Commentary |
12 August 2020

Hong Kong is not dead, just entering a new phase of struggle

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Ben Bland
Ben Bland

When the Chinese Communist Party imposed a draconian and far-reaching national security law on Hong Kong last month, the perpetual optimists in the city’s business community argued that Beijing would only target a few troublemakers and life would carry on as normal.

They were wrong. Overnight, the CCP repurposed a city-centre hotel into a new secret police headquarters. And the Hong Kong authorities began wielding their new and untrammelled powers with relish.

First, they started detaining democracy activists on catch-all charges of subversion, secession and colluding with foreign forces. Then, on Monday, they stepped up the crackdown, arresting tycoon Jimmy Lai, the owner of the popular pro-democracy Apply Daily newspaper, his two sons and several news executives. Hundreds of police then stormed the Apple Daily newsroom, while they perp-walked Lai through the building and rifled through reporters’ desks.

The raid was not just an attack on media freedom, which the Hong Kong government disingenuously claims to uphold. It was also an attack on the freedom of a legitimate business to operate without government interference.

The move against Lai and Apple Daily prompted a new round of proclamations of the “death of Hong Kong”. The city’s death was prophesied before the handover from British to Chinese control in 1997, when Fortune, the US business magazine, ran a cover story under that title. And Beijing’s tightening grip has sparked renewed bouts of fatalism.

Hong Kong has certainly taken ever more body blows, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping attempts to enforce CCP-style conformity on the city. The unilateral imposition of the national security law removed the pretence that Hong Kong has any meaningful autonomy.

It also dealt a heavy blow to the city’s independent legal system, which underpinned its success as a financial centre. Meanwhile, the years-long crackdown on the democracy movement has cut off many avenues for opposition, and raised the cost of dissent.

But Hong Kong is not dead. To say so is to ignore the agency, creativity and defiance of Hong Kongers. Many will continue to struggle for freedom, dignity and survival, even as the battlefield is tilted against them.

Most Hong Kongers do not want to flee their home, despite Britain’s promise of refuge for 3 million Hong Kongers, and the far more limited immigration offer by the Australian government. Neither is such an option particularly attractive in the midst of a global pandemic and economic depression.

In the aftermath of Lai’s arrest, his company vowed to fight on. “Hong Kong’s press freedom is now hanging by a thread,” it said. “But our staff will remain fully committed to our duty to defend the freedom of the press.” Hong Kongers showed their support by snapping up copies of Apple Daily on Tuesday morning.

Such solidarity will be vital as the pressures on the city’s way of life grow. Many analysts have predicted that Beijing will try to turn Hong Kong into “just another mainland city”. But, as Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese politics, has warned, it could be much worse, if Beijing sees Hong Kong like Xinjiang as a defiant border region whose resistance must be broken once and for all.

Tony Chung, a 19-year-old student activist who was arrested last month for “inciting secession” through social media posts, captured the fears of many when he told Agence France-Presse that “night just fell on Hong Kong”.

It is a scary time. But, even in the dark, there is life. Hong Kong democracy campaigners have long understood that their chances of success in the short term are slim indeed. They know, better than anyone, that Xi is determined to crush their movement. But they also believe that if they can keep the resistance alive, they can capitalise on changes in China someday.

The Apple Daily raid drew the world’s attention and a condemnation from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There was less focus later on Monday, when the police arrested Agnes Chow, a mild-mannered 23-year-old democracy activist, on allegations of inciting secession.

That was particularly sad news for me. I interviewed her many times when I was a journalist in Hong Kong and was always impressed with her earnest and resolute approach in the face of growing danger. Chow even gave up her British citizenship to run for the city’s Legislative Council before the government banned her from standing for election.

Such commitment cannot easily be killed off by repression. That is because activists like Chow are not just fighting for abstract ideas such as human rights and democracy. They are fighting to defend their home and their identity. As she told me a few years ago, the challenge for Hong Kongers is not just to secure political autonomy from Beijing but to secure “autonomy in our own lives”.

Ben Bland is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and the author of Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow and the forthcoming Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia.