Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday, 1 January 2022

 Silence of the Lams as Xi tames Hong Kong’s tiger spirit

From Inquirer

December 31, 2021

14 minute read


As 2022 dawns, the world has a clearer picture of what a successful democracy looks like for Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who is appropriately ready, red in tooth and claw, for the coming Year of the Tiger.

That model is Hong Kong.

Since introducing his catch-all national security law for Hong Kong 18 months ago he has transformed the former free-spirited Asian Tiger into a caged and tamed cat. Members of its elite – especially its political and administrative leaders, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam – have become eager to jump at every CCP command or even suggestion.

Many leaders of the bright new generation of young Hongkongers have been jailed, including for “thought crimes” – for what they have said or written. Civil society has been ravaged, with dozens of trade unions, newspapers and magazines, clubs and associations, and democratic parties disbanding and closing in the face of potential arrest.

The Silence of the Lams, the collusion of the elite, has been an extraordinary feature of this decisive intervention by Xi.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Picture: AFP

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Picture: AFP

He intends this subjugation to be a model for what he has in store for Taiwan.

The Hong Kong Legislative Council election a fortnight ago – in which pro-Beijing candidates swept the board, pro-democracy candidates being jailed or banned from running under “patriot” tests – was described by China’s State Council as “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics”, reflecting Xi’s advocacy of “whole-process people’s democracy”, which he claims as the highest form of governance.

Xi told Lam in Beijing that the election had “allowed Hong Kong compatriots to be masters of their own home, and implemented the principles of patriots administering Hong Kong”.

Previous Chinese leaders presided over a comparatively even-handed realisation of the “one country, two systems” governance agreed for Hong Kong by Beijing and London under Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher. This was aimed in part at attracting the Taiwanese to unify with mainland China under a similar template.

Xi has turned that use of Hong Kong as a model for Taiwan on its head. Through his relentless transformation of troublesome Hong Kong into a fully subservient component of the People’s Republic of China, he is seeking to demonstrate to any doubters within his own party-state hierarchy, including in the People’s Liberation Army, how the equally awkward Taiwanese also could be subdued rapidly once the island was seized.

Xi Jinping intends the subjugation of Hong Kong to be a model for Taiwan. Picture: AFP

Xi Jinping intends the subjugation of Hong Kong to be a model for Taiwan. Picture: AFP

Stephen Vines, author of the recently published book Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship, tells Inquirer: “Members of Hong Kong’s elite have serially gone that extra mile when it comes to cynicism and opportunism.”

He says many of the leading figures of the new order, “now spouting their eternal allegiance to the CCP, were equally steadfast in their defence of the British colonial regime and, even more amazingly, almost without exception, have ensured that they have the means of escape from Hong Kong by virtue of the right to overseas abode held by their spouses and offspring” – including Lam’s husband and their two sons.

Australian HK-based lawyer Antony Dapiran, author of City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, says he is puzzled by “the speed at which people supposedly educated and brought up in the ‘liberal tradition’ have become willing participants in an authoritarian crackdown”, attributing it to “some combination of fatalism, survivalism, craven careerism, and I daresay there are a few true believers among them too”.

Symbolising the swift change in style authorised from the top in HK, the former British-style parade drills used by the city’s disciplined services were replaced this past year by the goosestep favoured by the PLA and now adopted by HK’s police, customs officers, prison guards and others – to the horror of those who associate it with the rise a century ago of fascist Germany, where it originated. Departing HK commissioner of customs Hermes Tang Yi-hoi said “good practice of the Chinese-style foot drill helps in better integrating ourselves into the country’s governance system”. Hong Kong is thus being fully integrated culturally into the People’s Republic, goosestep by goosestep.

Formerly billed as “Asia’s World City”, HK has tumbled down the Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of the world’s most liveable cities from No.1 a decade ago to No.49 this past year.

Members of the HK elite have become so hyper-vigilant about any conceivable hint of autonomous thought or expression, and so eager to jail alleged culprits, that in some respects life appears more relaxed immediately over the border in the mainland super-city of Shenzhen.

The CCP had promised that for 50 years from the 1997 handover from Britain, HK would retain its independent legal system, media freedoms and other core institutions. But soon after Xi took over as China’s leader, in 2014, he issued a white paper declaring Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the city of 7.5 million.

A young generation eager to grab a level of democracy that had been denied by Britain, and while Beijing was restrained – as the HK students wrongly thought – by its 50-year hands-off deal, launched protests that attracted widespread support and kept growing in strength and volume.

Pointedly, Xi in response chose to make a PLA parade the main event of his visit at the 20th anniversary in 2017. The demonstrations continued however, with increasing destruction of property and intensified hostility between protesters and police at times bringing much of the city’s normal life to a halt – and with HK’s political structure ill-designed for the accountability that might have accommodated policy shifts, thus resolving some of the sharper issues.

Xi waited for the right time to impose the PRC’s comprehensive jurisdiction on its disrespectful southern city, and did so with speed and authoritarian vigour.

