China Power | Politics | East Asia

The Next 4 Steps in Hong Kong’s March Toward Totalitarianism

The worst is yet to come for the city. Here are four warning signs to watch for.

By Simon Shen for
The Next 4 Steps in Hong Kong’s March Toward Totalitarianism
Credit: Flickr/Studio Incendo

Since the implementation of the National Security Law on July 1, the old Hong Kong that we used to know has disappeared for good. Most recently, the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government controversially revoked a teacher’s license and permanently barred him from teaching. What prompted the disbarment was nothing more than a worksheet that touched on a number of sensitive topics, including Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

The “Hong Kong Cultural Revolution” is starting to unfold. Nevertheless, as we keep saying, the worst is yet to come. The forthcoming four milestones on the path toward totalitarianism can be expected.

1. Increase the Economic Costs to Pro-Democrats

Occupations that require a license or professional certification will increasingly use vetting as a political gatekeeper. Those who have not received their licenses will be vetted, and those who have licenses may require regular renewals. This means that people will have to show their loyalty at periodic intervals, in order to ensure that no one says or does anything considered politically incorrect. This could include professions such as law, medicine, accounting, social work and teaching, as well as other professions that provide services to the general public. It could also include civil servants, who are required to take an oath wholeheartedly. Moreover, all these occupations are fundamentally filled by highly educated individuals, many belonging to the“yellow” (pro-democracy) camp.

Those occupations that do not require a license at the moment, particularly in the private sector, will progressively be subject to regulation and licensing requirements created out of thin air. For instance, private tutors may need to take a standardized examination in order to be qualified to teach; otherwise, it may be considered an act of “illicit teaching.” Online publications may require an “online media license” or risk being accused of “unlawful incitement.” Selling cultural and creative products may also require an “artist’s license.” All of these may be just the tip of the iceberg. In short, the general direction is to prevent those who are politically incorrect from having any ability to support themselves financially.

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As for businesspeople, the easiest way to ensure compliance is through the use of the Inland Revenue Department. In mainland China, political dissidents with a certain level of publicity are often targeted in this manner. For instance, Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist and activist, has been accused of “tax evasion.” In Hong Kong, since small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the keys to sustaining the “yellow economy,” they will probably be the ones that bear the brunt.

2. Weaponize the Courts

After the National Security Law came into effect in Hong Kong, the general direction has been to activate the most draconian laws passed during the colonial era. This implies that anyone can be easily accused, criminalized and imputed. This trend has now begun, but it has not yet become a predominant trend, since it takes time to rectify the judicial branch. By the time the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are able to cooperate fully, however, such cases will become more common and may be resolved in more conventional ways (for instance, the notorious “interview” phase commonly used by national security forces in mainland China).

In addition to public power, private litigation is also a common way to suppress dissent. Defamation suits, more commonly used in authoritarian societies like Singapore, are one example. Since private litigation is extremely expensive, if the opponent is a government or mega-corporation with almost unlimited resources, pursuing such a lawsuit could bankrupt the target. In the past, people in Hong Kong trusted the rule of law, and there was an underlying understanding that the authorities would not use their power to the fullest extent. However, once this understanding is no longer honored, tyranny could rise through private legal measures, and the result could be drastically different.

3. Make Democrats Social Outcasts

The pressure for Hong Kongers to monitor or spy on each other will soon be seen in the private sphere. Private clubs will soon be asked to add rules that align with government preferences, expelling those who with politically incorrect views from the clubs. The memberships of pan-democrat legislators in the Jockey Club and the memberships of “yellow camp” businessmen in golf clubs could possibly be targeted. Even the memberships of grass-roots welfare agencies and the like may be censored by political vetting to treat those who are politically incorrect as an “outclass.”

Even though civil society in Hong Kong has always flourished, for access to resources most groups rely heavily on government agencies and publicly funded organizations, such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club. In the months and years to come, the approval of funding applications will inevitably undergo political vetting as well. Arts and cultural actors, as well as the innovation and technology sector, will be the hardest hit. While facing applications that are politically correct, approval will be looser. This hidden rule will become a new norm once the message is widely spread.

Hence association will also encounter a variety of difficulties in the near future. Entities established based on the Societies Ordinance will soon face more political scrutiny. Established associations can also have their licenses revoked, with the aim of preventing guilds, labor unions, chambers of commerce and other professional bodies from becoming places where anti-government forces gather. This will lead to a dilemma, in which registered associations organizing large-scale events may be seen as violating the National Security Law, while non-registered organizations organizing events could be accused of encouraging “illegal assembly” or “subversive activities.”

To ensure better self-censorship, whistleblowing and reporting will be institutionalized, and will gradually undermine the mutual trust between the people of Hong Kong, so that it will be harder to establish any forms of organization or resistance. With the advent of digital governance, the threshold for such behaviors has been set at a new low. As a result, those who suffer from the crackdown may risk being betrayed after seeking assistance and eventually face secondary victimization. Taken to its extreme, refusal to report “subversive crimes” under the National Security Law could also be made a crime, as shown by rules in effect during Taiwan’s period of martial law prior to 1987.

4. Restrict Travel Abroad

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Last but not least, in an effort to prevent the public from seeking safe havens overseas, there will be more micro-crimes and administration measures implemented, such as withholding citizens’ passports based on trivial pretexts. Hong Kong as a free port will no longer be free. Eventually, if the trend escalates, disobedient people could be required to apply for permission to leave Hong Kong, as seen like in places like Xinjiang, where it has become normal for people not to be in possession of their own passports. In order to destroy any hope of breaking through the wall, non-local income and business could easily fall under the National Security Law as well.

Throughout this transitional period, observers will have the aching and helpless feeling of watching a piece of art being abused and destroyed. We hope, of course, that all these prophecies will prove false. Unfortunately, developments in Hong Kong seem to be pointing in the opposite direction.

Dr. Simon Shen is the Founding Chairman of GLOs (Glocal Learning Offices), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor and associate director of the Master of Global Political Economy Programme of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a visiting scholar of National Sun Yat-sen University of Taiwan. The author acknowledges Emilia Law for her assistance in this piece.