As the world quarantined itself: What happened to Hong Kong?

Tekst: Martine Asker, Master in Political Science with a Bachelor in China studies
Foto: Jonathan van Smith //

In Hong Kong, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the protest movement of the latter half of 2019 was forced to a pause. As the world quarantined itself, the government seized the opportunity to implement political changes for the governing of the special administrative region.

Struck by the COVID-19 pandemic early last year most of our societies have sunken into a deep hibernation. To limit the spreading of the virus we have stayed in, streamed ridiculous amounts of Netflix series, cultivated new hobbies and waited tirelessly for a solution to the fatal consequences of the pandemic stupefying our communities. As the world under-standably got increasingly interested in their own domestic affairs and news about the advancing of a world pandemic, what happened to the protest movement in Hong Kong?

2019: The extradition law and 7 months of protest
2019 marked the year when massive numbers of Hong Kong citizens took to the streets, engaging in what is viewed as the most brutal events of protest by far in modern history. Triggered by a murder case in Taiwan 2018, February 2019 the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region put forward a proposition to implement an Extradition Law Amendment Bill that would allow the Hong Kong government to detain and transfer criminal suspects to any country without a former extradition agreement. The proposition would therefore also include mainland China, Taiwan and Macau, areas which specifically were excluded from the region’s original extradition law. Many Hong Kong citizens thus saw this as a golden opportunity for Beijing to further attain control and limit Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

After a massively negative public response and a blooming of protest activities, June 15th 2019 Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the suspension of the extradition bill until further notice. Following the suspension the protest activities did not die down and eventually the Legislative Councils formally withdrew the bill on October 23rd. One could mistakenly believe that the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill would mark the end of the protest activities, and that the protestors had won. However, the first protests in June was met with an unprecedented strengthening of police repression and increasing arrests of protestors. As a response the people of Hong Kong used the opportunity of the extradition bill to formulate five official demands for government concessions based on underlying grievances and former promises made by the legislative to the people: 1. Full withdrawal of the extradition bill by the Legislative Council 2. A commission of inquiry to alleged police brutality 3. Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters” (a new hardline policy states that rioting could be punished by up to 10 years in prison) 4. Amnesty for arrested protesters 5. Universal suffrage for both the Legislative council and the Chief Executive in Hong Kong.

“…the new system will be designed to ensure that whoever is administering Hong Kong is patriotic, and this is the only right in terms of political ethics.” – Carrie Lam

As the government refrained from making any further concessions apart from the abolishment of the extradition bill, tensions grew exponentially amongst the citizens of Hong Kong and the government. Accompanied by an escalation of violence and vandalism by protestors, the demonstrations raged on throughout the rest of the year. With the exception of a few larger peaceful mass rallies, the main portion of protest events seemed to grow smaller in size and the protestor’s measures seemed to grow increasingly violent as times passed. Many Hong Kong citizens were gravely concerned for their young ones and many, including the authorities, condemned the violent measures utilized by the most radical of the protestors and the strengthened countermeasures utilized by police officers.

2020: re-establishing peace and stability with a new National Security Law
January 2020 the world was hit by the news of the discovery of a new corona virus and the protests were forced to an end without having gotten through any of the other 4 of the 5 demands for concessions. Having experienced the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003 and fearing the worst, Hong Kong was quick to implement restrictions and measures for social distancing. As the popular focus quickly shifted to the situation of the virus, the fight for democratic change was put on a temporary hold. With the protestors unable to take to the streets in great numbers to prevent further spreading of the virus, authorities saw the time of peace and quiet as an opportunity to implement political changes with the intention to restore stability within the region. These changes were also implemented as preventative measures in fear of future protest violence. 

June 2020 the authorities of Hong Kong introduced the implementation of a new National Security Law. After the handover from Great Britain to China in 1997 and the implementation of the “one country, two systems” (a regulation ensuring the area of Hong Kong special administrative rights and right to self-rule, on the condition that they will be a part of The People’s Republic of China), Hong Kong was according to the original plans for their region supposed to implement a national security law. However, due to its unpopularity it was never implemented. After pressure from Beijing a new National Security Law came into effect 30th of June 2020.

