Features | Politics | East Asia

Inside Hong Kong’s Besieged Legislative Council, Democrats Refuse to Surrender

Banned candidates. Arrested lawmakers. Cancelled elections. What remains of democracy in Hong Kong?

By Kevin Holden for
Inside Hong Kong’s Besieged Legislative Council, Democrats Refuse to Surrender

In this photo taken on July 1, 2020, protesters against the new national security law gesture with five fingers, signifying the “Five demands – not one less,” on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain in Hong Kong.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Yu, file

Across the tropical enclave of Hong Kong, a semblance of peace has descended like a colossal cloud  hovering over the surface of the wealthy cosmopolis.

But this is an Orwellian peace, a spectral cloud produced by the 16,000 tear gas grenades that police have fired at pro-democracy protesters over the past year.

Million-person marches calling for – as one of the famed “Five Demands” – the free and direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive have instead sparked the suspension of the September 6 vote for the Legislative Council, along with threats of an impending crackdown.

Although more than 7,000 young protesters have already been detained, Lam Cheuk-ting, one of the Democratic Party leaders in the Council, predicts that the worst is yet to come.

A new national security law imposed on the city by Beijing has opened the way for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to infiltrate Hong Kong with a shadow army of secret police.

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“The stationing of the secret police in Hong Kong is so dangerous for us,” Lam warns.

With the suspended election, the state security law and the CCP’s expanding fifth column, the powers-that-be can plot a wider offensive against democratic forces across Hong Kong.

“We have been fighting for democracy and freedom for 20 years,” Lam says of the Democratic Party. “We are the biggest political party – so we are now the main target of suppression.”

More than half a million citizens who voted in an informal straw poll on the congressional contest in July caught a glimpse of the looming clampdown: after police raided the headquarters of the poll’s organizers, the one-time protest leaders and democrats who swept to victory in the mock election were all stripped of their right to run in the real LegCo competition.

The campaign to quash popular calls for a constitutional democracy had been gaining ground even as student-led protesters took over the streets of the former British colony, at times brandishing the American flag.

Outfitted in black helmets and armored uniforms, the Hong Kong Police Force responded with the aggressive use of chemical weapons against journalists, medics, human rights observers, and even members of the city’s Legislative Council, Lam says.

During one demonstration, when he attempted to act as a peacemaker between pro-democracy activists and the police, he was pepper-sprayed in the face.

Inside the legislature, Lam has been fighting to stop the police from using violent crowd control tactics against peaceful protesters, and earlier this year filed a HK$2.7 million lawsuit against them.

The burgeoning confrontation led to Lam’s own arrest in August.

“The Central Government,” he says, “already directly manages the Hong Kong Police Force to control Hong Kong and suppress the people.”

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Lam says his own detention, right after the live-streamed arrest of the publisher of the wildly popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is a portent of the turbulent times ahead.

“The central government is trying to send a message to the Hong Kong people and to the international community – all of our basic rights, including press freedom, are in great danger.”

The just-launched security law is likely to operate like a cluster bomb: a single explosion with the potential to destroy each of the civil liberties outlined in Hong Kong’s British-inspired constitution, including freedom of assembly and the right to stand for election or create a political party.

Beijing’s state security agents can now detain suspects – incommunicado – for up to six months or send them to them to Mainland China, where torture of political prisoners is endemic. These agents and their actions – whether the covert surveillance of local legislators or American diplomats in Hong Kong, interrogations of reporters or rights defenders, or cross-border renditions – are all above the law and cannot be reviewed by Hong Kong judges.

National security law offenses – punishable by life imprisonment – include calling on foreign leaders to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or China for human rights abuses.

“All of the democratic parties, and others who fight for freedom, are in danger,” Lam warns. With the first wave of arrests for security crimes, “they are trying to create a chilling effect.”

