In Hong Kong

Simon Cartledge

In normal circumstances, on Thursday evening I would be going to Hong Kong island’s Victoria Park for the annual vigil remembering those who died in Beijing on the night of 3-4 June 1989. But this year the gathering has been banned. The ostensible reason is a Covid-19 rule limiting public groups to a maximum of eight people.

I could go to Victoria Park in a private capacity or, as some people on social media have suggested, light a candle wherever I am between eight and eight thirty. I’ll probably watch what happens using No China Extradition Live, a website that gathers the live video streams from Hong Kong’s many news organisations and shows them simultaneously on a single web page.

On the night of 17-18 November last year, I watched online as the police tried to batter their way into Hong Kong Polytechnic University only to be repelled by thousands of petrol bombs. And last Wednesday lunchtime I saw that a crowd was gathering in Central, the main business district, a couple of hundred metres from my office. I went out to have a look.

As I drew near, I could hear the chants, mostly in Cantonese, sometimes in English: ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times’; ‘Black police, may your whole family die’; ‘Stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom.’ Most of the demonstrators were young office workers, all wearing some kind of surgical face mask but otherwise in business clothes.

They were protesting both against a bill making its way through the city’s legislature that would criminalise ‘insults to the national anthem of China’, and against a proposed national security law that Beijing seemed intent on imposing on Hong Kong.

Where I was, on a narrowish street running steeply downhill into the heart of Central, a couple of hundred people had gathered. Assuming there were similar crowds at other places nearby, there would have been perhaps a couple of thousand people altogether.

Across the road, in front of an HSBC branch, were the riot police. I counted close to a hundred. The police chief had announced the previous day that 3000 police would be stationed at key points across the city, with the biggest concentration in Admiralty: on 12 June last year, tens of thousands of protesters had surrounded the government buildings there to prevent the Legislative Council from giving a second reading to an extradition bill that, if passed, would have opened the way for the transfer of suspected criminals from Hong Kong to other parts of China.

A small group of police crossed the road. One held up a banner: ‘This meeting or procession is in breach of the law. Disperse or we may use force.’ The crowd kept chanting. A few moments later, the police ran forwards, one of them firing pepper balls. Coughing, the crowd turned and ran up the street. The police came after them for a few metres then stopped. The chanting resumed, though less vocally than before. As two o’clock came and went, the crowd thinned. More police arrived. A few passersby were stopped and searched. I went back to my office.

The biggest event of the afternoon was in Causeway Bay, a shopping district three subway stops along from Central. Police rounded up fifty or so young people, sat them on the ground for an hour, then took them away by coach. As evening came, attention switched to Mong Kok on the other side of the harbour. For the next several hours, harder-core protesters blocked the streets, started small fires and did their best to evade the police.By the end of the day, some 360 people had been arrested, mostly for participating in unauthorised assemblies, bringing the total number of protest-related arrests during the last 14 months to more than 8900.

Since Wednesday, things have been calmer. On Thursday, the Chinese parliament passed a resolution to draft the national security legislation for Hong Kong. On Friday, Donald Trump announce he would end various trade privileges Hong Kong has with the United States. But the streets remained quiet.

It’s nine months since riot police stormed into a subway station at Prince Edward, one stop north of Mong Kok, beating and firing pepper spray at passengers they believed to be protesters. On the last day of each month since then, people have gone to Prince Edward to place flowers at one of the station’s entrances.

From early on Sunday evening (31 May), the live streams showed a large group of riot police around the station and others patrolling nearby streets. There was some heckling of the police, who warned the people gathering nearby that they were taking part in an illegal protest. Some passersby were stopped and searched.

In January, China appointed a new hardline head of its Hong Kong Liaison Office. I wondered if the aim was to find out whether it would be possible to apply the coercive techniques used in Xinjiang to Hong Kong. Perhaps not putting hundreds of thousands of people into re-education camps surrounded by barbed wire and guards, but other measures aimed at cowing the local population.

The arrest in April of 15 longstanding pro-democracy campaigners, including Martin Lee, the 81-year-old founder of the Democratic Party, and Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy newspaper, seemed to mark a new determination to intimidate the opposition.

A switch in police tactics at the end of last year to making large-scale arrests has made it far harder for the opposition to bring huge numbers of people on to the streets.

Assuming the national security law is passed within the next few months, extensive new powers will be brought to bear by the Hong Kong government, aided by state security agencies from the mainland. Activities tolerated until now – waving US or British flags, carrying banners calling for independence, arguing online for the end of one-party rule in China – all seem likely targets of legal suppression.

For several years, the immigration department has barred opposition sympathisers from entering Hong Kong. Earlier this year, a friend of mine who ran a human rights NGO had his application to renew his work visa rejected. The commerce bureau is overseeing a review of Radio & Television Hong Kong, the city’s publicly owned but liberal-leaning broadcaster. There is talk of introducing a registration system for journalists. Education also looks set for an overhaul: Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has suggested that liberal studies, a compulsory subject at secondary schools, has been poisoning some students’ minds.

According to the first opinion poll on the national security law, 64 per cent of people are against the law and only 24 per cent in favour of it. Since the mid-2000s, the share of the population identifying themselves as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese has risen from less than half to nearly four-fifths; among people under 30, the share is even higher.

Efforts at integrating Hong Kong and the neighbouring province of Guangdong into a single economic unit continue to founder. The variation in systems across the border – different laws and regulations; different tax systems; different rights to transfer money, access information or travel – all make for two very separate populations, and they have been pushed further apart in the last twelve months.

Many of those who would like to see the city retain its separate system are worried. They know their best defence is the high degree of autonomy that Hong Kong was granted in 1997. They also know this could best be shored up by the accountable government that was promised them then. Yet they also know these are the last things China’s leaders want to grant them – especially at a time of rising US hostility.


  • 2 June 2020 at 4:41pm
    Graucho says:
    From the moment Xi Jinping extended his term in office and published his
    "Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era", I knew we had a Chinese control freak in the mould of Stalin/Putin on our hands. I'm afraid things are only going to get worse.

  • 4 June 2020 at 12:38pm
    Jenny Turner says:
    Yes. Really frightening. Great, calm piece, but the very calmness shows how alarming the situation is becoming. Simon, what do commentators you respect suggest people and organisations internationally should be doing to help?