China’s Clampdown on Hong Kong | by Barbara Demick



Antigovernment protesters, Hong Kong, August 2019

Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/Getty Photographs

Antigovernment protesters, Hong Kong, August 2019

Because the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China approached, commentary within the English-language press about the way forward for the colony was written within the elegiac fashion of obituaries, extolling the previous and lamenting the long run. In June 1995 “The Loss of life of Hong Kong” was the quilt story of the worldwide version of Fortune journal.

Predictions of Hong Kong’s demise proved to be untimely. (In 2007 Fortune ran one other story entitled, “Oops! Hong Kong Is Hardly Useless.”) Beijing appeared, not less than initially, to honor its guarantees that Hong Kong might preserve its personal authorized system and rights of free speech and meeting for 50 years. Hong Kong’s financial system exploded with a contemporary infusion of vacationers, college students, consumers, and immigrants, principally from the mainland. City planners enthused about what they referred to as the Better Bay Space or Pearl River Delta: the Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau megalopolis. The development of each a high-speed rail line and a thirty-four-mile-long bridge linking Hong Kong to the mainland made journey between the 2 as easy as journeys between San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

In comparison with the remainder of China, Hong Kong remained an oasis of freedom. Throughout the seven years I used to be a correspondent in Beijing, from 2007 to 2014, I’d usually go to Hong Kong to interview exiled Chinese language professors and human-rights activists who had fled, or to browse bookstores for uncensored books in regards to the Chinese language management. (In 2015, the house owners of a few of these bookstores have been kidnapped and detained by Chinese language authorities.1) Hong Kongers relished their skill to surf the Web and entry Twitter and Fb. They may watch movies in regards to the 1989 crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Sq. or show photographs of the Dalai Lama. And, most necessary, they might protest—a proper that they elevated to an artwork type.

Hong Kong’s protests have been enjoyable, raucous, and artistic; even Pussy Riot, the provocative Russian lady band, got here to take part in a single. Protesters wielded umbrellas each to guard themselves in opposition to pepper spray and to please the tv cameras with swirls of shade. In his guide Metropolis on Hearth, an eloquent up-close account, Antony Dapiran is as centered on the aesthetics of the protests as on their political that means. Hong Kong protesters, he observes admiringly, provide you with the cleverest puns and make sensible use of lanterns, candles, laser pointers, and Submit-it Notes: “These 1000’s of vibrant notes shaped an enormous mosaic, a bodily characteristic in itself, the items of paper fluttering within the breeze, the colorful area a luminous beacon at night time illuminated underneath the fluorescent lights.” He sees within the exceptionally wealthy protest tradition a mash-up of themes from Hollywood motion motion pictures, Cantonese pop music, Japanese anime, and classical Chinese language mythology.

Dapiran, an Australian lawyer who has lived in Hong Kong since 1999, traces how its residents have advanced underneath Chinese language rule to the purpose that protest is now a part of their id; in his phrases (and italics), “I’m a Hong Konger, due to this fact I protest.” Hong Kongers as soon as distinguished themselves from mainlanders by their relative prosperity, however as China caught up economically, they centered extra on what Dapiran calls Hong Kong’s “core values”—an uncensored media, an unbiased judiciary, the rule of regulation, and, in fact, the suitable to reveal.

Hong Kongers demonstrated about every thing from the removing of hawkers promoting fish balls through the Chinese language New Yr to fare will increase on mass transit (which had additionally provoked protests underneath British rule). However principally they’ve demonstrated in opposition to Beijing’s persistent makes an attempt to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. In 2003 protests erupted over a invoice proposed by Hong Kong’s legislature that may have expanded the prosecution of treason, sedition, theft of state secrets and techniques, and subversion, basically extending the mainland’s intolerance of dissent into Hong Kong. In 2012 college students protested Beijing’s try and impose a professional–Chinese language Communist Occasion curriculum on Hong Kong’s faculties. In 2014 protesters flooded the streets after Beijing introduced it could prescreen candidates working for chief govt—the top of Hong Kong’s authorities—and approve solely those that would swear “to like the nation.”

