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Hong Kong’s Layered Histories Shape Its Modern Oppression

The protests in Hong Kong last year produced stunning spectacles. The march of more than 1 million people on June 9, 2019, calling for withdrawal of an extradition bill that protesters felt would undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong was eye-catching. So were later actions fueled by both this original grievance and new ones, such as anger at police violence. Audiences around the world were captivated by sights such as crowds of protesters converging on Hong Kong airport to disrupt flights, the city’s financial district turning once again into a sea of colorful umbrellas, and a 30-mile human chain. Since the implementation of the new national security law on June 30, mass demonstrations have stopped. When Hong Kong returns to the front pages now, the photos accompanying the stories show new kinds of spectacular images, such as respected figures being taken from their homes or offices in handcuffs.

Hong Kongers have shocked by just how far-reaching the national security law is, but most were not surprised by Beijing’s decision to impose a set of draconian policies to suppress dissent. From the moral and national education controversy in 2012, to the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese state agents in 2015, to Beijing’s manipulation of the Hong Kong Legislative Council election in 2016, there have been hints along the way that signal to Hong Kongers that their political freedom were imperiled. Few were fooled by the claims by Beijing spokespeople and Hong Kong officials that the national security law would only affect a small number of extremists. Knowing their locale’s history, many Hong Kongers fearfully expected, rightly, that the net would be cast widely.

The defining moment that marks the impact of the national security law might be the police raid on Aug. 10, when 200 police officers descended upon the headquarters of Next Digital, arresting its founder, Jimmy Lai. Lai and his newspaper Apple Daily have been staunch supporters of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Later that same day, the journalist Wilson Li and the prominent young activist Agnes Chow, who renounced her British citizenship a few years ago in order to be able to run for a seat on Legislative Council (only to be disqualified for standing for the post due to her political views), were also arrested for “colluding with foreign powers” and “inciting secession.” These are charges that under the draconian terms of the new national security law could have resulted in them being denied bail, taken across to the mainland for trial, and imprisoned for long stretches. (They are now out on bail, perhaps due in part to the outcry over their arrests, internationally as well as locally.) Just two weeks prior, the national security law was also invoked when four student activists were arrested at their homes, having drawn the ire of the authorities solely by their social media activities.

As nationalist discourse from Beijing and Washington dominates mainstream news media, it is tempting to understand the recent events in Hong Kong as merely collateral damage between China and the United States as the relationship spirals downward. The fact that official denigration of Lai and Chow has emphasized their supposed ties to foreign powers fit into this narrative line, and there is no doubt that dueling states’ agendas—and dueling strongman leaders who seem to think only they can make their countries “great again,” as one likes to put it—are factors here.

But the people of Hong Kong who have fought so hard for the values they treasure, and who are experiencing today’s traumas and developing new strategies of resistance, deserve better than to have their agency stripped away. Their spectacles from last year should not be discounted, nor should the quieter and less photogenic ways they are expressing themselves right now, such as buying up multiple copies of issues of Apple Daily after the police raid and buying stock in its parent company to show support for Lai. The mogul is a complex figure whose mixture of political views has generated controversy in Hong Kong activist circles in the past (e.g., his appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump to “save” Hong Kong angered many progressives who simultaneously applaud his criticism of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam), but he is being rallied around now because his arrest is seen by so many as an assault on freedom of the press.

A state-against-state narrative obscures key local contexts. In Hong Kong itself, what matters is not the top-down narrative but the successive targeting of individuals and groups as part of a new terror. A local-centered approach focuses not on the rhythm of U.S.-China jabs but on that of successive state efforts to strike fear into different social sectors, striking at young activists one week, academics another, journalists, publishers and political party founders (such as Chow) this week.

A short view that concentrates only on the exchanges between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping misses most of what’s important in Hong Kong, where a layered history informs the current set of nightmarish images. For example, the legal scholar and activist Benny Tai was recently fired by the University of Hong Kong for his involvement in the 2014 Occupy Central movement. Tai’s participation in pro-democracy movements extends all the way back to 2003, when massive protests broke out over the government’s plan to implement a national security law. At the time, Tai helped convince the Hong Kong government to hold off on the bill.

It is this very localism that threatens Beijing itself. The distinctive cultural and political features of Hong Kong society are deemed threatening to Beijing’s nationalist integration project and are no longer allowed to exist freely. Take the long-running satirical show Headliner, canceled in May, after Radio Television Hong Kong, a public media station, succumbed to pressure from the government. Combining political satire with local pop music and cultural references, Headliner offered humor and solace to Hong Kongers of many generations, as it began before the 1997 handover and early on often skewered colonial authorities.

Incidents like this show something Hong Kongers understand intimately: that the national security law does not only threaten specific sectors. Rather, the law has been deployed by the Hong Kong government and Beijing to undermine all aspects of civil society. Tai’s firing, for instance, coincided with other state efforts to suppress intellectual freedom: Books written by Joshua Wong and other activists were taken off the shelves of public libraries, Hong Kong publishers and bookstores have begun to self-censor to avoid prosecution, and the Education Bureau cautioned teachers not to allow anti-government activities in the classroom.

For Hong Kong, 2012 stands out not just as the year Xi was anointed head of the Chinese Communist Party, but the year that a teenage Agnes Chow worked with her now much more famous classmate Joshua Wong to spearhead a movement that blocked the imposition of a pro-Beijing national education on Hong Kong schools, which some criticized as “patriotic brainwashing.”

For Hong Kong, November 2016 was not just as the month Trump was elected but one during which a key precedent for Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong was set. In 2016, a local court was trying to decide whether the dismissal from office of two elected officials, who had taken their oath in a manner deemed highly disrespectful, was justified. Beijing grew impatient and intervened before the supposedly autonomous Hong Kong court reached a decision: Beijing declared that the dismissal was right. Late last month, history repeated itself: The Hong Kong government disqualified a dozen pro-democracy candidates from running in the upcoming Legislative Council election. The entire election was later postponed for a year, crushing the dreams many Hong Kongers have to reclaim the Legislative Council from the hands of pro-Beijing legislators.

The new national security law has altered the landscape in Hong Kong in deeply disturbing ways, but many Hong Kongers see a clear line from the foreshocks of the past to the earthquake of the present. Hong Kongers who seek political freedom have faced heartbreak after heartbreak since the handover in 1997. Seeing the recent crackdown through their lens illuminates Hong Kongers’ collective memories and traumas—exactly the things that Beijing has tried hard to erase.



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