Another leader in the Council, journalist turned free-speech champion Claudia Mo, says Hong Kong could be facing a reign of terror: “The arrest of [publisher] Jimmy Lai and the storming of the Apple Daily headquarters were obviously quite deliberately conducted in the most high profile manner to help make sure the footage would go around the world.”

The new state security detachment of the Hong Kong Police Force, she says, has attempted to portray Lai as akin to a terrorist and their arrest of him as a counterterrorism operation.

The assault on the newspaper, and the purported worldwide reach of the security law, extend the extreme and extraterritorial ambitions of China’s leaders to intimidate reporters across the planet: “The accompanying warning was clear and understood: journalists local and abroad watch out, if you misbehave that’s how you or your newsroom could end up.”

Inside Hong Kong, she says, every journalist and every publisher now works with invisible Swords of Damocles hanging over their heads. Many, she predicts, will “learn to play safe and self censor. No whistleblowers. No exposés.”

The overwhelming impact of the dreaded law, she predicts, could upend the enclave’s entire rule-by-law society.

Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, banned from entering China after helping edit and publish “The Tiananmen Papers,” a chronicle of the top-secret CCP leadership decisions and power struggles that culminated in the Chinese military’s assault on young pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, says the Communist Party’s ambition to target its critics worldwide with the new law is extraordinary.

China has already issued arrest warrants for national security “fugitives” that target not terrorists, but democracy and human rights campaigners around the world.

The CCP seeks to capture an American citizen who has been working with the United States Congress to chart the crushing of freedoms in Hong Kong, along with a former student protest leader who won election into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council but was ejected on Beijing’s orders and then briefly imprisoned.

He found asylum in the U.K., like another “security threat” on China’s Most Wanted List: a Hong Kong millennial who was a researcher at the British Consulate until he made an ill-fated trip into mainland China, where he was jailed and tortured by state security agents in an attempt to extract a false confession that the U.K. government had fomented Hong Kong’s massive street protests.

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The globe’s leading democracies – the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand – have all ridiculed China’s arrest warrants and abrogated their extradition treaties with Hong Kong. Washington and London have likewise imposed arms embargoes on the territory.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted the CCP for its attempt to silence its critics beyond Chinese borders.

In what could be a new step toward a second Cold War, Pompeo vowed: “The United States and other free nations will continue to protect our peoples from the long arm of Beijing’s authoritarianism.”

Nathan says that, until now, “China has never formally pursued anyone, even its own citizens, extraterritorially for a political offense – not to say they haven’t informally harassed their political dissidents in a host of ways – or tried to impose its domestic law on non-citizens outside its borders.”

“By this logic,” he adds, “they could indict me for violation of the State Secrets Law, although in doing so they would have to acknowledge the authenticity of ‘The Tiananmen Papers,’ so maybe they don’t want to go down that road. (I hope.)”

A parallel provision in the national security law that criminalizes inciting hatred of the Central People’s Government could be used to imprison journalists or legislators who criticize the police’s use of deadly force against pro-democracy activists or who merely voice opposition to the draconian law, Nathan says.

Another section of the law specifically targets Hong Kong legislators and judges who endanger national security. This makes crystal clear, Nathan says, that “it is part of the strategy to make sure the pro-democrats and localists don’t gain a majority in the Legislative Council and that the judicial system doesn’t include anybody who isn’t willing to cooperate with Beijing’s security priorities.”

As Beijing began brandishing the hammers and sickles of the new law, Pompeo called for the creation of a “new alliance of democracies” to counter CCP moves to wage a worldwide crackdown.

On its face, the law could theoretically be used to charge any president, premier or legislator – from Washington to London to Berlin – who backs sanctions against Hong Kong’s leaders.

Chris Patten, the scholar-statesman who was the last British governor of Hong Kong, recently echoed Pompeo’s appeal for a globe-spanning coalition of great powers to challenge Chinese moves to crush Hong Kong’s civil liberties.

