Inside Story

The year the gloves came off

Updated | Despite opting for a less confrontational chief executive, Beijing has tightened its grip in Hong Kong

Duncan Hewitt 25 September 2018 3882 words

Bailed Hong Kong democracy activists Joshua Wong (centre left) and Nathan Law (centre) speak before their ultimately successful appeal hearing on 16 January this year. Fellow activist Agnes Chow is partly obscured by Law. Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

First published 13 September 2018; updated 25 September 2018

Flashback: May 2017. Inside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, all bare walls and airless corridors, one corner stands out. At the end of a row of legislators’ offices, the floor-to-ceiling windows are decorated with flower pots stacked in tall bamboo frames. From each pot hangs a tiny yellow banner bearing the words “I want real elections.”

It’s a bonsai reminder of the slogan of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which brought tens of thousands of citizens onto Hong Kong’s streets to call on Beijing to grant the semi-autonomous city a free choice of its leader — as they believed was promised when the city returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The movement eventually fizzled out, but it sparked a surge in political activism among Hong Kong’s young generation — and in 2016 the surge swept several fresh faces into the city’s semi-elected legislature, bringing a faint gust of change, and a mood of fresh optimism, to these corridors of partial power.

The office opposite the flower pots, with its perfect view across the city’s harbour, belongs to Nathan Law, a prominent student activist during the 2014 protests and now, at twenty-three, Hong Kong’s youngest-ever legislator. Beneath a framed press photo of the Umbrella Movement, he sits discussing strategy with Agnes Chow, an animated twenty-year-old undergraduate. Chow was one of the faces of Scholarism, the influential high-school student group set up a few years ago by activist Joshua Wong to oppose China’s attempts to impose patriotic “national education” on Hong Kong. Scholarism has now morphed into a youth-focused political party called Demosisto, which Nathan Law chairs.

The two activists talk enthusiastically about reforming Hong Kong’s high-pressure education system and pushing the government to tackle the city’s notorious housing inequality. Members of the young generation have “more hope” and a belief they can change things now, declares Chow. Despite China’s objections, it’s “very reasonable” and “not over-idealistic” to call for “a truly democratic political and election system,” she adds. “This is a common practice all over the world.”

Yet clouds are already gathering outside the plate-glass windows. The disappearance of several Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing books critical of China’s leaders in late 2015 alarmed Hong Kong public opinion. Law, Wong and fellow student activist Alex Chow have been sentenced to community service for pushing into Hong Kong’s Civic Square — or, in Law’s case, inciting others to do so — at the start of the 2014 protests. And two legislators from the Youngspiration party, both of them elected to the Legco (as the Legislative Council is known here) at the same time as Law, have recently been disqualified for taking their oaths — which include pledging allegiance to the Chinese government — in an insincere manner.

The disqualifications have been seen as evidence of China’s fear of the city’s growing “localist” movement, which stresses Hong Kong’s separate identity and is suspected by Beijing of promoting independence from the mainland. And Law says Beijing is also using the issue as part of “a discourse to push for the local Article 23 legislation.” Nathan Law knows the same fate could await him: along with three other legislators, he also faces a judicial review, accused of using a “questioning tone” in his own oath of loyalty to the People’s Republic of China. Yet he is unrepentant. “I don’t think anything went wrong with the oath,” he says. “This is a common mentality of pro-democracy supporters: you don’t support an authoritarian regime. It’s universal values.”

Like many, Law is angry that China’s own legislature, the National People’s Congress, intervened to order the two legislators’ disqualification. According to precedent, the pair should simply have been asked to retake the oath, he says. “Overturning the result of an election is a serious damage to our judicial and legislative system” and will cause people to “lose more trust in our institutions,” he says.

Yet Law — despite having been physically attacked in public, and accused of treason — remains broadly positive. “I don’t see any reason why we should lose our hope,” he says, arguing that the 2016 election showed that young people were now “massively supporting the pro-democracy movement” and this trend would continue to grow.

Little more than a year later, though, such optimism has largely dissipated. The Chinese government has asserted its control over Hong Kong with a firmness not seen since the end of British rule in 1997. In the view of many, the gloves are now off.

First, in July 2017, Law and the three other legislators under review were disqualified from sitting in Legco. (One of them, veteran democracy activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, is still appealing against the decision.) Two months later, Law and fellow student leaders Joshua Wong and Alex Chow were jailed for eight, six and seven months respectively, after being retried for their role in the 2014 protests. The verdicts — among the city’s first political jailings since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s — shocked many.

Although the three were eventually released on appeal, they were ordered to pay back expenses from their time in Legco, and barred from public office for five years. In May 2018, Law announced he was stepping back from frontline politics to complete his university degree.

