While the world wasn’t looking, Beijing re-wrote the rules in Hong Kong at startling speed

Everyday life.
Everyday life.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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Compared to last year, the streets of Hong Kong over the past few months have been largely quiet. Gone are the massive protests, as people stayed home to stave off the pandemic. But away from the global spotlight, drastic changes have unfurled at remarkable speed in the city.

Just 10 days after authorities lifted the weeks-long lockdown of Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, China turned its attention to Hong Kong and dialled up the pressure while the rest of the world was preoccupied with the pandemic.

Beijing fired its opening salvo on April 17, when its liaison office in Hong Kong effectively dismantled over two decades of legal precedence by declaring that it has full authority to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs, leaving legal scholars and experts on the city’s mini constitution appalled. The next day, 15 veteran leaders of the city’s democracy movement were arrested over their roles in last year’s protests. A few days later, the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office issued a string of statements, voicing support for the liaison office while condemning opposition figures and politicians. In the span of five days, the rules of engagement between Beijing and Hong Kong—ostensibly a city with a high degree of autonomy over its own affairs—were completely rewritten.

Meanwhile, as Hong Kong appears to have contained local transmission of Covid-19 cases, protesters are again itching to vent their long list of grievances. Across the city, small crowds gathered at shopping malls to sing and chant slogans—though police have been quick to break them up with pepper-spray and batons, charging protesters with breaking social distancing rules even while bar-goers and pro-government demonstrators were largely left to their own devices. To many, the double standards were stark: the police were using public health rules to clamp down on anti-government protesters.

Police brutality is one of the biggest grievances that remains unaddressed, and to date no officer has been charged for their frequent use of excessive force during the protests. Just this month, police have pepper-sprayed reporters at close range; forced dozens of reporters to kneel and squat while hurling abuse at them; body-slammed an opposition lawmaker; and detained a 12-year-old student reporter who one officer accused of being an “illegal rioter.” Public anger toward the force has only increased amid a string of recent scandals involving officers, including over illegal structures at the residences of top brass and drug possession.

“The police… have become much more hardline right now because they want to eradicate any sign of protest before they can get large,” said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. ”The hardline repression policy is to scare everyone away from the streets, so there will be a very high cost if you protest.”

Protests last year started with massive marches against a controversial extradition bill that drew over a million people. Then, in order to stay one step ahead of the police, protesters adopted a “be water” strategy, engaging in wildcat demonstrations across the city. Fiery sieges at local universities followed, though many saw that as a costly tactical mistake. Now, protesters say that as the movement has matured, and also as a result of unchecked police aggression, forms of resistance will become more diverse.

“The momentum is not dying out. But the momentum of the protest is channeled to different spheres of actions,” said Johnson Yeung, a human rights activist. Aside from large-scale marches, he said, protesters now have a deeper arsenal of tools to draw on.

There is the “yellow economic circle,” referring to protesters’ boycott of businesses that are pro-government and pro-China. There are also the dozens of new workers’ unions formed since late last year, now boasting almost 200,000 members, creating a space “where resistance can be incubated and cultivated,” said Yeung. In February, for example, a strike by the medical workers’ union was widely seen to have successfully pressured the government to enact stricter border controls as the pandemic unfolded in mainland China—though the government denies it succumbed to such compulsion. The union movement may yet leverage their newfound economic power to agitate for greater rights. 

Hong Kongers have also learned to weave protesting into the fabric of everyday life. Protests are no longer circumscribed by large-scale street demonstrations, but are instead a new normal of lived resistance. Which businesses to patronize, what media to consume, even subtle color schemes and gestures on social media profiles—all are now markers of resistance.  “The protests last year have turned dissent into a very private activity. It’s embedded in your daily life, and it’s surprisingly resilient, especially among the young people,” said Yuen.

Fearful of a return of last year’s pitched street battles, Beijing is pushing the Hong Kong government to pass a series of laws that will consolidate the central government’s power. One is a bill that would make it a crime to disrespect the Chinese national anthem. A second reading of the legislation is scheduled for the end of the month. Another is a national security law that critics say could incriminate a large swathe of anti-government action. And with the approaching legislative elections in September, many fear the government will find ways to disqualify opposition candidates—indeed, the incessant messaging from Beijing targeting one such current lawmaker suggests that they already have names in mind.

And where Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong used to keep a low profile behind the facade of its drab building on the fringes of the main business district, it now comments publicly on just about every local issue. Just last week, it called the protesters a “political virus,” a disturbing parallel to Beijing’s use of the term “ideological virus” in Xinjiang. And, seemingly incognizant of the irony, the Communist Party decried Hong Kong protesters’ violation of free market principles in boycotting pro-China businesses.

Schools are under pressure, too. Many teachers fear retribution over their support for the protests, and Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has warned of students being “poisoned” by “false and biased information,” singling out the local civic studies curriculum as prone to being “infiltrated” by hostile ideas.

Wong Ji-yuet, an activist, said she happened to be walking by a protest site last weekend when officers stopped her and subjected her to sexual harassment. It was in that moment that she realized “resisting” can take time anyplace anytime. “We might just be passing through, but they might not like the look of you or lose their wits and arrest you,” she said. “This itself has become part of the resistance.”