Interviews | Politics | East Asia

Victoria Hui on Hong Kong’s Troubled Future

“The new national security law is worse than Article 23 and extradition legislation combined.”

Shannon Tiezzi
Victoria Hui on Hong Kong’s Troubled Future
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

On May 28, the National People’s Congress in Beijing official passed a decision authorizing the NPC’s Standing Committee to draft and enact a national security law for Hong Kong – circumventing the special autonomous region’s own legislature in the process. Activists warned the unprecedented move to exert direct control over Hong Kong spells the death of “one country, two systems,” despite frequent denials from both the central and Hong Kong governments.

The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi spoke to Victoria Hui, associate professor in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and a Hong Kong native, about the implications of the latest move, the intersection with Hong Kong’s year-long protest movement, and the future of the city.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

In 2003, a prior mass protest movement successfully scuttled national security legislation in the Hong Kong Legislative Council – and Beijing let that stand. Fast forward to 2019, and another mass protest movement convinced Beijing that national security legislation had to be pushed through by whatever means necessary. What would you say are the most important factors that led to such a different response from the central government this time?

Beijing did not take defeats lightly. It began to step up controls over Hong Kong, thus the Hong Kong saying “Western District (where the Liaison Office is located) ruling Hong Kong.” Control used to be behind the scenes, but Beijing began to assert direct rule after the June 9 mass protest of last year. By the same token, Beijing did not take the “suspension” and “withdrawal” of the extradition bill lightly. Thus the new national security law is worse than Article 23 and extradition [legislation] combined. If the extradition bill was meant to extradite wanted individuals from Hong Kong to mainland China, the national security law will bring state security (secret police) and public security (police) agents to Hong Kong.

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I wrote about this in a chapter for ISPI’s publication Between Politics and Finance: Hong Kong’s “Infinity War”:

While Hong Kongers championed the victory, Beijing did not take this setback lightly. … Beijing opted to tighten control, kick-starting a “qualitative erosion” of “one country, two systems.”

In addition to the long-standing Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO), Beijing formed a Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs to oversee the SARs from the capital. It also created a structure of “two administrations” in Hong Kong. The “first administration” is headed by the chief executive, who is technically selected by the 1,200-member election committee but is in fact handpicked by Beijing. S/he exercises the power of appointments and promotions to fill the Department of Justice, the police, and the civil service with loyalists. The chief executive can control even nongovernmental sectors through funding and licensing. The “second administration” is Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong established in 2000. The former Director Wang Zhimin famously commented that “it is good that Central (the Hong Kong government) and Western Districts (the Liaison Office) work together.” The “Western District” has since intervened not only at the top levels of the Hong Kong government but also reaches deep into all 18 administrative districts. District representatives mobilize human and material support for pro-Beijing candidates in various elections. These arrangements have effectively turned the promise of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” into “Beijing appointees ruling Hong Kong” and “Western District ruling Hong Kong.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has insisted that the national security law will not impact Hong Kong’s independent judiciary or “legitimate rights and freedoms.” From the HKSAR’s point of view, what is the ideal end result of enacting such legislation? In other words, if all goes according to plan for Lam and her government, what would change – and what would stay the same – in Hong Kong?

The Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have been trying to spin a narrative that everything is legitimate. There are no legal loopholes that need to be filled by this Beijing law. Protesters are already charged with colonial-era laws for, e.g., rioting. Carrie Lam also invoked a colonial-era law for emergency to declare a face mask ban. The police further announced in late May that they could begin to use terrorism laws to cordon off protest areas and search everyone.

The police have already been subverted to behave like Beijing’s public security, beating up and torturing protestors with impunity. The IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Council] report exonerates all the abuses in the past year.

The police already deny the “no objection” permit to protests, rendering them unlawful and subject to years of imprisonment.

The Hong Kong government is already punishing people for free expression: Teachers and civil servants are dismissed for pro-democracy positions. HSBC is denounced for not openly supporting the law. Five university heads have come out to openly support the legislation.

