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Crackdown: Hong Kong Faces Tiananmen 2.0

(Editor's note: this is an excerpt from Prof. Victoria Hui's article from the Journal of Democracy)

Hong Kong, a place where liberty once bloomed, has now been crushed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On 30 June 2020, the PRC imposed a draconian national security law on the city, seeking to “prevent, stop, and punish” a string of vaguely defined crimes of “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” and “collusion with foreign forces.”1 The broad sweep of the law effectively bans any dissent. The Beijing regime’s own security agents are now overseeing Hong Kong’s previously autonomous courts and criminal justice system as the law is enforced. Waves of arrests have followed.

A city that once marked the anniversaries of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the 1 July 1997 handover from Britain to the PRC with massive prodemocracy demonstrations saw no such commemorations in 2020: They were prohibited. In 2019, as many as two million of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people had repeatedly protested in the streets against a bill designed to allow PRC authorities to extradite people from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) to mainland China. From June 2019 to June 2020, about nine thousand people were arrested2 while others fled into exile as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tightened its grip on the city. In the first two months after the enactment of the national security law, 21 were arrested for “incitement to secession,” “collusion with foreign forces,” and “terrorism acts”—in addition to approximately another thousand who were arrested for unlawful assembly, rioting, weapons possession, and other offenses under preexisting criminal laws.

Protesters run away from tear gas in protests in Central, Hong Kong in November 2019. AP file photo

As July 2020 began, residents who displayed or posted “Hong Kong independence” or “liberate Hong Kong” found themselves arrested. Days later, even demonstrators who held up blank sheets of paper to contest the banning of protest slogans were detained for unlawful assembly. By month’s end, twelve prodemocracy candidates for the Legislative Council (or LegCo, as the HKSAR’s seventy-member legislature is called) were disqualified for refusing to back the draconian law, calling for international sanctions, and making pledges to vote against unpopular government budget and policy proposals. Soon thereafter, the elections were scrubbed: Originally set for September 6, they were delayed for at least a year. The University of Hong Kong’s governing council, acting against the faculty senate’s advice, sacked law professor Benny Tai for criminal convictions relating to his role in the prodemocratic Umbrella Movement of 2014. Five exiles and a Hong Kong–born U.S. citizen faced arrest warrants.

The arrests continued. On August 10, the city’s only prodemocracy print newspaper, the Apple Daily, was raided by two hundred police officers. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, his two sons, and the newspaper’s four senior executives were taken into custody under the new law. On the same day, Agnes Chow of the now-disbanded Demosisto party was detained, as were two other young activists, Andy Li and Wilson Li. (On August 23, Andy Li and eleven fellow activists were intercepted by the China Coast Guard while trying to flee to Taiwan by speedboat. They are being held incommunicado.) On August 26, lawmaker Cheuk-ting Lam was arrested for having “rioted” in Yuen Long on 21 July 2019, even though he was one of the victims of rod-wielding thugs who indiscriminately attacked train passengers, journalists, and residents in the incident. On September 6, police arrested 289 for protesting the election postponement. Tak-chi Tam of People Power faced charges on five counts of “uttering seditious words.”

This crackdown is the latest response by the Chinese Communist party-state to the campaign in defense of freedom and democracy that Hong Kong’s citizens have been waging for decades. As this effort was reaching a new pitch of urgency with the 2019 protests against the extradition law, Beijing’s rumblings escalated. On 31 July 2019, the PRC put out a video showing soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) practicing riot-control drills in a Hong Kong–like urban setting. In August came more drills, this time not on video but live, and just across the border from Hong Kong in the city of Shenzhen. More than twelve-thousand troops took part. To supplement these ominous displays, Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) issued a series of warnings against the unfolding protests.