The most recent protests have been essentially the most explosive of all. They started with a invoice proposed in April 2019 to facilitate the extradition of felony suspects in Hong Kong to varied nations, together with the Chinese language mainland. The precipitating case was politically uncomplicated: a younger Hong Kong man had murdered his pregnant girlfriend the 12 months earlier than whereas they have been on a Valentine’s Day journey to Taiwan, then fled dwelling and confessed. An arrest warrant was issued in Taiwan however the suspect couldn’t be extradited. Hong Kongers rightly feared that the brand new regulation would enable any resident to be snatched away and swallowed into China’s murky authorized system.

The mounting rage over China’s encroachments upon Hong Kong’s autonomy coalesced across the extradition invoice. Inept dealing with by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief govt, Carrie Lam, coupled with an excessively forceful response by the police, turned the protests right into a full-throttle revolt in opposition to Chinese language rule. As much as two million folks (greater than 1 / 4 of Hong Kong’s inhabitants) turned out within the streets—not simply college students but in addition academics, senior residents, store clerks, and monetary sector workers who had sat out many earlier demonstrations. Cathay Pacific officers and workers overtly supported the protests, even after the federal government compelled the cancellation of flights. College bus drivers volunteered to ferry protesters safely dwelling after authorities closed subway stations in hopes of quieting the unrest. Because the protests continued, these stations, authorities workplaces, and companies perceived as pro-Beijing have been vandalized; police grew to become extra violent, with tear gasoline, pepper spray, and water cannons giving technique to beanbag projectiles, rubber bullets, and typically reside ammunition. Thugs linked to organized crime teams beat commuters they suspected of attending protests.

For the higher a part of the 12 months, the protests repeatedly swelled, receded, and got here again bigger than earlier than. (I visited that fall throughout a quick lull when authorities have been principally scrubbing graffiti off public buildings.) Hong Kong was nonetheless heaving early this 12 months when the Covid-19 pandemic compelled it into lockdown—which offered a handy pretext to ban protests.

Beijing bided its time till June 30, when the Standing Committee of the Nationwide Folks’s Congress issued a far-reaching nationwide safety regulation for Hong Kong that in impact criminalizes most types of dissent by defining 4 separate classes of offense: separatism, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with overseas nations. Handed in secret with little enter from native authorities, it basically ended Hong Kong’s autonomy. The laws is so broadly written and so punitive that it might lead to a life sentence for somebody who vandalizes a authorities constructing or subway station. And its scope is so broad that it covers offenses dedicated exterior Hong Kong by people who find themselves not residents (mainlanders and foreigners each), which might empower a newly shaped secret police unit to select up and extradite to the mainland any errant professor or journalist passing by.2

Dapiran, for all his enchantment with the protests—“protesters have been writing the narrative of…historical past in actual time”—is clear-eyed about what they really achieved. He faults Hong Kongers for failing to understand after which benefit from the willingness of the Chinese language Communist Occasion to make concessions, for instance when Lam, in September of final 12 months, withdrew the extradition invoice. “Hong Kongers don’t perceive party-speak,’’ he writes. “There isn’t any escaping the political, geographic, and financial actuality that Hong Kong is part of China. Hong Kong—for its personal good—must discover a modus vivendi with the mainland.” The protests, Dapiran notes, in reality may need hastened Hong Kong’s absorption by Beijing.

Police have already been utilizing their new powers to arrest dissidents. Though the regulation was not speculated to be retroactive, authorities look like utilizing speeches, articles, and social media posts from final 12 months’s protests to construct their circumstances in opposition to Beijing’s critics. The younger activist chief Joshua Wong was arrested on September 24 on expenses of collaborating in an unlawful demonstration final October and of violating a colonial-era (and clearly pre-pandemic) regulation banning face masks. Others snared by the brand new regulation embody Jimmy Lai, the seventy-one-year-old media tycoon and proprietor of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Day by day; arrested in August, he was perp-walked in handcuffs by his personal newsroom.3 Lai is charged with the imprecise crime of “colluding with overseas forces,” which carries a life sentence.

