For some Hong Kongers, saying farewell to family members and friends has become a common experience over the last two years. Hugs, tears, and waving goodbyes have become a more common sight at the departure hall of Hong Kong’s airport. The number of residents departing Hong Kong by air reached 85,000 in June, the highest number since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with a net outflow of over 21,000.
In a parallel universe, others are hopeful about the future of the city. To welcome Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s attendance at the first jubilee of the PRC gaining sovereignty of Hong Kong, Beijing’s supporters are hanging tens of thousands of national and regional flags across the territory to show their faith in Xi’s China.
Such a phenomenon reflects the state of the city: There is no middle ground in the society after the National Security Law was enacted in 2020. One either submits to the new normal, denying that the city’s largest protests, held in 2019, were genuine calls for pro-democracy, or becomes silent and leaves to avoid risking the worst.
Since the enforcement of the draconian law is in full swing, what is happening in Hong Kong is more than rounds of crackdowns on dissidents; it is an overhaul of Hong Kong altogether. In particular, the policies implemented by the regime, along with its deliberate inaction on other questions, are destroying the infrastructure built by the British to maintain the trust and cohesion of society. Scrapping these systems would do nothing constructive, yet the city’s leaders insist on doing so to serve political purposes.
On the same day that John Lee is inaugurated as the new chief executive, most of the 1663 Mutual Aid Committees (MACs) will be disbanded by the government. The British set up the MACs in the 1970s, encouraging residents in public housing estates to get involved in building management affairs and promote mutual help in the community. Most board members of these committees are democratically elected by the residents, and most of the MACs are controlled by pro-Beijing supporters.
For decades, the MACs were granted free office spaces and encouraged to serve as volunteer hubs in their respective housing estates. From holding fundraising drives for charities to checking on the well-being of the elderly, the work of the MACs is a showcase of mutual trust and cooperation between the government and the people. And yet the administration decided to axe the MACs, citing that their functions are diminishing and consultations on district affairs can be covered by other advisory bodies. This is the case even though literally all members of the existing bodies are handpicked by the government.
The rationale behind axing the MACs is political: Any chances for the people to voice their dissent through the ballot box, on however small a scale, are no longer tolerated. The authorities are leaving no possibility for pro-democracy supporters to access public resources and rebuild a “network of resistance.” In other words, regime leaders are choosing to nip any hypothetical pro-democracy renaissance in the bud, at the cost of destroying a decades-long connection between the government and the people.
District Councils, another British legacy established in the early 1980s, are also under threat. After a mass resignation and disqualification of pro-democracy councilors last year, the government has no intention of holding any by-elections. The government further weakened the powers of all of the territory’s 18 District Councils by scrapping their budgetary powers. It dried up funds worth hundreds of millions that were used to support events organized by the non-profits and facilities constructed by the councils. The administration also admitted that a review of the District Councils is underway and it is speculated that all councils – 17 of which were once controlled by pro-democracy councilors – are at risk of being decommissioned altogether by 2023.
One may argue that replacing democratic local institutions with executive-led bureaucratic departments would be more efficient and responsive to the needs of the community. Lee used such an argument and pledged to establish government-led caring and serving teams across all 18 districts in his uncontested election campaign. It is believed that the teams would have a top-down management style.
However, precedent suggests this will not actually improve government services. Two decades after the disbandment of Urban and Regional Councils, municipal services in Hong Kong have barely advanced to meet the demands of the time. More importantly, destroying established democratic structures weakens the power of citizens to hold the government accountable. Without scrutiny, the regime takes advantage of its discretionary power wherever possible to silence the truth. For instance, books about pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai have been removed from public libraries, and there is no longer any mechanism to stop such a move. It is also reported that archives of Apple Daily, the newspaper that Lai founded, which was subsequently shut down after his arrest in 2021, were deleted from the library databases.
The social fabric of Hong Kong is being further unraveled by the administration’s efforts to promote surveillance among the citizens. The Hong Kong police have ramped up the effort to encourage people to report anything suspicious. While the call may sound legitimate, their posters suggest that people simply wearing caps and masks or carrying heavy items in public are deemed suspicious.
Prior to Xi’s visit to the city, law enforcement launched a scheme to encourage hardware store owners to report youth whom they suspect of purchasing chemicals to produce explosives. The Facebook page of the Hong Kong Police even states that people who feel discontent toward the society and developed a sense of duty are “apparently radicalized.” Such rhetoric not only exacerbates the division of society; it also resembles the community surveillance used in Xinjiang, in which Han Chinese were told to assume most Uyghur Muslims would show hostility toward them, a weak claim meant to legitimize Beijing’s surveillance and oppression of ethnic minorities.
From letting district administration languish in limbo to promoting distrust among the people, the Hong Kong authorities are willing to allow the social fabric that has existed for decades to be eroded in a bid to re-engineer Hong Kong’s society into a China-like subdistrict management structure. This may be a politically correct maneuver for the Lee administration, allowing commands to be dispatched from the top of the chain and mobilizing pro-Beijing supporters whenever necessary. But making dissenting voices deliberately absent from the overhauled system means oversight of the district administration will become limited. Things can easily can go wrong, as policies and schemes would not go be subject to debates and examinations as they used to be.
In Lee’s Hong Kong, communities will become fragmented as networks of mutual help have found no equivalent substitute. As constituency meetings run by district councilors may become a thing of the past, residents who need help may feel more isolated in Lee’s five-year term than before.
It would be naive to assume business in Hong Kong will revert to normal when the border is reopened. By then, the city will have already transformed into an incohesive society, where people dare not voice their dissent because of the fear of surveillance and other repercussions. Public trust and its impact on changing society for good would have diminished. Above all, Hong Kong’s descent into kakistocracy will make what was once the freest territory in the region a very different place than what the world is accustomed to.