A Matter of Time: Faced with a Crackdown, Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protestors Hold Onto Hope

On the night of June 2, 2020, on his usual walk home, pro-democracy activist Finn Lau was attacked by three people in London. Just two months before, friends in Hong Kong warned him that the Beijing government had placed a $100,000 bounty on his head. 

“I tried to stop by a lamppost, but once I stopped, [three people] started to rush to me and kept beating me, kicking me, tossing me, and I thought I lost my right eye immediately because it was so painful,” Lau said in an interview with The Politic. “I couldn’t see anything. My eyeball was covered with blood. And then I was on the floor. There was a moment I asked myself whether this is the end of my life, and then everything turned into silence.” 

Lau believes his three attackers acted under orders from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He does not believe the attacks were racially motivated, and the three individuals did not try to take his belongings. Additionally, newspapers in Hong Kong exposed his identity a few months later, reporting that he committed crimes of subversion and secession.

The attack on Lau exemplified the CCP’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, which can largely be attributed to the Hong Kong National Security Law. The law criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, foreign collusion, and terrorism and has been used to justify attacks on pro-democracy groups and activists. Since its enactment on June 30, 2020, the law has allowed the CCP and the Hong Kong government, whose interests are now essentially unified, to justify targeted attacks on journalists and activists and enact election reforms. 

On June 4, 2020, thousands of Hong Kong citizens pushed through barricades, lit candles, and sang pro-democracy songs in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, in an annual vigil held to honor victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Three thousand police officers guarded the city to block the gathering under the guise of public health concerns. During the massacre in 1989 — now one of the most heavily censored topics in China — troops stormed in with tanks to a student-led pro-democracy protest calling for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, due process, and accountability.

The CCP’s enactment of the national security law later that month caused many groups to drop out of the vigil in 2021, even before local authorities canceled the event due to public health concerns and threatened to subject attendees to five years of imprisonment. Consequently, police successfully barred crowds from entering Victoria Park, and only small groups stood on the park’s peripheries. Moments of defiance still punctuated the protests: Activists read a play about Tiananmen Square, searched for pro-democracy postcards, and wrote the numbers indicating the date of the massacre — six and four — on light switches. 

“I always think that Hong Kong is a dormant volcano,” Lau said. “If you look at the protest this year, during the June 4 vigil, Hong Kongers tried to protest again, even though they tried to block Victoria Park, but still Hong Kong tried to protest on the street. I think we lost momentum. It’s just a matter of time another uprising will come.”

Months later, on August 23, 2021, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, organizers who often lead this event, disbanded. 

“China’s recent crackdown in terms of the national security law and the disbandment of pro-democracy groups, while inevitable in the long-run, is a violation of this agreement and very likely a reaction to the protest movements which have grown in size and frequency since the 1997 handover,” Jason wrote in an email to The Politic. Jason is a Hong Kong citizen who asked to remain anonymous.

Some Hong Kongers view China’s efforts to exert control over Hong Kong as an unwarranted encroachment on Hong Kong liberties, while others see them as inevitable. Mel Adams ’24 grew up in Hong Kong, and her family still lives there. 

Adams said her mom, who is a Hong Konger and grew up in Hong Kong, sees what China is doing as inevitable. “At least with respect to my mom, who is a Hong Konger and grew up there, it’s like of course China’s doing this. It’s almost like what the terms and conditions of the [British] handover were,” Adams said. 

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Hong Kong has an extensive history of colonial rule. In 1898, Britain pressured China into signing the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, leasing the city for 99 years. In 1941, Japan invaded Hong Kong, but Britain reestablished power in 1946 and remained in power until 1997. 

British and Chinese delegations signed the Joint Declaration of 1984 to begin transferring control of Hong Kong. The “one country, two systems” plan, which took effect in 1997, allows Hong Kong to be a special administrative region of China (SAR) until 2047, after which it can keep its own economy and legislative system. The agreement guaranteed Hong Kong its own legal system, rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and multiple political parties for the next 50 years. However, recent events suggest that China has decided to de facto end the terms of the agreement prematurely.

“Unfortunately, Hong Kong has never really had any say over its future. Since the onset of colonial rule, its fate has been determined by outside parties and treaties without local input,” Jason said. 

The crackdown from China on Hong Kong throughout the last two years began after protests in 2019 over an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrew the bill in October 2019, but the protests continued with additional demands for the Hong Kong government.

“I think our leader, Carrie Lam, was the first one to have caused all this trouble. The extradition treaty was something that everybody was opposed to, she brought it up, and that created the spark,” George told The Politic. George is a Hong Kong citizen who asked to be given a pseudonym. 

But George believes that the protests eventually became too extreme. When they became violent, the Chinese government reacted swiftly and forcefully; to George, the protesters escalating their demands was not an “educated gamble” since it pitted a relatively small number of protesters against the population of mainland China.

It was shortly after the 2019 protests ended when the standing committee of the National People’s Congress of China enacted the national security law, ostensibly a direct result of the protests.

“It was getting to the extreme, so they had to do something so now everyone keeps on going to the extremes. And now, at the end of the day, we sort of ended up losing all our rights, which is sad, but it’s evolved that way and there’s not much that can be done,” George said. 

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Denise Ho, professor of history at Yale, doesn’t think the CCP has merely been reacting to intensified protests. “What you see happening from 2019 onwards [is] a way of using legislation and using interpretation of Hong Kong laws to eliminate opposition to pro-Beijing candidates and interest in Hong Kong,” Ho said in an interview with The Politic.