On high of this, legislative elections that have been scheduled in Hong Kong for early September have been postponed for a 12 months, ostensibly due to the chance of spreading Covid-19, though a extra probably rationalization is that authorities knew they’d be embarrassed by an outpouring of help for pro-democracy candidates. Activists dealing with expenses in Hong Kong have been attempting with various levels of success to flee by speedboat, hoping to achieve the secure haven of Taiwan. (Twelve have been captured at sea on August 23.) The USA has suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, following different nations akin to the UK, Australia, Canada, France, and Germany. On July 14 Donald Trump issued an govt order that the US will now not deal with Hong Kong as autonomous and can now topic it to the identical export controls, sanctions, and tariffs as the remainder of China.

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink was revealed earlier than the nationwide safety regulation was launched, however Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor on the College of California at Irvine, appears to have prophesied the approaching catastrophe. His title refers each to the candlelight vigil held each June 4 for the victims of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Sq. and to the act of watching over a dying affected person—the affected person, on this case, being Hong Kong. “Hong Kong was being altered by seemingly unstoppable processes,” Wasserstrom concluded after certainly one of his visits. “It was being squeezed. Its folks had no vote, and their voices weren’t heard, regardless of how loudly they protested. Hong Kong is not only in its demise throes, however is imagined by some to have already died.”

Wasserstrom has written a wonderful primer on what is occurring in Hong Kong. Though compact—the textual content runs to lower than 100 pages—it imparts a lot of the colourful historical past and taste of the town. In 1842 Hong Kong island, then a rocky fishing outpost, was formally ceded to Britain by China’s Qing dynasty as a part of a settlement of the First Opium Warfare. In Across the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne’s intrepid traveler Phileas Fogg described nineteenth-century Hong Kong as “a city in Kent or Surrey transferred by some unusual magic to the antipodes.”

The colony expanded with the concession of the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, on the finish of the Second Opium Warfare, after which once more in 1898, when Britain signed a ninety-nine-year lease on the New Territories. (It was the expiration of that lease that led to the handover in 1997.) The colony’s significance as a British naval base grew throughout World Warfare I. Occupied by the Japanese throughout World Warfare II, Hong Kong bounced again after 1945 with a contemporary inflow of wealth and power. The victory of the Communists within the Chinese language Civil Warfare and the institution of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949 swelled Hong Kong’s inhabitants, as Chinese language, a lot of them well-to-do, fled the mainland together with expatriates keen to maintain doing enterprise. A whole bunch of companies left Shanghai for Hong Kong. From the Nineteen Sixties by the Nineties, it boasted a number of the highest financial development charges on this planet, incomes a spot alongside Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea as one of many 4 Asian “tigers.” Its densely packed skyline glittered with essentially the most beautiful skyscrapers cash might construct.

Prematurely of the 1997 handover, China assured Britain that Hong Kong would have a excessive diploma of autonomy for 50 years, underneath a structure that may be often called the Primary Regulation. For China, this “one nation, two techniques” strategy was an experiment, with huge implications for the way forward for Tibet and Xinjiang, two nominally autonomous areas inside China the place minorities have lengthy sought better rights; it was additionally a mannequin for a peaceable reunification with Taiwan.4

