National security law cannot erase Hong Kong's political awakening
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National security law cannot erase Hong Kong's political awakening

Demosisto may have disbanded and Nathan Law fled but struggle will continue for generations. Originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review.

After she quit the Occupy protests in 2014 because of pressure on her family, student Agnes Chow told me that she would never again be cowed by intimidation from Beijing. But this week she and fellow democracy campaigners Joshua Wong and Nathan Law disbanded their political organisation, Demosisto, and Law fled Hong Kong after Beijing introduced a national security law that was far more repressive than feared.

As the police arrested their first national security suspects on day one of the new law, other activists rushed to dissolve their groupings and eradicate their online presence.

Cynics will argue that the young Hong Kongers at the vanguard of the city's pro-democracy movement have ultimately achieved little beyond escalating the pace of Beijing's crackdown on the city's freedoms and autonomy. But that would be to overlook their vital role in Hong Kong's political awakening, which cannot simply be expunged by a draconian law and an authoritarian government.

Back in 2016, when I was the South China correspondent for the Financial Times, I was inspired to write a book about young people and identity in Hong Kong because I sensed that the Occupy movement symbolised a great change in the city -- despite the failure of the 79-day street protest to achieve its explicit aim of democratic elections for the city's leader.

For many young Hong Kongers, Occupy was their first taste of protest. It ignited their political consciousness. And it bred a new sense of togetherness. The more Beijing has squeezed Hong Kong over the last decade, the more young people have pushed back, embracing their unique Hong Kong identity and rejecting their place in China.

During the gloom that followed the winding down of the Occupy movement, several young activists, including the Demosisto trio, tried to light the way forward by entering formal politics.

In September 2016, Nathan Law was elected with one of the city's highest individual vote tallies after calling for "self-determination" for Hong Kong. Five other young politicians were elected after making similar calls for self-determination or even independence. Within a few months, the authorities had disqualified most of them, officially for failing to take their oaths properly. Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong were later banned for running from office after they too were deemed disloyal.

But this effort to quash the reinvigorated democracy movement merely pushed the battle back onto the streets, presaging the unprecedented mass protests and clashes of last year. With formal politics out of their reach, a more confrontational cohort of mostly anonymous young democracy activists came to the fore.

As Law, Chow and Wong no longer really spoke for their peers on the streets, they turned more to international advocacy, trying to generate awareness of and support for Hong Kong in the West and Japan. Alongside other advocates, Demosisto helped to convince the U.S. Congress to back the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which became law in November.

That is one of the reasons why Hong Kong's national security law specifically targets those who "collude" with foreign powers, as well as those who advocate for secession and sedition.

As the Hong Kong police were busy detaining people for waving Hong Kong independence banners on July 1, the 23rd anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule, Nathan Law was testifying to the U.S. Congress via video. He spoke of the heavy toll of the crackdown in Hong Kong, with more than 9,000 people arrested in the last year and hundreds on trial already -- auguring the creation of a generation of political prisoners.

But it is not just angry young people on the frontlines, fighting because they have, in the words of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, "no stake in society." Among those arrested and charged are white-collar professionals, teachers, construction workers, pilots and fashion designers.

Over the last few years, the idealism of youthful activists has stirred the aspirations of a much wider swathe of Hong Kong society. More united than ever, the pro-democracy camp swept the board in last November's elections for Hong Kong's district councils. Beijing is hitting back hard now precisely because it fears such a broad-based opposition coalition.

Law told the U.S. legislators that although Hong Kong's autonomy has gone, his peers have "kept the movement alive for the sake of our future generations." In my many conversations with Hong Kong activists, no-one ever said that they expected Beijing to give them democracy or to respect their rights. They understood that this was a long-term struggle against a very powerful adversary. By making sacrifices for their ideals, they hoped to keep the flame of resistance alive.

Wong and Chow are among the many continuing the fight in Hong Kong, albeit in a personal capacity. But, after giving his U.S. testimony, Law announced that he had fled Hong Kong, possibly forever. In just five years he went from student leader to Hong Kong's youngest-ever legislator to political refugee.

With the advent of the national security law, the avenues for opposition are being further blocked, and the cost of defiance is rising. Hong Kong has no effective autonomy and its freedoms have been substantially eroded. But the city is not dead. And the young activists will once more have to find new ways to advance their struggle, at home and abroad.

Ben Bland is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and the author of "Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China's Shadow."

Areas of expertise: Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy; South China Sea; regional economic trends; China-ASEAN relations; Indonesia; Malaysia; Vietnam; Hong Kong