Then, in early 2018, Agnes Chow was barred from standing as a Demosisto candidate in the Legco by-elections caused by the disqualifications, after the returning officer ruled that her party’s call for a self-determination vote for Hong Kong in 2047 (after fifty years of Chinese rule) amounted to a call for independence. Another candidate backed by Demosisto did win a seat, but in May the party announced it was pulling out of contesting legislative elections and would stick to campaigning on social issues.

That same month, Edward Leung, a localist who had called for Hong Kong’s independence from China, was jailed for six years. He had been charged over his role in violent clashes with police in the city’s Mongkok district in early 2016, after activists accused the police of beating up street hawkers. Although a jail term was expected, many saw the verdict as unusually harsh, and another sign of the government’s toughening stance.

And in June 2018, disqualified legislators Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, of the Youngspiration party, were jailed for four weeks for pushing and shoving officials when they tried to retake their oaths in 2016.

The tension rose further after an unprecedented call by Hong Kong’s police to ban a previously obscure political group, the Hong Kong National Party, or HKNP, which had called for independence from China. Hong Kong’s security secretary, John Lee, responded by warning that advocating independence — which is precluded by Hong Kong’s post-1997 mini-constitution, the Basic Law — crossed an “untouchable red line.” And in late September he announced that the group was to be outlawed, saying that while it had never engaged in violence, he believed it supported “armed revolution” and therefore posed a threat to public order and safety. (The group’s founder, Andy Chan, is reported to have once said he would not rule out using violence as a last resort, but later retracted this remark.) The ban means anyone joining the group or supporting it financially could face two to three years in prison.

Liberals have warned that the ban sets a dangerous precedent, threatening freedom of speech in Hong Kong. The city’s former chief executive C.Y. Leung — now vice-president of the advisory body to the Chinese parliament in Beijing — made a failed attempt to prevent HKNP founder Chan from speaking at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club last month, but many believe the latest developments have added to pressure on new chief executive Carrie Lam to introduce an “Article 23” anti-sedition law, which would require that Hong Kong protects the security and interests of the mainland.

A previous attempt to introduce such a law, which is called for under the Basic Law, was abandoned after half a million of Hong Kong’s seven million people took to the streets in protest in 2003. Lam, who took office in 2017 pledging to heal rifts in Hong Kong society, has said it will only be introduced when the time is right. Yet Chinese pressure for a tougher line in Hong Kong seems to be growing — with Beijing now demanding the city passes a law against abuse of China’s national anthem. There have even been calls for those who oppose one-party rule in China to be banned from serving in Legco — a move that could effectively exclude around half of its elected members.

All this means that doubts are growing about Beijing’s commitment to its pledge that the city’s system would remain unchanged for half a century, under the “One Country, Two Systems” formula.

Ousted legislator Nathan Law does his best to shrug off his time in jail, saying it was only to be “expected… when you’re fighting against such a giant authoritarian state.” And he says he and his former Demosisto colleagues will continue fighting for social change in Hong Kong, even if they cannot participate in elections. They will also seek to persuade young people to keep voting, rather than consider emigrating, as some have already done. Yet he acknowledges that “pressure from Beijing has been increasing dramatically” over the past year, and he sees this as a concerted effort by China “to cut the support of the pan-democrats by eliminating their candidates, so the young generation thinks it’s no use to vote… and no use [to go] on the streets.”

Many Hong Kong analysts remain shocked by the exclusion of legislators and candidates from the political process. “It’s a threat to the political freedom of Hong Kong,” says Ma Ngok, associate professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If you look at our statutes, there’s no legal provision that a candidate who’s not supportive of the Basic Law cannot run. [But] Beijing is trying to draw a line — [so] that certain inclinations, certain political groups, would not be allowed to stand in elections in Hong Kong.”

“This is a turning point,” agrees Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government and international relations at Hong Kong Baptist University. “If you start putting limits [on candidates], that’s a slippery slope.”

One man who has lived through the ups and downs of Hong Kong’s political development is Martin Lee, the British-trained barrister and founding chairman of the city’s Democratic Party who has campaigned for greater democracy under both British and Chinese rule. In his office, a stone’s throw from both Legco and the local headquarters of the Chinese army, Lee says Beijing is now “tightening the rope round the neck of the goose which lays the golden eggs,” and expresses disbelief at the disqualifications.

“The Basic Law says only the legislature has the power to legislate,” he says, “and suddenly you have this electoral commission laying down the law, to say that if a returning officer believes you are not sincere, the returning officer can disqualify you.” He pauses, then adds despondently, “And yet a judge ruled in favour of the government.”

As Lee notes, the disqualifications allowed pro-China politicians to use their temporary majority in the directly elected half of Hong Kong’s legislature to push through changes to Legco’s own rules. The December 2017 changes make it harder for opposition legislators to block government bills, and give the pro-Beijing president of Legco more power to do three things: reject bills proposed by opposition legislators, expel members from meetings, and pass bills with a smaller quorum. They also increased the number of votes needed to establish a committee to investigate government actions from twenty to thirty-five.

Members of the “pan-democrat” camp, who have never controlled more than thirty seats, tore up a copy of the Legco rule book in protest. They say the changes have restricted debate on the controversial decision to allow mainland Chinese police and immigration staff to operate at the city’s new Hong Kong–China high-speed rail terminal.

Even if the pan-democrats regain seats in future Legco by-elections, the first of which is scheduled for November, the changes may be irreversible. “Even if we win back the two seats that are currently vacant, and regain the majority [of directly elected seats] we won’t be able to change the rules back,” says Martin Lee, “because you need a majority in both parts of the legislature, including the ‘functional’ seats” — seats representing trade groups, many of which are pro-China — “and we will never get that.”

The jailings of Nathan Law and other activists have also fuelled concern about political intervention in Hong Kong’s legal process. Ma Ngok notes that previous protests — including a blockade by dock workers in 2013 — didn’t lead to jailings, and suggests that the verdicts against former student activists were intended to “warn young people that if you do this you could end up in jail for several months.”

Martin Lee says Chinese intervention in the jailing of the former student leaders can’t be proved. “It was clearly wrong,” he says, “but judges make wrong decisions in many countries.” But he believes Hong Kong’s leadership did make “a political decision” in appealing to have the initial verdicts of community service reviewed.

The fact that the court of final appeal ultimately overruled the jailings does show that “some judges are still independent” in Hong Kong, says Lee, who has also recently been cheered by the overturning of jail terms incurred by a group of protesters against rural redevelopment, whom he defended. But he believes that China’s insistence, in the 2014 “One Country, Two Systems”white paper, that Hong Kong’s administrators — including judges — “should above all be patriotic” has worrying implications for judicial independence. This is particularly true in such a small city, where, Lee says, it would be easy for Beijing to exert personal pressure on judges.

Despite his own jail time, Nathan Law agrees that Hong Kong’s judges “still have room to do things they consider just,” at least some of the time. But he too warns that such space “is at risk,” particularly since the white paper.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan says the jail term given to Edward Leung for rioting emphasised the pressure on the city’s judiciary. “Six years is definitely a harsh sentence in view of the facts,” he says, noting that Leung was cleared of inciting others to riot. The judiciary — which still includes some foreign judges, despite growing criticism from Beijing — has been “a pillar of helping Hong Kong stay more liberal,” Cabestan says. Yet, while the system “remains independent on paper,” he believes it now operates in “a more constrained and oppressive environment… that pushes judges to become harsher or [exercise] self-censorship.”

The campaign against the Hong Kong National Party, meanwhile, has highlighted the influence of conservative voices on Beijing’s Hong Kong policies. The role of C.Y. Leung, the former chief executive widely seen as the most divisive figure in modern Hong Kong politics, is particularly noteworthy. Leung’s call for the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club to be evicted from its iconic headquarters after HKNP founder Andy Chan’s talk was just the latest example of his willingness to break with Hong Kong’s tradition of debate and consensus politics.

It was Leung’s approval of the use of tear gas against unarmed protesters that sparked the Umbrella Movement in 2014. As chief executive, says Martin Lee, Leung treated Democratic politicians as if they were “people from Mars,” refusing to meet them in later years. Indeed Lee, like many pan-democrats, says Leung sought to “polarise” Hong Kong in an effort to appear decisive and boost his chances of being given a second term by Beijing.

In the end, Beijing heeded calls for “ABC” (“anyone but C.Y.”) even from Hong Kong’s normally pro-Beijing business elite and opted for the softer-spoken, more conciliatory style of Carrie Lam, a career civil servant. But Leung’s current post as vice-president of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference has given him a platform to continue his attacks on Hong Kong’s “localists,” whom Beijing seems increasingly determined to label as supporters of independence.

In fact, many Democrats believe that, were it not for Leung, the “independence” debate might not have flared up in Hong Kong at all. His tough line against protesters in 2014 and his backing for China’s plan to heavily restrict leadership elections — dismissed by many locals as “North Korean–style universal suffrage” — angered and frustrated many young people. Many Democrats also believe it was Leung’s decision to criticise a Hong Kong University student journal’s publication of articles discussing Hong Kong independence that really brought the topic into the public eye.

“They created it,” says Martin Lee, referring to Leung and Beijing. Lee says he considered the idea of independence for Hong Kong many decades ago, but rejected it as unfeasible. After that, he says, “I never felt there was any one person [in Hong Kong] who wanted independence… Yet C.Y. Leung suddenly quoted a passage from a magazine published by the Student Union and said, ‘Independence — very dangerous!’” Given Leung’s unpopularity, Lee says, “that makes students think, what about independence?”

