On Monday, 10 August, Hong Kong woke up to the startling news of the arrest of Jimmy Lai, the 71-year-old publisher of Apple Daily, the only pro-democracy high-circulation newspaper in the territory. As the day progressed, more arrests linked to Lai and his businesses were carried out (including that of his two sons), and hundreds of police officers entered the paper’s headquarters. Much as Hong Kong has had to get used to shocking news, such an open move against a major media outlet was unexpected, as was the arrest of pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow, 23, also escorted from her home handcuffed by police. It all seems to be too much and too fast, but ever since the national security law against secession, sedition and terrorism was imposed on Hong Kong by the central government in Beijing on 30 June, the city has entered uncharted waters.
And while Hong Kong has been relatively spared from the worst disasters of the pandemic, for months now there have been serious limitations on how much people can gather – to discuss what is happening or protest against it. The draconian law has been imposed from above, hastily approved and supported by the local government without any space for public debate.
Just a year ago the situation couldn’t have been more different: every night saw demonstrations, which at times turned violent, and were unavoidably met by growing police violence. The government closed ranks, denounced the protesters daily and, after withdrawing a proposed extradition bill that had sparked the unrest, never made any further concessions.
The Hong Kong government has remained steadfast in its rejection of dialogue, even after the district council elections (the only elections in Hong Kong that held entirely by universal suffrage) reported an overwhelming victory for the pro-democracy camp, which won a majority in 17 out of 18 districts. Opinion poll after opinion poll showed that the majority of Hong Kong people did support the protests, even as they regretted the increasing violence, but still, this produced no change from the government. As the pandemic put everything under yet another layer of uncertainty, protesters’ arrests continued, and the slow metamorphosis of Hong Kong went ahead. The public broadcaster, RTHK had to suspend Headliner, a satirical programme that had run for 31 years, while teachers were put under ever greater scrutiny to make sure they were not promoting anti-government ideas. Then June came, bringing with it the national security law, and its far-reaching consequences.
Looking back, it is hard to avoid a gut-wrenching feeling of doom: all that Hong Kong people asked, with dogged determination, was for the possibility of having a say in the way they are governed – something that was promised to them by Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. With equal determination, this has been denied. A common analysis of why this is so describes China as supposedly being too weak to accept limited democracy in one small corner of its territory. Too weak to be openly scrutinised and criticised by newspapers and radio shows produced in a language, Cantonese, that only a small portion of its population could understand, if it were freely accessible beyond the Great Firewall. It may be time to revise this assumption: China isn’t showing many signs of political weakness. Beijing is imposing its style of government on Hong Kong because it can. If a newspaper or a radio show or a group of young protesters are annoying, it can stop them. It isn’t scared of them.
Chinese public opinion isn’t too sympathetic to the Hong Kong protesters. True, for most people, what little information percolates through is filtered by internet censorship; and Hong Kong’s assertion of a separate identity irks many across the border who interpret this as an assertion of superiority (it sometimes is) and as a value judgment. So changing the way in which Hong Kong functions, by shrouding in secrecy the new set of controls that have been imposed, is not going to provoke a reaction in the rest of the country. On the contrary, the special status that Hong Kong has enjoyed has often been seen on the mainland as an unearned privilege: throughout last year’s protests many state media and social media posts described Hong Kong as nothing more than a spoiled brat who didn’t listen to its loving mother.
In Hong Kong, too, the reaction is not uniform. Protests have proved counterproductive, and even the possibility of electing pro-democracy candidates at the legislative council or at the district level has been poisoned by the ease with which many have been disqualified, either from running or once they are in office. Now the national security law takes away even the liberty to express anti-government opinions without fear of the consequences. Is China scared of these opinions? Why would it be, if it can just switch them off?
Among the local intelligentsia, too, nothing is as clearcut. When, in 2015, one year after the so-called umbrella movement, five editors and booksellers of political volumes disappeared, re-emerging subsequently in mainland China accused of a number of crimes, Hong Kong was shocked. Yet many intellectuals felt uncomfortable defending a publisher of gossipy books. Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen who was the main owner of the publishing venture behind the Causeway Bay Books outlet, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in February for “illegally providing intelligence overseas” (without further details) but most reports on his case still specify that the books he published were lowbrow. The reaction that has accompanied the arrest of Jimmy Lai (now released on bail) has been similar: Apple Daily is a tabloid. Few university professors would be comfortable being seen reading it on campus.
The different layers of society can drift apart – moderates who think that maybe the protesters went too far, intellectuals who never really liked Gui Minhai or Jimmy Lai, countless others who are afraid of what might happen to them and their families with the new law and feel that years of efforts have produced no good results. The pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong is trying to figure out how to resist, and how long the situation will continue to be as it is now. China, meanwhile, crushes their hopes: because it doesn’t have to tolerate what it dislikes.
• Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer and journalist based in Hong Kong