Covid provided the perfect cover for China’s National People’s Congress imposing on Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, a national security law whose vague provisions have handed the beleaguered HK police, eager mainland Chinese security officers now allowed to operate in HK, and opportunistic HK administrators and law officers, including some judges, unprecedented powers to arrest and punish perceived adversaries, including a generation of student leaders.

One of the foremost thinkers whose writings have guided this process is 20th-century statist German philosopher Carl Schmitt, known as Adolf Hitler’s “crown jurist”, widely referenced in contemporary PRC academic circles. Influential Beijing University law professor Chen Duanhong has cited Schmitt’s justification for suspending civil rights “when the state is in dire peril”, sovereignty overriding every other value.

Some arrangements made by many countries and multilateral organisations on the understanding that HK was an autonomous territory are being reassessed or revoked as the new national security law regime presses on.

Here are illustrations of how that re-engineering process has worked in the past few months:

All kindergartens have been issued with copies of a book “specially selected” by PRC Education Minister Chen Baosheng explaining the virtues of the national security law. A new primary school reader aimed at replacing local Hong Kong loyalty with PRC patriotism features the following exchange between four children and their teacher. The former say: “I have black eyes, black hair and yellow skin,” “I write Chinese,” “My mummy and daddy are Chinese, so I’m Chinese,” “I was born in Hong Kong and Hong Kong is part of China, so I’m Chinese.” Teacher: “Well done everyone.”

Schools are required to follow a “patriotic” curriculum, and students must stand to attention at regular new PRC flag-raising ceremonies. As part of this patriotic campaign, last month six-year-olds were shown graphic scenes of the Nanjing Massacre of Chinese by Japanese soldiers in 1937, including dead children, and people being buried alive.

Five members of a speech therapists’ union, all in their 20s, were charged with sedition for publishing children’s books that allegedly incited hatred of the government. Police claimed the books were intended to pose sheep as innocent children threatened by wolves whom the police identified as authority figures. As happens commonly with those arrested since the national security law was introduced, the therapists were paraded wearing black hoods and handcuffed. They were refused bail.

Judges of HK’s Court of Final Appeal have autonomously extended the remit of the national security law to include what it views as “offences endangering national security” – such as seditiously publishing books perceived as subversive – that are not specifically listed by the law itself.

In November, in what is becoming a routine style national security law case, 31-year-old delivery man Ma Chun-man was jailed for five years and nine months for inciting independence for HK from the PRC by chanting slogans, holding placards and giving media statements. “On the road to democracy and freedom, I can’t afford to be a coward,” he said in a written statement to the court.

Real estate agent Chan Chun-kit, aged 35, was jailed for 5½ months for carrying 48 plastic fasteners – items potentially used by protesters for tying barricades.

Alice Wong, a 19-year-old student, was denied bail after being accused of incitement to overthrow the People’s Republic of China.

Using the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” has been found by the courts to be secessionist and can thus trigger jail time.

Chris Tang, the former police chief promoted to HK’s Security Secretary, said of people who celebrated October 10, the national day of the Republic of China (the formal name of Taiwan), that “if they have that intent in their heart (to view Taiwan as separate from the PRC), we’ll be able to find evidence”.

A year ago, police arrested 53 pro-democracy politicians, activists, academics and lawyers for participating in an informal primary ahead of a Legislative Council election that was later postponed. Many were charged with “state subversion” – unauthorised political activity – and remain in prison.

Aggravatingly for the authorities, such civic leaders retain “unprecedented influence” even with other prisoners in jail, Correctional Services Commissioner Woo Ying-ming admitted. He vowed to clamp down, including by monitoring them around the clock: “Prisons are no place for them to cultivate their ideology.”

Britain has warned that because the national security law applies even to offences allegedly committed overseas, people should be wary of travel to places with extradition treaties with Hong Kong since this opens them to “being detained and removed to mainland China”.

Hong Kong banks have frozen accounts of those who have fallen foul of the new system, including of some pro-democracy figures who have fled overseas.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Baptist University have made graduation contingent on completion of courses on national – meaning People’s Republic of China – security.

Large numbers are giving up on Hong Kong for good, with the airport providing the setting for constant tearful farewells.

Despite the many pandemic-era constraints – HK pursues the Covid elimination policy of Beijing – Britain alone is now receiving more immigrants than it did before the handover to China. About 1.2 per cent of the population, 90,000 people, left Hong Kong this past year. The authorities are continuing to seek ways to restrict such migrants’ access to their retirement savings. Forty-two per cent of members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said in a survey they were “considering or planning to move away” from the city. And the city’s fertility rate has sunk by a remarkable 17 per cent across the past two years.

Leading entrepreneur and publisher Jimmy Lai, aged 73, is serving prison terms totalling 20 months for participating in unauthorised assemblies – including lighting a candle at a vigil for those killed around Tiananmen Square in June 1989 – and faces numerous further charges, including endangering national security and colluding with foreign forces, by meeting American politicians. His newspaper, Apple Daily, which had the highest circulation in HK, was forced to close in mid-2021 as its leading editors were charged alongside Lai.