Since 2016, when Edward Leung, now jailed, was banned from running for Legco for supporting independence, China’s attitude to the issue has visibly hardened. Today, Beijing’s “official line is that even [calling for] self-determination is the same as independence,” says the Chinese University’s Ma Ngok.

Nathan Law, whose Demosisto party was barred from contesting the March 2018 Legco by-elections for this reason, argues that the party’s proposal for a referendum in 2047 — offering a range of choices, including independence — was “definitely not equal to [calling for] independence.” Indeed, he suggests that most people in Hong Kong still see independence as highly impractical, given China’s power, and simply want more benign rule from Beijing. “If they treat the place well, and people believe that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is the best system for Hong Kong — and indeed [judging] from the core data that is truly the case for now — then I don’t think it’s really equal to independence,” he says.

With China’s leadership facing new economic pressures and taking a tough line on civil society in China itself, Law believes that Beijing has intentionally blurred the lines between Hong Kong identity and independence for its own “political needs,” not least promoting nationalism in the mainland.

Growing pressure on chief executive Carrie Lam to pass a new security law could further undermine her attempts to bring harmony to Hong Kong society. Unlike her predecessor, Lam has met with members of the Democratic Party, and Ma Ngok believes “she would rather focus on social and economic policies,” including tackling the city’s housing crisis, than pick political fights.

But Ma also doubts that the introduction of Article 23 legislation would lead to protests as big as those of 2003 — or even 2014. He says the pan-democrats’ poor showing in the March by-elections, when they effectively lost two seats despite anger over the disqualifications, suggests that some young people may be slipping back into apathy.

“Many young people have a sentiment of disillusionment — they’re at a loss,” he says. “Five years ago, when there was the big debate about universal suffrage, a lot of young people were very hopeful, energetic. [Even] after the Umbrella Movement, they felt that if mass mobilisation did not work, at least we can cast a vote and get some new guys into the legislature. But I would say the disqualifications have taken the wind out of a lot of people’s sails: ‘We go to the polls to vote and then they disqualify our guy — it seems there’s nothing we can do to change the system.’”

Ma also believes that the pro-Beijing camp is starting to make inroads into the democrats’ traditional majority in direct elections: “They’re getting a lot of support because of their resource advantage, and I also think some of the moderate people, especially wealthy people, are alienated by recent confrontations.”

But Democratic Party founder Martin Lee is more optimistic about the Hong Kong people’s commitment to the pan-democrat camp. He also argues that China “doesn’t need” Article 23 legislation to maintain order in Hong Kong, and says he has not completely given up hope that China’s president Xi Jinping might one day take a less confrontational approach to the city — possibly even allowing a truly free direct election for the chief executive post, as demanded by protesters in 2014.

“It could do him nothing but good,” he says. “A lot of candidates would come forward, but which one could win the election on a platform of independence, when you know it’s impossible? He’s got nothing to fear now. The army is already here, and anybody will tell him, ‘Forget about your worries about independence — now people are in jail, these guys are frightened, nobody would dare do anything similar in future.’ It would persuade the rest of the world that he is not an enemy of the free world, and is someone they can work with.”

Few expect such developments any time soon. Yet, despite all the city’s tribulations, some observers believe that Hong Kongers remain “attached to liberal political values,” as Jean-Pierre Cabestan puts it. Even many members of the pro-Beijing DAB (the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong) “wouldn’t challenge liberal values, they would be very cautious,” he argues.

Fellow political scientist Ma Ngok adds that members of Hong Kong’s young generation are “more supportive” of liberal values than their parents’ generation. And he says that despite growing Chinese ownership of Hong Kong’s media, a “kind of guerilla battle” continues, with younger editors trying to promote “some kind of algorithm for freedom” in a few newspapers and websites.

Yet Jean-Pierre Cabestan notes that it’s precisely the persistence of such tendencies, even after two decades of Chinese rule, that makes Beijing “so worried about Hong Kong. They see it as a base for subversion — so their key objective is to neutralise it and prevent it having any influence on China,” he says, adding that Beijing is “really worried” about pro-independence sentiment spreading in the future, “so they prefer to nip it in the bud.”

Cabestan also notes the growing role of the Chinese central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, which used to keep a very low profile amid public suspicion but now proudly proclaims its close contacts with the city’s leaders and politicians, and is seen by many as directly influencing Hong Kong government policy.

The next snapshot of local sentiment will come with the November by-election for the seat of ousted legislator Lau Siu-lai. Reports of further calls for independence by university students, and of pressure on family members of Hong Kong activists in mainland China, suggest that the battle for the minds of Hong Kong’s young generation may become increasingly bitter. The contradiction between the city’s entrenched freedoms and the “Chinese characteristics” of Beijing’s version of “One Country, Two Systems” seems to be becoming ever sharper. ●