From the outset, the association was flawed. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping and signed in 1984, finessed the stickier factors of the negotiations. The Primary Regulation that was drawn up a couple of years later promised common suffrage, with the chief govt to be freely elected by 2017 and the legislature by 2020, however implementation was left exasperatingly imprecise. One provision of the Primary Regulation stipulated that “the tactic for choosing the Chief Govt shall be laid out in mild of the particular state of affairs within the Hong Kong Particular Administrative Area”—obfuscating language that just about assured battle. (This jogs my memory of one of many inventory phrases I used to be instructed to memorize when learning Chinese language: Girls zai shuo ba, that means “We’ll discuss it later”—the Chinese language model of “kicking the can down the highway.”) “Each political battle has needed to do with Beijing gaslighting on common suffrage,’’ Wasserstrom writes. “It’s as if Beijing has dared its small territory to the south to consistently and never-endingly combat for each inch of political self-determination.”

Among the many best-known combatants on this ongoing combat is Joshua Wong. Born in 1996, 9 months earlier than the handover, he was roughly a typical Hong Kong schoolboy, obsessive about video video games, manga, and bubble tea. Recognized with dyslexia, he had difficulties writing in class however was a powerful speaker from a remarkably early age. He knew the right way to impress and encourage, as he found when, whereas nonetheless in center faculty, he organized a Fb marketing campaign in opposition to the “bland, oily and overpriced” lunches at his faculty. The marketing campaign, he writes, “went viral.”

From there, Wong turned his consideration to nationwide politics; on the age of fourteen, he established a bunch referred to as Scholarism to combat the pro-Beijing curriculum compelled on Hong Kong faculties in 2012. He began giving speeches on avenue corners and have become a fixture in native media. In 2014, after China’s Nationwide Folks’s Congress decreed that solely prescreened candidates might run for seats on Hong Kong’s legislative council and the workplace of chief govt, he was one of many organizers of seventy-nine days of sit-ins (“Occupy Central”) in Hong Kong’s enterprise district; these demonstrations remodeled him, as he writes in Unfree Speech, into “a worldwide poster boy for resistance in opposition to Communist China.” At eighteen, he appeared on the quilt of the worldwide version of Time. He began writing op-eds for The New York Occasions and was the topic of a Netflix documentary referred to as Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower. He spent his twenty-first birthday in jail on expenses of illegal meeting and contempt of courtroom.

Unfree Speech was written partially as a jail diary, though, as Wong readily admits, his time behind bars was not particularly harrowing; even in jail he was handled because the movie star that he’s. He clearly meant the guide as a manifesto urging younger folks to motion, however it’s extra profitable as a memoir. Wong isn’t a complicated thinker, however he has an admirable coming-of-age story, and with the ready help of his cowriter Jason Y. Ng, he tells it nicely. Wong alternates between expressing embarrassment on the consideration he has acquired and basking within the glory of it. He compares himself at numerous instances to Martin Luther King Jr., the late Chinese language dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and even Spider-Man: “I lived the lifetime of Peter Parker. Like Spider-Man’s alter ego, I went to class through the day and rushed out to combat evil after faculty.”

Not that preventing evil was at all times such enjoyable. Wong noticed a lot of his buddies be arrested and harassed, in addition to turn out to be pissed off from the exertion of protesting with out effecting any change. “Hong Kongers can really feel the political floor concurrently shifting and shrinking beneath their ft,” he laments. “Successive political showdowns bear out the notion that Hong Kong has not and can by no means shed its colony standing. We’ve merely been handed from one imperialist grasp to a different.”

However the relationship between Hong Kong and China is extra sophisticated than that between an abnormal colony and a colonizer. Residents of each are overwhelmingly Han Chinese language in ethnicity, however the language of Hong Kong is Cantonese somewhat than Mandarin, China’s official language. Like different guests, I noticed shortly that makes an attempt to talk Mandarin to taxi drivers and store clerks can be met with a scowl. The folks of Hong Kong fiercely defend their separate id, referring to themselves as “Hong Kongers” somewhat than Chinese language. Many can not shake the picture—or, for a number of the older technology, the non-public reminiscences—of the poverty and gratuitous brutality of Mao Zedong’s China.