Ho said there are three main avenues that the CCP can take to exert control over the Hong Kong government. The first is going after pro-democracy activists who could run for office. The second is silencing and prosecuting journalists, and the third is creating an environment where protesters feel unsafe because of the national security law. 

The national security law and other electoral reforms in Beijing have effectively kept many pro-democracy activists from political power. Recently, groups have had to disband both due to active threats and arrests to their leaders, as well as fear of future persecution. 

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China had been the only group calling for the end of “one-party dictatorship” in China before it dissolved in September. Group members were charged with not providing details about the group’s membership and activities to the police by Sept. 7 after authorities requested this information in August. Leaders of the group were charged with subversion under the national security law, and police began arresting the 32-year-old group’s leaders in September. 

This included Chow Hang-tung, vice-chairwoman of the alliance. She was sitting in her office in Hong Kong’s central business district one September morning when she heard police knocking at the door. “Any words of farewell for me?” Chow wrote in a Facebook post while police were ringing her doorbell. She was arrested that day for “publicizing an unauthorized gathering” after telling those planning to attend the June 4 vigil to light candles. 

Additionally, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) voted to break up on October 3, 2021, citing “political uncertainty.” According to pro-Beijing media outlets, the group’s activities violated the foreign collusion clause of the Hong Kong national security law, and many group members said they faced threats to their safety. The group also includes the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, which voted to disband on September 11 after being condemned in the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the CCP. Since the beginning of 2021, 29 unions have disbanded due to fear of facing threats or jail time. 

These arrests, along with election reform measures, are also meant to keep pro-democracy candidates from taking office. One such election reform bill was passed by Hong Kong’s legislature on May 27, 2021. The new law allows the security department to vet potential candidates and created a new committee to determine if candidates are “patriotic.” The seats in Hong Kong’s legislature also increased from 70 to 90, with 40 of them elected by a pro-Beijing “Election Committee.” 

Ho said that China traditionally allies with Hong Kong elites, and these election reforms have only bolstered their close relationship. There is essentially no difference between the interests of the CCP and those of Hong Kong’s ruling elite, Ho claimed. 

“I think that it’s very clear now that Hong Kong’s political leadership cannot act independently of Beijing. I think this is different from earlier generations of Beijing cultivating ties with Hong Kong elites,” Ho said. “Now there’s no question that, unless one openly demonstrates their political loyalty to Beijing, they won’t be able to participate in Hong Kong’s political system.”

George thinks differently, arguing that the vetting process allows Hong Kong to choose strong leaders and filter out people who only “spout ideology for the sake of it.”

“I know some of the leaders here. And they don’t spell communist ideology. They are people who are well educated and they do care for the people,” George said. 

The Chinese government also seeks to assert control over Hong Kong by systematically silencing and persecuting members of the press. Jimmy Lai, who founded the best-selling Hong Kong tabloid newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested in April for his involvement with protests in 2019, according to the BBC

“It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice,” Lai wrote. “As long as we are not blinded by unjust temptations, as long as we do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”

Eight other activists were jailed for participating in the same protest as Lai on August 18, 2020, and given a minimum sentence of eight months. Lai was also given an extra two months for involvement in protests on August 31, 2020, according to the South China Morning Post. Lai’s arrest led to the closure of the Apple Daily, which had been very critical of the CCP and the Hong Kong government.  

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Lau is currently still in exile in the United Kingdom, and his own experiences of assault and detention in early 2020 have fueled him to fight for democracy in Hong Kong, regardless of the risks associated with the national security law. 

“I’m not afraid to face such risks because after being arrested in Hong Kong once and after being in  London, my level of determination just elevated to another level,” Lau said. “I realize I’m willing to sacrifice my life, so I’m not afraid at all.” 

But some aren’t so optimistic about Hong Kong’s democratic future, speculating that it will become like any other major Chinese city. 

“The central government is looking to rein in the territory through economic integration, as seen in the Greater Bay Area plans, social integration, à la flag raising, national education, and national anthems in all schools, and political integration with increasing control over governance in the territory,” Jason said.

The Greater Bay Area Plan that Jason referenced would link Hong Kong to cities in China by building financial, infrastructural, and technological ties. With this project, China hopes to mimic Silicon Valley by creating an “innovation cluster.” Under the plan, Hong Kong would act as a finance and trade hub, Shenzhen as a tech hub, and Macau as a center for tourism and trade. 

The prospect of such a change is not unwelcome for some Hong Kong citizens. 

“These changes have probably made life more stable for us, because instead of walking out in the street and seeing protests and wondering what’s gonna happen in some ways, breaking down. It’s created a level of stability. So, personally, it doesn’t really impact me at all. If anything, it’s made things more stable,” George said. 

George expects Hong Kong to move towards a system with an authoritarian government led by meritocratically selected officials, much like the rest of China.

Lau, by contrast, holds out hope for a democratic Hong Kong and other areas in China’s power.

“30 or 40 years ago, many people said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a dream, but in the end, we know the history, and I think the world and Hong Kong could use this strategy, and Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong could be free one day,” Lau said. 

On the other hand, Adams said it still feels like there is still greater tolerance for free speech in Hong Kong than in mainland China, but the threats to protestors still create a sense of fear. 

“I definitely think that there’s more room, but I don’t think there’s much room. I wouldn’t be afraid for my life if I were to protest in Hong Kong. In China, [protesting] just wouldn’t happen,” Adams said. “I would be afraid. I guess it’s a bit more subtle, but it’s also very insidious, the way the Chinese government interferes with Hong Kong.” 

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