2020 has been an especially difficult year for Hongkongers tirelessly fighting against the authoritarian Chinese regime. In early 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed a controversial extradition bill. If it had been enacted, the law would have put Hong Kong activists in danger to be tried in mainland Chinese courts, where there is no judicial independence. The bill triggered year-long protests in the city, which morphed into an ongoing pro-democracy global movement.
Determined to further curb opposition, the Chinese government unilaterally imposed a national security law in Hong Kong in July 2020, officially putting an end to the many civil liberties historically enjoyed by Hong Kong citizens. Under the new law, individuals are subject to grave punishments — even life imprisonment — for vaguely defined acts deemed to be “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.”
Since then, there have been mass arrests and jailing of pro-democracy leaders, including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Jimmy Lai. Using COVID-19 as cover, the Hong Kong government has banned street protests. How did Hong Kong get here and how will the movement progress in the future?
We spoke to HRF 2019 Freedom Fellow Johnson Yeung, a human rights advocate from Hong Kong.
How did the 1997 handover of Hong Kong lead to today’s volatile situation?
For 23 years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to diminish the democratic values that were enshrined in Hong Kong before the transfer of power from Britain to China.
Before Hong Kong’s handover, the world was optimistic that China was on the path to democratization, and Hong Kong would be guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and freedom under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework.
Contrary to what was promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the CCP never intended to preserve Hong Kong’s civil liberties.
The refusal to implement universal suffrage, restrictions on civil liberties, persecution of political dissidents, and attempts to erase Hong Kong’s distinct culture were among the many unwelcome measures implemented by the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
The fundamental ideological differences between freedom-loving Hong Kongers and the authoritarian Chinese regime led to the inevitable clashes we see today.
How did you first get involved in the pro-democracy movement, and what previous political movements set the stage for the million-person marches the world witnessed in 2019?
In 2003, when I was just 12 years old, the government introduced a bill that aimed to curb freedom of speech. I joined half a million other Hong Kongers to march against the bill. Unprecedented public opposition forced the government to withdraw the bill, which made me appreciate the power of the people, and sowed a seed that would fuel my future activism.
In 2014, the Umbrella Movement marked a turning point in Hong Kong’s political awakening. This movement nurtured a new generation of pro-democracy individuals and activist groups who were brave, selfless, and willing to sacrifice their personal well-being in pursuit of the city’s fundamental freedoms.
These young activists later became the pillars of a leaderless, decentralized, and highly creative protest movement that captured the world’s attention in 2019.
Pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong have been fighting the possibility of a national security law for years. When it was finally implemented this year, did it come as a surprise?
Although the potential passage of a national security law based on Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law had long loomed as a threat, the implementation of the current national security law came as a shock.
It took the Chinese government less than a month to impose the law on Hong Kong, and the full text of the law was not even made available until a few days after its passage.
The new law is completely corrupt, from its enactment to its enforcement. The CCP bypassed Hong Kong’s only legislative body, formed a team of secret police in less than a week, and unilaterally decided to criminalize “secession, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces,” terms that are ambiguous and subject to abuse. And the law purports to apply not only to Hong Kong’s citizens, but to anyone in the world.
The CCP and the Hong Kong government nullified Hong Kong’s long-respected judicial independence by handpicking judges to hear cases, granting disproportionate and unchecked power to the police and the national security bureau. The blatant lack of respect to Hong Kong’s separation of powers marks a new era of free-reign Chinese leadership.
But what surprised me the most were the reactions of Hong Kong’s elites – business tycoons, bankers, high-ranking civil servants, leaders in higher education, heads of religious groups, and legal academics.
These individuals’ careers and businesses thrive because they benefited from a city with a clear set of rules and procedural justice, yet the majority of them could not find the courage to criticize the law; some even rallied around Beijing’s move.
How have things changed on the ground since the national security law’s enactment?
The chilling effects are already widespread, from educational institutions to independent media. Hong Kong’s press freedom has dropped to the same level as that of Kyrgyzstan, with many publishers now refusing to print books related to the 2019 protest.
Jimmy Lai, the owner of a prominent pro-democracy media outlet, was put behind bars, together with numerous other activists. Intellectual freedom is shrinking as liberal studies are axed while teachers who attempt to teach critical thinking skills are fired.
The law has also given a green light for more arbitrary arrests. Each day, I wake to the news of another friend or fellow protester being arrested for all sorts of random, and falsified, reasons: unlawful assembly, money laundering, inciting hatred of the government, fraud, and more.
These arrests are clear acts of retaliation by the government against the 2019 street protests. Last year, I was deeply troubled by scenes of police brutality; but now, I feel even worse as I witness the brutal persecution of dissidents.
Where do you see Hong Kong’s protest movement going from here?
Hong Kong’s protest movement is not only a domestic matter, it’s a global fight against democratic recession. Undoubtedly, civic space in Hong Kong will continue to shrink, and a lot of suffering awaits those who resist.
Academia, media, and the digital space are all particularly vulnerable now, and we should work hard to defend them. As predicted, the government has begun by attacking free media, and will seek to use propaganda campaigns to spread cynicism as a means to suppress political participation.
Likewise, teachers and academics who do not adhere to the regime will be disciplined. Participating in protests or even holding dissenting opinions will come at a greater risk.
This all sounds gloomy, and it is. But I see this as another step on the journey the Hong Kong democracy movement has to take. We have to continue to be more resilient, more prepared, and more creative in resisting authoritarianism. I am hopeful that freedom will eventually win.
The Human Rights Foundation remains committed to amplifying the voices and stories of Hongkongers and their struggle for freedom.