China Power | Politics

The Hong Kong National Security Law Is Reshaping Political Identities 

The NSL has altered many long-standing allegiances and feuds within the different political identities in Hong Kong.

By Simon Shen for
The Hong Kong National Security Law Is Reshaping Political Identities 
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

In a recent conversation with a friend with strong pro-democracy leanings, we discussed the implications of remaining in Hong Kong after Beijing implemented the national security law (NSL). My friend works in the cultural sector, and his organization relies heavily on government funding. However, in the current state of absurdity – when a simple act of critical thinking might mean breaking the NSL – would he be willing to stand up for his values when any sign of defiance might jeopardize his organization’s funding and thus his team’s livelihood?

For Hong Kongers who choose to stay in a city ravaged by the NSL, this is the dilemma they will inevitably face. Such pressure is forcing rapid changes amongst Hong Kongers’ political identities, and the differences between previously distinct groups are beginning to blur. In my view, Hong Kong is moving into an era where the majority of the people will align with six identities across the political spectrum.

The “loyalists” are the people most faithful to Beijing, and the only group supporting the anti-extradition law last year. Although making up only 15-20 percent of the population, their political beliefs and radical tactics have left their mark on Hong Kong. They encourage “mass snitching,” a remnant of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to incite social division and polarization. In a bid to prove their loyalty, they would even actively push forth radical policies on their own without Beijing’s orders. This trend confirms the words of Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, who had predicted Hong Kong falling into the hands of “lamentable quisling figures.”

“Pro-establishment moderates” typically include professionals, businesspeople, and civil servants, and are characterized by a strong desire for social stability. However, they value professional ethics and are deeply unsettled by the new trend of politics overriding professionalism. Without the same unquestionable loyalty as shown by the loyalists, they understand that they may eventually face political persecution. As such, they have quietly moved assets overseas and made exit plans, ready to act quickly when the time comes.

The “pro-democracy moderates” also consist broadly of professionals and include teachers, lawyers, journalists, and social workers. They traditionally have formed the largest group in Hong Kong. Since they have to work with or within government institutions, they do not openly declare their political leanings. Like the “pro-establishment moderates,” the level of political persecution against them has escalated in the past year. For example, any cultural or social welfare organizations applying for government funding would have to go through political vetting from now on. Unless these people decide to leave Hong Kong, they would have no choice but become silenced and succumb to the regime to survive.

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“Pro-democracy hardliners” used to be the most anti-Beijing in Hong Kong’s political spectrum. After the NSL, they will be completely cut off from all institutional resources. In the foreseeable future, political vetting will happen in all professional organizations, licensing agencies, business registrations, etc. Therefore, only small business owners, freelancers, or young people can openly defy Beijing and still survive in Hong Kong. They will be the only “resistance camp” left in Hong Kong after the recent mass disqualifications and imprisonments of prominent legislative councilors and opposition political figures. Yet, despite their name, the room for resisting Beijing is rapidly diminishing under the all-encompassing national security law.

With the changing political climate, many members of the aforementioned groups (except the “loyalists”) will gradually emigrate overseas. In addition to their family members and previous waves of emigrants, they will form a sizable group – in the order of hundreds of thousands – of overseas Hong Kongers. Once they have left Hong Kong, they are free to speak their minds and participate in activities deemed legal pre-NSL. Yet, at the same time, they still cannot completely ignore the omnipresent NSL since Beijing would always hold some leverage over their remaining family or assets in Hong Kong.

The “exiles” are at the furthest end of the political spectrum, a minority who live overseas with arrest warrants or have their assets frozen under the NSL. These bold activists are undeterred by the NSL and are willing to oppose Beijing in a high-profile manner from abroad. They are burdened with high expectations to carry on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, yet in reality they are likely to miss that mark. The exiles will find it challenging to expand their anti-Beijing circles because most moderate overseas Hong Kongers are still constrained by their remaining family and assets in Hong Kong. All this is part of Beijing’s carefully calculated tactic learned from decades of experience in managing its overseas pro-democracy supporters from mainland China.

The NSL has altered many long-standing allegiances and feuds within the different political identities in Hong Kong. For example, pro-establishment and pro-democracy moderates are two groups that would now find themselves closer than before. While their views may differ on many issues, they are bonded by the same political pressures and may form a new alliance to silently protect the remaining ideals that they mutually value.

Meanwhile, the gap between the pro-democracy hardliners and the moderate overseas Hong Kongers would also gradually narrow. Although the hardliners used to condemn others for leaving the city, they are now the group most actively considering emigration. Once abroad, the hardliners would co-exist with pro-establishment moderates, who in turn would unlikely have reservations about accepting the hardliners into their fold.

As for the pro-democracy moderates and hardliners, they would continue to argue over whether to oppose Beijing within the electoral system or more radically on the streets. However, as Beijing turns the whole government bureaucracy into a vast political vetting machine, these arguments would become trivial in comparison. Instead, the two groups will become united by a stronger desire to overturn social injustice. This political awakening would further increase as international communities recognize the erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong and sympathize with their plight.

Hong Kong is seeing a new political landscape as the NSL sweeps across the city. While very few go to the political extremes of being loyalists or exiles, Hong Kongers would have to decide how to position themselves and interact with others from other parts of the political spectrum. During the anti-extradition protests last year, moderate and radical protesters formed a united front. They embraced an inclusive approach that set aside past division with emphasis on non-interference between the camps – epitomized by the motto “two brothers climb a mountain, each using its own route and techniques but to reach the same summit.” However, to weather the darker times ahead, Hong Kongers would need a broader collaboration among these political identities. They will have to sustain an informal network in Hong Kong and overseas bonded over the ideals the city is built on.

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 Lei Wu, Daniel Cheng and Michelle King for their assistance in this piece.