Hong Kong protest movement left reeling by China's power grab

Vivian Wang and Austin Ramzy, The New York Times

Posted at May 22 2020 10:28 PM

A man looks at a TV screen showing news over Beijing's plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong on May 22, 2020. Tyrone Siu, Reuters

HONG KONG — The last time they faced a proposal that would have curbed their autonomy from mainland China, Hong Kong residents flooded the city’s streets, stormed its legislature and clashed with police amid flames and clouds of tear gas. They stared down local leaders, who they said were doing the bidding of Beijing, and ultimately the government relented.

But Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition movement is now confronting the prospect of Beijing imposing its will regardless of what they think.

The Chinese government’s plan, unveiled Thursday, to take a stronger, more direct hand in Hong Kong’s affairs surprised members of the territory’s leaderless protest movement. For many protesters, the move raised questions about how to oppose the direct power of the Chinese Communist Party, which does not tolerate dissent and is fiercely resistant to compromise.

“They are dealing a knockout blow to the democracy movement,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo. “All the fear, the desperation, the antipathy is now being answered by this national security law.”

Stunned and saddened, many protesters on Friday seemed demoralized and uncertain of their next move. While some on social media called for rallies or singalongs, several organizers said they would focus on events already planned for the coming days. Those demonstrations include a rally scheduled for Sunday to oppose a separate drive by Hong Kong officials to criminalize disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.

Some protesters urged each other to delete their social media accounts, which they feared could be used against them should Beijing push through the same kind of social controls in Hong Kong that it exercises in the mainland. Others called for the United States or Britain, Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler, to act.

Outward signs of resistance were muted Friday. At noon, about two dozen protesters walked from a police station on Hong Kong’s western side to China’s Liaison Office, which represents the mainland government’s interests in the semiautonomous territory. As they walked, they chanted, “One country, two systems is dead” and “Hong Kong is the next Xinjiang” — a reference to the region in northwest China where authorities have carried out a vast crackdown on predominantly Muslim minority groups.

Police officers quickly ordered the protesters, largely elected officials, to stop. Citing social distancing restrictions, police eventually cordoned them off into two groups and issued formal warnings. The march lasted about three minutes.

“With each new blow, you start to feel that it is inevitable,” Lo Kin-hei, a district council member who joined the march, said of China’s tightening grip over the territory.

Chinese leaders, enraged by months of protests last year, moved Thursday night to take on the protesters directly, rather than maneuvering through its hand-picked Hong Kong government. Chinese officials said the country’s legislative body would impose national security laws on Hong Kong, a semi-independent territory, after nearly two decades of waiting for Hong Kong’s government to enact them itself.

Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, who is selected by the central government, said in a statement that the proposed security laws would “ensure the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.” They would also prevent dangerous situations that “the political and business sectors in Hong Kong and members of the public have been worrying about over the past year,” she said.

The central government’s supporters denied that the national security laws would erode Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“This is definitely not the end of ‘one country, two systems,’” said Andrew Leung, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who leads the city’s legislative council, its main lawmaking body.

The shift was a major blow to Hong Kong’s protest movement, which had already spent the previous months watching an emboldened Beijing encroach on its freedoms but was unable to gather because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, protesters gathered to great effect. After the Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, the city’s residents — fearing that the bill would be used to quash dissent — mobilized in some of the largest protests in the city’s history. Hundreds of thousands filled some of Hong Kong’s busiest streets.

Hong Kong’s reaction to the Chinese government’s plan likely won’t stay muted for long. Many in the anti-Beijing camp said they believed the protests would mushroom as social distancing measures eased. The Hong Kong government recently extended the restrictions through at least June 4.

The city’s democracy activists also emphasized that the details of Beijing’s plan remain unclear and that any law would likely not go into effect for several months, giving them time to mobilize.

“Next week, the main thing might be the national anthem law, but in the coming months, the main thing will be the national security law,” said Agnes Chow, a prominent student activist. “I believe there will be a lot of mass protests in the coming weeks and months.”

But protesters also acknowledged that the ends of the protests had shifted, now that they were doing direct battle with Beijing, rather than its proxies in the local government.

Though Hong Kong’s electoral system is structured to give pro-Beijing voices an outsized say in the government, the territory’s limited autonomy from China — enshrined in the principle of “one country, two systems” — has given the opposition some clout. Mass protests and legislative maneuvers have helped anti-Beijing groups block some of the laws they most feared, by leaning on Hong Kong’s stated respect for the rule of law and civil liberties.

The Communist Party’s decision to bypass the Hong Kong government signaled that those avenues had been greatly diminished, pro-democracy figures said.

Mo, the lawmaker, said the opposition would continue to resist Beijing’s efforts to extend its control over Hong Kong. But she said she expected the local legislature would have no say on how the security laws were crafted.

Wilson Leung, a founding member of Hong Kong’s Progressive Lawyers Group, a pro-democracy association, said the national security laws could allow authorities to criminalize the opposition for even trying to organize.

“I think the only hope is that the world will wake up and put sufficient pressure on Beijing to really take a step back,” Leung said.

While appeals to the international community formed a core part of the protesters’ message last year, they seemed especially prominent Friday. Lee Cheuk-Yan, a former Hong Kong lawmaker and organizer of the city’s annual commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, said Beijing’s actions posed a clear test for the international community.

“They are challenging the world: ‘Are you going to do something for Hong Kong?’” Lee said at a news conference. “This is a challenge of the world’s values.”

Some U.S. senators have called for sanctions on Chinese officials who carry out the security laws, and the Trump administration has warned Beijing against violating Hong Kong’s autonomy. A spokeswoman for the European Union also said officials there were “following very closely” developments related to the national security laws.

The sense of powerlessness could leave the opposition facing fundamental questions about its abilities and purpose.

“It is going to be very demoralizing. You sort of wonder what becomes their raison d’être,” said Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author of “City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong,” a book about the protests. “The big thing they were acting as the watchdog to prevent has sort of already happened. What’s left for them to do?”

But there were signs that protesters’ initial despair was already coalescing into new plans. Even as some protesters deleted their accounts on Telegram, a popular messaging app used to coordinate protests, others renewed calls to attend protests already planned for the weekend. Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy umbrella group that organized some of last year’s biggest marches, said it was planning an event that it hoped would draw more than 2 million people.

“It’s very difficult to predict the scale of the movement,” Chow, the student activist, said. “But I believe that Hong Kong people will come out and fight.”