Building Hong Kong’s civil society was a decades-long

Democracy has been under threat in various parts of the world in recent times, but in terms of the speed at which civil liberties and democratic rights get devoured by authoritarianism, Hong Kong is arguably the world’s number one.

In merely two years, Hong Kong has gone from being one of the freest, most open cities in Asia to an oppressed society where the mere act of chanting a protest slogan is enough to land you in jail. With the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) taking full control over almost every aspect of life, Hong Kong as a civil society is toast.

On 1 July, pro-Beijing ruling elite in the ex-British colony will gather to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. John Lee, a pro-Beijing former cop and an unpopular figure among ordinary Hongkongers, will also be sworn in as the city’s new leader. The authorities have earmarked HK$300 million (about €36.5 million) to host a series of celebration events, which will be attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader in decades.

For Beijing, Hong Kong’s “return to the motherland” in 1997 after more than 150 years of British colonial rule was a glorious feat signifying the end of a period of “humiliation”. Yet for the majority of Hongkongers, that’s no cause for celebration. Many are now making plans to quit Hong Kong for freer places, from the UK to Australia. In the first quarter of 2022, more than 140,000 residents have left. Others who stay on are bracing themselves for a bleak future.

In the name of national security

On the face of it, the Westernised metropolis remains a bustling place, with a population of some seven million, great infrastructure and a world-famous skyline set against a backdrop of verdant hills and the city’s iconic Victoria Harbour. But the very systems that have made Hong Kong an open society, a remarkable success story and a free place distinctly different from repressed China, have all but disintegrated. Authoritarianism has taken hold. Repression, lies and fears have become a norm, and gauging the political risk of even the most innocuous of acts is a survival skill.

The game-changer was a draconian national security law, which Beijing forced upon Hong Kong on 30 June 2020 to criminalise subversion, terrorism, secession and foreign collusion. The four offences, dangerously vague and broad just like China’s own national security law, carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Beijing’s idea of promulgating the law was partly to restore order and stability in the Asian financial hub, which was roiled by a pro-democracy, patently anti-Chinese Communist Party protest movement from June 2019 until early 2020. The harsh law was also a great tool for the Chinese regime to tighten the screw on rebellious Hong Kong.

In the name of national security, the authorities can easily pursue politically motivated prosecutions, block avenues for political dissent, threaten the press, and curb freedom of speech.

Building a civil society is a decades-long process; it can be destroyed in just months. Since 1 July 2020, more than 180 individuals have been arrested under the national security law, including the leading young activist Joshua Wong, media mogul Jimmy Lai, 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, veteran unionists Lee Cheuk-yan and Carol Ng, as well as former lawmakers, lawyers, pop singers and students. Their crimes? Taking part in a primary, raising funds for protesters, ordinary activism, or simply exercising their freedom of speech.

Independent media outlets have collapsed like dominoes, including the outspoken Apple Daily and Stand News, which were forced to shut down following the arrest of their top executives and journalists. Under the tense political climate, a dozen labour unions including the city’s biggest, the Confederation of Trade Unions, and some 50 other civil society organisations have dissolved. Schoolchildren now have to study national security.

The city’s mini-parliament no longer includes opposition lawmakers thanks to Beijing’s so-called electoral reform. Without the media or the opposition challenging the government, the latter has been able to implement absurd and repressive measures without pushback, such as culling 2,000 hamsters over Covid fears, and banning the world’s biggest June 4 vigil for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Colonial nostalgia

Colonialism is a practice much frowned upon worldwide. In Hong Kong, however, the term has very different implications. Without Britain occupying it in 1841 during the First Opium War, Hong Kong would have been just another Chinese city. The history of its metamorphosis from a barren rock to an economic miracle, its evolution into a civil society with a sound judicial system, and its being spared the terror of China’s Cultural Revolution, would have had to be rewritten.

To be sure, Hong Kong under colonial rule wasn’t flawless – corruption was rife in the early years and white people enjoyed an abundance of privileges in the colony. But it didn’t have to be perfect to be good. With the shrewdness of the colonial administrator, the can-do, entrepreneurial spirit of the populace, and the geographical advantages offered by harbour cities, Hong Kong gradually became an international financial city and a free society, a.k.a the Pearl of the Orient.

But the great party was not to last. In 1984, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and China’s Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997, based on a Sino-British deal struck in 1898. The new deal promised Hongkongers “a high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years after 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle. The destiny of the Hong Kong people was thus sealed – without their participation or consultation.

In those days, when the locals predicted post-colonial life beyond 1997, they liked to start with the phrase “when the communists take back Hong Kong”. The emphasis on the communists betrayed a hint of worry about the Chinese ruling party. This anxiety was drastically amplified when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989 to crush the peaceful pro-democracy movement in Beijing that year. Dreading a future under a brutal regime, 300,000 Hongkongers migrated between 1990 and 1994, mainly to the West.

After the party

“Horse racing will continue; dancing parties will go on.” This was the saying the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping used to reassure Hongkongers their way of life wouldn’t change after 1997. That in many ways was the case in the first decade or so after the handover. In those days, the dominance of property developers over the economy and the flood of mainland Chinese migrants topped the list of their worries. Politically, most people remained apathetic.

An inflection point came on 1 July 2003, when half a million Hongkongers took to the streets to protest a proposed national security bill. According to its post-handover mini-constitution, Hong Kong has the constitutional responsibility to enact its own national security law. But people worried that would spell the end of their freedoms. Eventually the government backed down.

Thereafter, Hongkongers stayed vigilant. For the next 17 years, they made sure to march on the streets on 1 July to vent any grievances with the government and to call for increased democracy. This tradition has contributed to the gradual political awakening of Hongkongers, who had never been political animals.

In the years to come, Hong Kong became a city of protests, with a new generation of politically engaged youths often taking the lead.

Now and then, mass protests flared up for different reasons: the government’s decision to demolish a colonial pier, the construction of a high-speed rail link to mainland China, the fight for universal suffrage, and more. All these reflected a collective reluctance to relinquish a cherished past, and a fear of being melded into a dreaded system. The rift between Hong Kong and mainland China kept widening.

In 2015 and 2017, two frightening incidents occurred that called into question Hong Kong’s autonomy. Five staff members of a local bookshop selling books critical of China’s political elite went missing before resurfacing in custody in mainland China. Two years later, a rich mainland businessman was abducted from his luxury hotel apartment in Hong Kong by China’s state security agents.

By the time the government pushed a bill in 2019 to allow the extradition of local fugitives to mainland China, more Hongkongers than ever believed they had to take destiny into their hands. Two million people took to the streets. Young protesters in particular had an urge to up the ante. They broke into the parliament building, threw Molotov cocktails at police and set pro-Beijing shops on fire. There was no looting – they didn’t want to make ill-gotten gains the way the regime they were fighting against had.

But no amount of idealism, resistance or violence could outdo the powers that be. Covid conveniently ended all forms of protests in 2020. Then came the national security law. To date, over 10,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests.

Looking ahead, Hongkongers struggle to see what is worth looking forward to, with “one country, two systems” now dead and a totalitarian regime up north calling the shots.

But perhaps not all things precious have been lost. In a letter he recently penned from prison, unionist Lee Cheuk-yan wrote: “Whether inside or outside the wall, we all feel uneasy. But if we stay true to our conscience, our heart will be at ease and find peace.”