Implemented to ensure Hong Kong’s return to stability the law includes several restrictions on actions and criminalization of acts of vandalism of public transport facilities, crimes of secession, subversion and, acts of “terrorism” as well as “collusion with foreign forces”. The law also establishes that Beijing will install a new security office in Hong Kong with its own law enforcement personnel with the jurisdiction to send some cases to be tried in Mainland China. Although the law states that this will only be possible in a “tiny number of cases”, this is clearly a measure which directly undermines the results of the protests against the extradition law the year before. The law further states that authorities have the right to hold trials behind closed doors, as well as the right to put criminal suspects under constant surveillance based on suspicion only. 

2021: Electoral reform to ensure patriotic leadership
The political system in Hong Kong has never been a purely democratic one. After escaping the colonist rule by the British, Hong Kong reunited with China on the condition that they would answer to China through a “one country, two systems” solution, enjoying the protection and free trade with a bigger nation, whilst still being able to govern over and shape politics in their own area. It is unclear whether Hong Kong at the time was thoroughly aware of the limits the “one country, two systems” policy would put on the popular dream of developing a fully democratic electoral system. 

March 11th 2021 Beijing announced their intentions of reform-ing the electoral system in Hong Kong at the 13th National People’s Congress, once more tightening its grip around the HKSAR in the name of promoting national stability and peace. Passed by an overwhelming majority of votes in congress, China’s top legislature has decided that the HKSAR are to establish a broadly representative Election Committee of 15000 members responsible for electing the Chief Executive, and now also a part of the members of the Legislative Council. Candidates must be nominated by at least 15 members in each of 5 specified occupational sectors, which by critics is feared to restrict nominations to only pro-Beijing candidates, making it even harder for pro-democracy representatives to be represented in the Legislative. 

A mass rally in Hong Kong 2019, a scene one would not be able to witness during a world pandemic. Photo: Jonathan van Smith //

Upon announcing the decision of an electoral reform for the HKSAR Current Chief Executive Carrie Lam stated in a press conference that: “the new system will be designed to endure that whoever is administering Hong Kong is patriotic, and this is the only right in terms of political ethics.” The changes to the electoral system will also be accompanied by a strengthened vetting mechanism which will be put in place for confirming the qualifications of candidates for the Election committee. A vetting mechanism as such could function as a background check to identify sufficiently patriotic candidates, and may well also be used as a mechanism to remove or prevent individuals from public service which the government would regard as non-patriotic, or toxic for the well-being of Hong Kong. 

What lies in the future for Hong Kong?
Although implemented in the name of promoting Hong Kong citizen’s security and stabilization of the region, both the new Security Law of 2020 and the proposed changes to the electoral system of the Hong Kong Legislative Council seems to me as a step backwards for the western sense of democratic development. After the implementation of the law several pro-democracy politicians and instigators of the protest movements have been investigated and detained for “encouraging foreign interference in Hong Kong” and supporting the region’s independence from China. As a result of the new national security law these candidates political activists do not only face the risks of long prison sentences, they will also never be able to run for office in the future. 

Meanwhile as fractions of Hong Kong’s educational and political elite debate whether the overhaul of the electoral system is in the best interest of Hong Kong, what about the people? In fear of the spreading of the virus and bound by restrictions and rules of social distancing, the citizens of Hong Kong have not had a fair shot at voicing their opinions of the new changes to their society through protests in a similar fashion as during the extradition bill- protests of 2019. Social media has indeed provided the modern society with a great platform to voice our political opinions. However, with the Security Law of 2020 still being quite new, and following the detention and persecution of several members of the opposition, it has been reported that people in Hong Kong are hesitant to appear as being “too critical” towards the government online in fear of being labeled as a un-patriotic, or put under suspicion of harmful activities. 

As the world entered a deep hibernation, and the international focus shifted away from the situation in Hong Kong, life-changing political measures were implemented in the midst of the quiet. I dare to suggest that the implementa-tion of the new Security Law as well as the changes to the political system in the HKSAR will limit future opportunities for political opposition. If we are to view western standards of a participatory democracy as the ultimate ending point for political reform, then the recent developments could be viewed as an immense roadblock, or even a “reverse button” yanking the democratic development of Hong Kong back to situation of the late 90’ies. ■

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