At the time, many Hong Kongers and international observers were complacent. They dismissed the possibility of anything like a “Tiananmen 2.0” for Hong Kong. They were too confident that the threat of the international community ending the HKSAR’s special economic status—a source of immense benefits to the PRC over many years—would stay Beijing’s hand. While nothing as blatant as an armored column rolling into Hong Kong has happened, Beijing’s crackdown on the city does echo the Tiananmen model even if in a way more broadly conceived than PLA tanks grinding through the streets.

The “one country, two systems” constitutional structure that Hong Kong was given at the time of the 1997 handover was troubled from birth. Hanging over it was the crackdown that the CCP had unleashed against the original Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989. The colonial city’s support for the student-led protests had left Beijing determined to stifle Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom. Yet how could the CCP deny democracy to a population which, under the system that Beijing had promised to preserve, enjoyed the unfettered freedoms to demand it?

Beijing’s answer was to kill those freedoms. It moved to do so slowly at first, but with rapidly gathering speed after the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests for “genuine universal suffrage.” As the city found its freedoms being dramatically squeezed in the aftermath, I wrote in these pages in 2015 that Hong Kong was the world’s only case of “freedom without democracy,” but that this unique case was fast vanishing. Five years later, this case has become extinct.

The 2019 protests against the extradition law began in April. By August, they had taken a turn that the Umbrella Movement had not: Hong Kongers began throwing gasoline bombs.

This gave Beijing the perfect excuse to impose its own preferred answer—we might call it “Tiananmen-lite”—to the long-running problem that Hong Kong posed as a thorn of liberty embedded in the side of the PRC’s one-party dictatorship. The shift from umbrellas (adopted originally as shields to help fend off tear gas) to firebombs is generally seen as the cause of failure, but radicalization must be understood against the background of decades of ineffectual peaceful demonstrations since 1989.


Hong Kong’s Lesson for World Struggles

Hong Kong’s meteoric downfall offers important lessons for the literature on democracy struggles. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s widely cited research shows that movements which were primarily non-violent and could mobilize at least 3.5 percent of the relevant population (in most cases a national population) invariably succeeded. Hong Kong should count as a “primarily” nonviolent case in their coding, and the mobilizations of Hong Kong’s population easily surpass the 3.5 percent threshold. A million and a half Hong Kongers marched to support the Tiananmen demonstrators in 1989, and half a million protested a proposed 2003 legal change that foreshadowed the national-security law. The Umbrella Movement appears to have drawn the participation of 1.2 million people in one capacity or another. In 2019, the demonstrating crowds that thronged Hong Kong Island be-fore the police embargoed permits are thought to have numbered up to two million. If crowd estimates seem to leave room for doubt, consider the undisputed 1.6 million votes cast for prodemocracy candidates in the District Council elections. With such large public backing, why did the opposition fail?

Perhaps the political-science literature on “contentious politics” can shed light on that question. Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow argue that one must analyze the interactions between societal challengers and state agents the way one would analyze a chess game. Outcomes are shaped not only by the opposition’s moves, but also by those of the regime.

When the course of the anti-extradition protests is seen as a series of moves and countermoves, “riots” may appear as the intended product of a regime strategy. Hong Kong’s security chiefs probably knew that allowing officers to beat protesters in full view of livestreaming local and international media would provoke public outrage and make violence by the protest side more likely. During the Umbrella Movement and in June and July 2019, police beat protesters mostly out of public view. On August 11, after repeated warnings from the PLA and the HKMAO failed to scare away protesters, the police began torturing people in public. This suggests that the beatings were not random events, but instead were applied deliberately not just to “decapacitate” protesters, but also to provoke a violent response.

Another game-like aspect of the dynamics of contention is the way that early success can lead to subsequent failure, like a chess gambit through which a player seizes an early advantage but which then cannot be sufficiently reinforced or exploited and so leaves that player worse off, with the opponent poised to strike counterblows. Moves that show effective-ness in earlier rounds may be preempted or counteracted in later rounds. This explains why, in Hong Kong, opposition victories would always be followed by a harsher response from Beijing. The victories—forcing the shelving of national-security legislation in 2003, and making Carrie Lam suspend and then withdraw the extradition bill in 2019—paved the way or the draconian national security law in 2020. The victory in holding primaries for LegCo seats triggered first the disqualification of prominent candidates, and then the postponement of the elections altogether.