Patten spent the twilight of British rule over Hong Kong bolstering the independence of the judiciary and the powers of the Legislative Council while securing Chinese assurances they would honor their legal obligations to expand democracy as outlined in the Sino-British treaty governing the handover and the Basic Law, the constitution that would guide the city’s future.

Now a member of the House of Lords, Patten is hailed – throughout Hong Kong’s colleges, judicial chambers, bookshops and barrister’s offices – as one of the greatest leaders ever to preside over a section of Chinese territory, although voicing that sentiment these days likely violates the state security codex.

During a virtual roundtable staged by the Council on Foreign Relations, Lord Patten said that deploying 200 police officers to raid a Hong Kong newspaper and seize its founder was a “great assault, not just on Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, but on Hong Kong’s rule of law.”

The appearance of these new Thought Police, he suggested, threw a global spotlight on “attempts by China to turn Hong Kong into a replica of a sort of Beijing police state.”

Simultaneous moves “to stop the elections, which they were terrified of, because they were going to be won by the pan-democrats,” hammered home that point, Patten said.

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As the whirlwind of arrests gathers speed, liberal democracies across the world should develop a united front to counterbalance China and to provide escape routes for Hong Kong’s disenfranchised and disillusioned citizens.

In an interview by e-mail, Lord Patten says he has been advocating that British universities provide scholarships to Hong Kong youths. Patten, who is now chancellor of the University of Oxford, adds that he is urging colleges across the Five Eyes alliance nations to set up a similar fund of lifeline bursaries.

At the same time, the U.K.’s foreign ministry is crafting plans to streamline pathways toward citizenship and sanctuary for 3 million current and potential holders of British National Overseas passports in Hong Kong.

Lord Patten adds that London could challenge Beijing’s violations of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong within the United Nations or the International Court of Justice.

“It’s done already so in the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and I hope that if it’s got the chance of raising it with the ICJ as well, it will.”

In a stinging rebuke of China’s violations of its treaty obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protections outlined in Hong Kong’s constitution, seven leading jurists in the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently urged Beijing to drastically revise or completely withdraw its national security law.

As written, the law violates not just these treaty and constitutional provisions, but also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, numerous Security Council resolutions, and other pillars of international law, said Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and six more U.N. rights experts.

The security law “runs the grave risk of being targeted at, inter alia, the legitimate activities of political opposition, critics, dissidents, legislators, civil society, human rights defenders, lawyers, students, bloggers, artists, and others,” the experts wrote in the communiqué.

They are soon set to present their findings to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.

Professor Nathan, an advisor to Human Rights Watch Asia, says that as the CCP crackdown on democrats unfolds, there are echoes between Hong Kong today and China right after June 4, 1989.

“The echo,” he explains, “is the feeling of terror in the face of implacable repression.”

With many pro-democracy candidates denied the right to run for office, and the security law’s attacks on free speech, he adds, there is zero chance of conducting a fair election if it is staged under these conditions next year.

LegCo leader Lam Cheuk-ting, meanwhile, says that while many citizens have been terrified into silence by the advance of Chinese communist rule into Hong Kong, the embattled Democratic Party has no plans to retreat.

“The role of the Legislative Council,” he says, “is now even more important to speak up for the people of Hong Kong.”

Update: After this article was published, Eddie Mak, Hong Kong’s Commissioner to the United States, sent The Diplomat the following comments: “As stressed by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (HKSAR), the decision to postpone the September 6 Legislative Council election for one year was made to protect public health and to ensure an open and fair election…

…The HKSAR government is committed to conduct the elections in September next year freely, openly and in good faith.

With regard to the enactment of the national security law on June 30, our government has stressed that it aims to improve our city’s system for safeguarding national security, as well as to safeguard the long-term stability and safety of Hong Kong. The law clearly specifies that the legitimate rights and freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, of demonstration, and of procession… shall be protected. “

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Kevin Holden is a freelance journalist based in Asia.