Within the early years of the brand new century—from 2001, when China joined the World Commerce Group, to the 2008 Summer season Olympics in Beijing—polls confirmed that Hong Kongers have been beginning to embrace their id as Chinese language, inspired by the financial prowess of their new motherland. Wong remembers the swell of satisfaction he felt as a twelve-year-old through the Olympics, when he and his schoolmates cheered the Chinese language athletes and waved their little pink flags—with out being ordered to take action.

However in subsequent years, this goodwill and identification evaporated: as Beijing threw open Hong Kong’s doorways to mainland guests, so many descended—60 million in 2018 alone—that Hong Kongers started to really feel like a minority in their very own metropolis. Nearer ties with China got here at the price of Hong Kong’s quirky character. Though it nonetheless had its aromatic teashops and clattering dim sum parlors, massive swaths of the town grew to become about as charming as an airport shopping center. In lots of neighborhoods, you heard extra Mandarin than Cantonese. Chinese language tycoons, a lot of them family members of Communist Occasion leaders, shifted their fortunes to Hong Kong for safekeeping, snapping up a lot actual property that the value of a studio condominium smaller than a resort room shot above $1 million. The brightest college students from Beijing and Shanghai entered the already cutthroat competitors for college admissions and jobs.

Much less illustrious mainlanders introduced with them habits that offended Hong Kong’s lingering British sensibilities. Maybe as a result of it doesn’t present Hong Kong in a optimistic mild, Wong doesn’t point out a very nasty episode in 2014 that began when a mainland mom allowed her toddler to alleviate himself on the street (a typical observe in rural China), setting off a spat between her and a Hong Konger who recorded it along with his cellphone. Hong Kongers demonstrated in opposition to the inflow of mainland vacationers, denouncing them as “locusts.” At one protest, folks pretended to defecate on a photograph of Mao. The complete state of affairs was ugly and xenophobic—one would say nearly racist, if not for the truth that nearly everybody concerned was ethnically Chinese language.5

Wong believes that China has overreached in attempting to impose a love of the motherland on its new topics, beginning with the nationwide curriculum he demonstrated in opposition to in 2012:

Mom and son have little or no in frequent, from language and customs to the way in which they view their authorities. The extra the kid is compelled to indicate affection and gratitude towards his long-lost mom, the extra he resists.

“In some ways,” he writes, “Hong Kong is rather like a foster youngster who was raised by a white household, and with out his consent, returned to his Chinese language organic mother and father.”

Immediately Hong Kong is firmly within the grip of Beijing, which is firmly within the grip of the Chinese language Communist Occasion. And Xi Jinping, the nation’s most authoritarian chief since Mao, is firmly accountable for the celebration. He has revived mid-twentieth-century techniques utilized by Mao—purges, rectification campaigns, crackdowns on improper speech—and is implementing them utilizing twenty-first-century instruments: closed-circuit cameras, facial recognition know-how, biometric knowledge, smartphone apps that monitor folks’s actions and communications.6 Lecturers in any respect ranges, from kindergarten to college, are underneath orders to propagate “Xi Jinping thought”7 and will be fired for “improper speech.” Xi has been particularly illiberal of any slippage across the distant fringes of his empire; each a part of China have to be fully underneath his management. Hundreds of miles away from Hong Kong, within the far northwest area of Xinjiang, an estimated a million Uighurs and different Muslims are being incarcerated in camps for “patriotic training.”8 To the dismay of Tibetans and Mongolians, the Communist Occasion is imposing new limitations on the instructing of their languages in faculties, insisting on Mandarin because the language of instruction. It doesn’t bode nicely for Hong Kong.

