there will not be a surprise in the outcome of the trial of Lai.”

The government’s obsession with quashing all forms of dissent isn’t confined to billionaires. This August, for example, 68-year-old busker Li Jiexin appeared in court charged with playing a musical instrument in public without a permit. According to local press reports, police alleged that he had played “Glory to Hong Kong” on his erhu, a traditional Chinese two-stringed instrument, at a bus station earlier in the year. The judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence and awarded Li about 60 dollars in costs.

While authorities haven’t formally deemed the singing of “Glory to Hong Kong” illegal, they appear to find its performance especially vexing. The song was at issue again in late November when a 42-year-old courier named Wong Chun-kit appeared in court charged with sedition. He allegedly shared a video on social media of the iconic protest song being played, instead of China’s national anthem, at a rugby competition in South Korea. (Since the handover by Britain to China in 1997, the Chinese national anthem has been Hong Kong’s, too.)

The incident in South Korea was the first of four times in recent months that “Glory to Hong Kong” was played at an international sports event instead of the Chinese anthem. Authorities have insisted on investigations by the sports bodies involved, but others suspect simple mistakes by overseas event organizers, since  “Glory to Hong Kong” is one of the top results turned up by a Google search for “Hong Kong anthem.”

In early December, Hong Kong weightlifter Susanna Lin, who won a gold medal in a competition in Dubai, made a government-mandated timeout gesture by forming the letter “T” with her hands to stop the playing of “Glory to Hong Kong.” The Chinese anthem began playing soon after, and Dubai organizers blamed a mix-up by volunteers. Hong Kong authorities nevertheless demanded an investigation. Cheng Ching-wan, the acting commissioner for sports, reportedly warned that “those who breached regulations may face punishment.”

“It’s ridiculous, totally ridiculous,” said Yan, a 46-year-old pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong. “Weightlifting and rugby are two sports most Hong Kongers couldn’t care less about. If the government hadn’t said anything, nobody would have noticed these incidents. They have made a laughingstock of themselves yet again.”

Such incidents and the seemingly over-the-top government reaction raise the question of why the Hong Kong authorities seem unable to ease up, especially in light of the loosening COVID restrictions on the mainland. The answer, according to China scholar and native Hong Konger Tsang, is that although Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee was handpicked for the job by Beijing, he is not part of the Communist Party system and thus suspect. “If you are running Shanghai or Guangzhou, you are a [Chinese President] Xi Jinping loyalist and have more room to loosen up. John Lee has to prove himself over and over.”

Tony put it another way. “We’re like the bad pupil. We get punished more harshly than anyone else so that the other students will pay attention and not copy us.”

He said he sees little prospect of the administration loosening up, noting that many other Hong Kongers apparently agree, including the roughly 200,000 who have emigrated to other countries in the last two years. So why hadn’t he left as well? Tony shrugged and pushed his wire-frame glasses up his nose again.

“I’m an optimistic pessimist,” he said. Maybe one day those people will want to come home, “so some Hong Kongers have to stay and keep the place running.”

Simon Elegant is a Kuala Lumpur based journalist who writes about Asia for a variety of publications. He recently completed a novel set during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.

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