The Liaison Office director has called medical workers on strike and the “yellow economic circle” a “political virus.”

Today, the exercise of free speech is punished but not yet criminalized. As many Hong Kong commentators say, the only so-called loophole is to further criminalize the exercise of free speech.

This seems to be the ideal scenario or goal for Beijing and the Hong Kong government.

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I don’t know what would stay the same. Hong Kong is already a very different place today. It will be even more different when the new law comes into effect. As I wrote earlier in The Washington Post:

Despite official reassurances, the decision will surely stifle freedom of expression, as the new law will probably include vague language such as “spreading rumors.” Even under existing law, veteran democracy leaders including Martin Lee were arrested in April for peaceful “unlawful assembly.” The Hong Kong government also declared the annual Tiananmen Square commemoration on June 4 “unlawful” for the first time. [On June 1, the Hong Kong police official rejected the application to hold the annual candlelight vigil, saying it would violate COVID-19 social distancing protocols.]

Another concern is whether Hong Kong judges will be able to review the law to ensure compliance in text and application with Basic Law requirements. A Hong Kong delegate to the NPC has even proposed to establish a separate national security tribunal. If adopted, this arrangement would end the independent and final jurisdiction as promised in Basic Law Article 19.

The decision reignited Hong Kong’s protests, which had quieted amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the police have stepped up their hard-line tactics in response. How do you expect the movement to unfold over the coming weeks, with several important anniversaries from the original anti-extradition protests looming?

The police on May 26 announced that they would call the protests of the previous Wednesday a riot, thereby subjecting the 200 or so arrested to rioting charges with up to 10 years in jail. This is meant to intimidate further protests.

The police effectively banned the June 4 vigil by extending the social gathering ban to June 4 — while many other events and businesses are already opening up. Hong Kong has been the only place on Chinese soil to commemorate Tiananmen, thwarting Beijing’s goal to create complete Tiananmen amnesia.

The police will continue to refuse to issue “no objection” to protests planned for other anniversaries : June 9, June 12, June 16, July 1, July 21, August 31, and more.

Protestors are responding with more decentralized forms of resistance. Decentralized methods are more resilient to physical repression. Organizers of the June 4 vigil called on people to “be water,” lighting a candle wherever they are. Other organizers are calling for a general strike.

The “yellow economic circle” is also a form of economic boycott against pro-Beijing businesses. There is talk of class boycott. Again, Beijing officials have called these nonviolent means of protest a form of “political virus.”

Workers  who go on strike could be fired, but at least they do not make it easy for the police to arrest and beat up everyone.

The protest movement that began in 2019 has yet to achieve most of its main goals, from an investigation into police brutality to the implementation of full suffrage. What hope is there for Hong Kong’s pro-democrats to avert the national security law?

Hong Kong’s protesters have not achieved their goals because they are fighting Beijing. The hope is to keep up the spirit and preserve their energies for a long, drawn-out struggle by taking decentralized methods.

In this “teenager vs superpower” struggle (the title of a documentary about Joshua Wong), the international community can make a difference.

For so long, both Washington and London would conclude in their regular reports on Hong Kong that the “one country, two systems” model was still working despite very egregious violations such as the abduction of a bookseller and a Chinese billionaire and the disqualification of democratically elected legislators. By taking the “nuclear option” of imposing a national security law in blatant violation of the Basic Law and Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing has made it impossible for world leaders to look the other way. It is an important step that the [U.S.] secretary of state decertified Hong Kong’s autonomy and the administration is looking at measures to revoke Hong Kong’s special customs status.

As of the time of writing, these announcements have yet to be translated into actions. And any actions will take time to deliver results. The most urgent action that would make daily life better for Hong Kong residents is if the U.S. imposes targeted sanctions on police officers who have abused the arrested: kneeling on their necks, putting boots on their heads, breaking their bones, causing brain injuries, and more. The freedom from fear is the most basic of all freedoms. If world leaders are worried that any actions would hurt Hong Kong people, here is the most important action that will surely be helpful.