The international Committee to Protect Journalists has listed 50 journalists detained in China for their work, of whom eight are Hongkongers.

The city’s former role as a hub for journalists and for non-government organisations focused on China is being eroded rapidly as PRC-style constraints are starting to be imposed. The HK authorities recently refused, for instance, to renew the working visa for an Australian journalist with The Economist, Sue-Lin Wong, who now will be based in Taipei instead.

A survey of journalists by the venerable Foreign Correspondents Club found almost half were considering or planning to leave HK, 84 per cent said working conditions had worsened and 56 per cent had self-censored because of the national security law.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s office in HK responded by accusing the FCC of being “black hands” intervening in the city’s affairs, warning it to stop making “noise” and saying it was “common international practice for countries to supervise the news media … in accordance with the law”.

The HK government has instructed public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong that it must not produce programs that might cause resentment towards the Chinese government or towards itself.

Lam has announced that RTHK will “nurture a stronger sense of patriotism” by partnering for more programs with China Central TV and China National Radio.

Some of the best-known of the city’s once-celebrated independent bookstores have shut, books on China and on politics potentially triggering action by the authorities. Books deemed subversive have been removed from public libraries, and new guidelines have been introduced to enable the banning of films perceived as potentially endangering PRC security, with unauthorised screenings punishable by three years’ jail.

Amnesty International announced the closure of its two HK offices. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, its international chairwoman, said the national security law “has made it effectively impossible for human rights organisations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government”.

The global head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, has been refused entry to HK.

The Professional Teachers’ Union, the biggest trade union with 95,000 members, has abolished itself since the national security law has been introduced, as have the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Civil Human Rights Front that has championed the extension of democracy and led marches involving millions. They have cited the risk to personal safety of office holders – for instance, the PTU being branded a “malignant tumour” by both Xinhua and People’s Daily.

As Hong Kong’s economy stutters, its international role steadily eroded and supplanted by Singapore and other rivals including Seoul, Lam is leading efforts – repeating a series of such attempts in recent decades – towards its “in-depth integration” within the “Greater Bay Area” comprising mainland cities around the Pearl River Delta.

The Pillar of Shame statue by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot commemorating those killed around Tiananmen in 1989, displayed at Hong Kong Univer­sity for more than 20 years, was dismantled shortly before Christmas by the university authorities. Galschiot’s formal request for guarantees for immunity from national security law prosecution for himself and staff to dismantle the work and ship it had gone unanswered.

As the $1bn-plus new state-owned art museum M+ was opened in 2021, Lam stressed that officials would be on “full alert” against any artworks perceived to undermine Chinese security, and museum director Suhanya Raffel responded that “we work within the laws of our city”.

But the stability promised as a reward for Beijing’s intervention has not benefited HK’s status as a finance centre. Bloomberg said on December 22: “Hong Kong stock investors won’t be sorry to see the end of 2021, with the city’s main benchmarks racking up the worst losses this year among major global equity indexes.”

It said: “Hurt by a triple-whammy of Chinese property debt payment fears, weak retail spending and Beijing’s corporate crackdowns, the Hang Seng index is down more than 15 per cent this year. That’s its biggest loss in a decade and 2021’s worst performance globally after the 24 per cent loss in its sister Hang Seng China Enterprises Index.”

Hong Kong was never clearly democratic under Britain. But now it is moving rapidly in the opposite direction. Following district council elections two years ago, when 71 per cent turned out to elect 385 pro-democracy politicians in the 452 seats at stake, giving them control of 17 out of 18 councils, the system was drastically overhauled to ensure only “patriots” – pro-PRC candidates – could win.

For last month’s Legislative Council election, the seats directly elected were reduced from 50 to 20 out of 90, and the election committee chosen to appoint the other legislators was cut from 233,000 to 4800 members. The latter included Huang Xiangmo, the billionaire property developer exiled from Australia accused of being an agent of PRC influence and now selected to represent HK “grassroots associations”.

The new rules, including stringent vetting procedures, disqualified and removed most incumbent representatives, including local councillors elected in late 2019.

The pro-democratic parties thus stood no candidates and urged a boycott of the election – in which they were largely successful, with only 30.2 per cent of voters turning out, a record low.

But China’s State Council said after the election, in which pro-Beijing candidates swept the board, that the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong were “bright” and that China had “restored order” and brought “democracy back on track”.

And Lam praised the “beautiful election campaigns” of the candidates, and the new Legislative Council as “widely representative”.

Veteran HK-based journalist Philip Bowring compares dealing with the new regime with the endemic police corruption in HK 50 to 60 years ago: “It was like a bus. You could jump on board and make money. You could run alongside neither taking part nor opposing it. Or you could stand in the way – and be run over.”

Rowan Callick, an Industry Fellow with Griffith University’s Asia Institute, was based for four years in Hong Kong, where he wrote: Comrades & Capitalists: Hong Kong Since the Handover.

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