Xi has headed the celebration and the nation since 2012 and has eradicated time period limits on the management, positioning himself to stay in energy for all times. On the subsequent celebration congress in 2022, he’s more likely to search and procure one other five-year time period. However finally the reign of the sixty-seven-year-old chief will come to an finish—both by his selecting or by different means—and his successors may show extra open to liberalization. There are nonetheless a couple of contrarian Chinese language voices holding out hope. Jiwei Ci, a revered thinker, revealed a guide final 12 months referred to as Democracy in China: The Coming Disaster, by which he argues that the Chinese language Communist Occasion will face a legitimacy disaster within the coming years if it doesn’t undertake extra democratic strategies. Ci writes that China’s ossified political system and its founding Marxist-Leninist ideology are more and more out of step with a extra open society, and that the celebration should adapt whether it is to outlive. The Chinese language Communist Occasion at this time suffers from an id disaster. It has strayed so removed from the revolutionary wrestle that introduced Mao to energy in 1949 that it has misplaced its historic legitimacy. All that’s left of communism in China is the title of the Chinese language Communist Occasion. Successive leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping have retained the totemic stature of Mao Zedong for lack of a coherent ideological system to take its place. “That’s why they’re hanging on to the unique title of the celebration regardless of the noiseless evaporation of communism,” Ci writes, “the occasional lip service however.”

What retains the celebration in energy—moreover repression—is what Ci calls efficiency legitimacy. As its propagandists endlessly repeat, the celebration has presided over nearly fixed development for the reason that late Nineteen Seventies and lifted a couple of billion folks out of poverty. However the regime can’t be sustained in perpetuity by development alone, which has plateaued over the previous decade and, on account of the coronavirus disaster, reversed within the first quarter of this 12 months—the primary financial contraction since Mao’s demise in 1976. “Solely democracy can assist China keep away from a paralyzing legitimation disaster,” Ci writes. “To place it extra strongly, solely democracy can save China.”

By this reasoning, he says, the Chinese language Communist Occasion can not remedy the Hong Kong disaster till it fixes itself. “Immediately’s China,” Ci writes,

already the second-largest financial system on this planet and now not genuinely pink regardless of its remaining underneath the management of a nominally communist celebration, has but to show its undoubted onerous energy into the flexibility to win admiration and allegiance, to bind with cultural spell and ethical values somewhat than with sheer power or materials inducement alone. That is as true of China’s relation to Hong Kong, greater than twenty years after the handover, as it’s of China’s picture within the worldwide area.

Though few in Beijing dare to publicly criticize Xi, the purges and rectification campaigns underway recommend that he’s nicely conscious of inside opposition. His elimination of time period limits, carried out by Deng Xiaoping to stop the rise of one other Mao, was unpopular amongst Communist Occasion elders and intelligentsia. His dealing with of the Hong Kong protests—the most important political problem China has confronted in years—has not been with out its prices. A latest survey of public opinion in fourteen nations by the Pew Analysis Middle confirmed antipathy towards China at its highest degree for the reason that polling started greater than a decade in the past, with Beijing’s dealing with of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Covid-19 all contributing to the decline in its worldwide status.

China oscillates by cycles of repression adopted by liberalization. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was shortly adopted by Deng’s reforms. In 1984, when Britain agreed to show over Hong Kong, it was assumed that China was on an inexorable—albeit uneven—path towards democratization. This was a time when democracy was overtly debated in college halls and literary salons; villages have been taking small steps towards democracy by holding elections for native leaders. China was turning into extra like Hong Kong. The idea on the time of the Sino-British Joint Declaration was that variations of their political techniques have been fading and can be minor sufficient to be glossed over, if not by the point of the handover in 1997 then actually by the point the fifty-year “one nation, two techniques” deal was to run out. Few predicted the gaping chasm that has opened up between the aspirations of Hong Kongers and the authoritarian flip of the celebration.

None of this implies that China will quickly again down in its efforts to limit Hong Kong’s rights and autonomy. However not less than on paper, the “one nation, two techniques” association doesn’t expire till 2047. Contemplating how usually and the way dramatically China has reinvented itself up to now century, so much might occur in these twenty-seven years.



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