More importantly, the very successes of nonviolent “color revolutions” elsewhere probably doomed the Hong Kong struggle. Beijing equates nonviolence with democracy, color revolutions, and regime change, which in turn serves as a reminder of Tiananmen. A commentary in the China Daily, a CCP mouthpiece, states that “nonviolent approaches” show “common elements of color revolutions,” which “include strong specific political demands, interference by external forces, attempts to motivate the public, social standoffs and turmoil. . . . and pursuit of a power transfer.”

Thus, the HKMAO condemned the August 5 strikes as “radical violations of public order and laws, challenging the bottom lines of ‘one country, two systems’ and national dignity.” Another spokesman lashed out at boycotts as well because they were intended to “paralyze the Hong Kong government, seize power for governing the [city] and make ‘one country, two systems’ an empty concept.” Liaison Office head Luo Huining ridiculed medical workers’ strikes in January 2020 as a “political form of coronavirus.” Beijing declared that the July 2020 LegCo primaries were aimed at “turning Hong Kong into a base for ‘col-or revolution,’ infiltration and subversion activities against the country.” The CCP sees any attempt to exercise the rights and freedoms promised in the Basic Law through a filter created by fear of regime change. The moves to crush all opposition flow from this insecurity.

Kurt Schock contends that regime repressiveness does not change the effectiveness of nonviolent actions, but Tilly and Tarrow suggest that regime capacity does. Here, one must admit, the Chinese Communist regime excels: Whether in “decapacitating” protesters and catching those fleeing on the high seas, or in ousting prodemocracy civil servants and even corporate staffers, the CCP has few if any peers among repressive regimes.

Nevertheless, Beijing’s Tiananmen-like crackdown in Hong Kong has gone far but is unlikely to go to the full extent. As Tilly and Tarrow also point out:

Repression generally succeeds in smothering contention if the prior level of mobilization was low. However, if state violence is increased after a protest cycle . . . is well underway, this repression is more likely to provoke even higher levels of challenge, both nonviolent and violent, rather than deter contention.

The national security law understands this logic and aims to break down Hong Kong’s civil society by criminalizing even support for protest organizing and by calling on residents to report one another. Yet Hong Kongers are so highly mobilized and organized that Beijing faces an uphill battle. The crackdown itself has given the people of Hong Kong a common cause to unite around. The education chief has vowed to teach students at every level from kindergarten to university to love the law. He aims to induce an “amnesia” like that which the CCP imposed on the mainland after Tiananmen. Yet by arresting and beating protesters as young as 11, the authorities have alienated a generation whose parents have spent thirty years chanting “Never forget June 4.” The arrest of Cheuk-ting Lam for “rioting” in the Yuen Long incident is probably intended to achieve the twin goals of depicting opposition figures as “rioters” and whitewashing thug violence and police collusion. But Hong Kongers immediately responded with a modified rallying cry: “Never forget July 21.”

The “one country, two systems” model is dead, but Hong Kongers’ will to defend freedom is not. And they are not alone in their confrontation with Beijing. Third-party players have some influence over the moves and countermoves, and the national security law has generated an international outcry. The PRC’s leaders probably calculated that, so long as they did not actually send in the tanks, they could do what they liked to Hong Kong. Beijing’s new law so blatantly violates the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, however, that the U.S. government has decertified the city’s special autonomous trade status and imposed sanctions on Hong Kong officials. Other democratic countries and the United Nations have likewise forcefully condemned the crackdown. Beijing long wanted to turn the Hong Kong system into “capitalism without freedom.” In killing Hong Kong’s freedom, Beijing has also learned that it is dismantling the city’s capitalism and all the benefits that has brought to the PRC. Will this unintended outcome cause Beijing to regret its game plan?