For more than three decades, Hong Kong provided a glimmer of hope to Chinese rights activists. It was where mainland Chinese activists got their first taste of a street protest. It was where they learned about trade unionism, where they could talk about human rights, and where they could attend a vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen student movement. For many grassroots activists in China, Hong Kong seeded a fledgling idea: One day, mainland Chinese people, too, could assemble and critique their government without the fear of being arrested or disappeared.
On July 1, 2020, that glimmer of hope all but faded with the enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong. The law criminalizes a range of loosely defined activities deemed as secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces. Echoing similar national security provisions in the People’s Republic of China Criminal Law, these crimes are purposefully vague. The vagueness amplifies their chilling effect, inducing people to self-censor.
While Hong Kongers start to self-censor and the international community scrambles to respond with teeth, there is another, more muted community that is mourning: grassroots activists within China. These are human rights lawyers, labor organizers, anti-discrimination advocates, critical journalists and online opinion leaders who have looked to Hong Kong as an imperfect but freer microcosm.
As Beijing absorbs Hong Kong into its sprawling security empire, mainland activists will no longer be able to cross the land border into a different society. Instead, they are likely to watch a familiar show unfolding in Hong Kong, as those who push for rights are punished in true Beijing style — with high ambiguity and limited transparency, often without a fair trial, and covered by a media that is barred from presenting alternative voices.
We hope these predictions are wrong. But as scholars of grassroots activism in China, we are all too familiar with Beijing’s playbook for silencing critics under the guise of national security and social stability. The Chinese government’s coercive apparatus penetrates deep into the fabric of society. Far beyond the reach of the courts, the Communist Party skillfully leveraged an array of societal actors to help rein in trouble makers. Authorities pressured family members of protesters and religious organizations who held sway in villages, to do their bidding. They threatened landlords to evict their activist tenants. And when the softer tactics failed, they hired thugs to beat people up. All of these measures were largely carried out by unpopular local authorities.
While such fragmented control allowed activists space to maneuver locally, the Xi administration has since sought to close the loopholes by introducing a National Security Commission and pre-emptively repressing civil society actors. In 2015, the Xi administration all but cleared out a burgeoning civil society in China, with the 709 crackdown on activist lawyers, the disbanding of grassroots labor organizations and house churches, as well as the arrests of online opinion leaders. That was also the year that Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong-based Swedish bookseller who sold tabloid-like publications about Chinese leaders, was “disappeared,” only to resurface on Chinese national television confessing to a hit-and-run crime. These “staged and scripted” trials were forced upon a number of human rights lawyers and labor activists, who apologized in tears for having betrayed their country for and colluding with Western “hostile forces.”
Since then, many of mainland China’s activists have also been charged with crimes of subversion and sentenced to long prison terms. Perhaps most worrying is when the Party’s hand comes down on university students. In 2018, a few dozen university students who called themselves Marxist and Maoists went to southern China to support workers on strike. Before they could engage in activism, the authorities descended upon them, raiding their apartment and disappearing four student leaders. Later, the student leaders purportedly confessed in videos, apologizing for criticizing the Chinese Communist Party. If a handful of university students who were upholding Marxist principles — and not democratic ones — were subject to disappearances, what lies ahead for restive university students in Hong Kong?
The National Security Law is rightfully sowing fear in Hong Kong. China’s national security system is characterized not only by its draconian law on paper but also by its discretionary and selective enforcement in practice. Beijing passed its own national security law in 2015. Despite the wide net the law casts, only a handful of radical activists are criminally sanctioned. Yet, even with the surprisingly low rate of criminalization of grassroots activists, ordinary Chinese citizens live with the acute sense of being watched by an omnipresent regime, equipped with facial recognition technology and an expansive social credit rating system. The chilling effect of this sophisticated national security system is felt in everyday life.
This poses perhaps the most challenging question for Hong Kong: Will its judges, prosecutors, and lawyers enforce Hong Kong’s National Security Law as malleably as in the mainland? Or, will they stick to the less flexible criminal and procedural standards of a rule-of-law society, which risks making the law even more repressive? Will the same of type of informal, under-the-radar, repression that is practiced in the mainland be exported to Hong Kong as an accompaniment to the law?
The reverberations of the National Security Law also go beyond China’s borders. Article 38 of the National Security Law expands its reach from Hong Kongers to anyone, anywhere in the world, who engage in activities that potentially undermine China’s national security. As a result, foreign supporters of Hong Kong’s local activism are likely to take precautions. An exodus of human rights organizations, religious organizations, and other “hostile foreign forces” from Hong Kong to Taiwan and other safer places seems inevitable. As many of these organizations have used Hong Kong as a key site for influencing rights activism in China, their departure will further isolate activists in mainland China who are under siege. This is a vicious circle already in the making.
Ironically, with the enactment of the National Security Law, Hong Kongers must now learn from mainland grassroots activists how to confront a paranoid regime. They have already started to adopt creative tactics, like holding up blank pieces of paper to their faces to express self-censorship. Over time, they will master the delicate art of hidden political messages in public discourses. They will resort to performances on social media to cope with a secretive legal process. They will tell each other control parables. They will learn to mobilize without the masses. Most importantly, they will take lessons from both the courage and the sacrifice of generations of Chinese activists in the mainland. The fight against tyranny will go on for Hong Kongers, even as they must take a page from mainland activists’ sketch pad of self-censorship and strategic provocation.
Diana Fu is associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of Mobilizing Without the Masses in China.
Sida Liu is associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Toronto and co-author of Criminal Defense in China: The Politics of Lawyers at Work.