The ‘two bombs’ and beyond
MB September 2020 Special Report | Understanding Hong Kong – A to Z
The first list of these special reports is planned at the end of the previous year. In other words, when this one about Hong Kong was conceived, we were at the end of 2019 weeks after the overwhelming majority secured by the opposition in the November district council elections. The political highlight of 2020 was expected to be the Legislative Council Elections, scheduled for September. We would also simultaneously assess the impact of last year’s anti-extradition bill protests.
However, early in the year, the Covid-19 pandemic caused a huge disruption and the projections for 2020 started to change. It was the first ‘bomb’.
Six months later, the elections were delayed for a year because of a spike in Covid-19 cases, but the passage of a national security bill by Beijing virtually changed everything many people thought they knew about Hong Kong. It was the second ‘bomb.
Will we be facing “the end of Hong Kong” as we know it, as Timothy McLaughlin wrote in The Atlantic or, paraphrasing Mark Twain, the news of the “death of Hong Kong” is clearly exaggerated? Will this offer a “new beginning” for a “stable and prosperous” city as Hong Kong businessman Alan Zeman predicts? What lies ahead for One Country Two Systems?
So we prepared this work against the backdrop of significant uncertainty, but we are convinced that it becomes more urgent to get a grip on what is taking place and understand this overly complex situation.
We hope to help the reader in this goal.
Co-ordinated by João Paulo Meneses
Alliance – It is curious how, in a strongly polarized society like Hong Kong, the word that gathers the most consensus is… alliance (聯盟). Alliance is the key word in Hong Kong politics, with alliances of all types and shapes.
It all started in 1989, with the creation of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic and Democratic Movement in China (ASPDM) in response to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4th. It has been labeled subversive by the mainland Chinese authorities; some key ASPDM members, such as the late Szeto Wah, former legislator, and ASPDM chair, were never able to re-enter China.
A few years later, the alliance also served to describe a pro-Beijing conservative political organization, mostly composed of businessmen and professionals. The New Hong Kong Alliance, launched by the late former lawmaker and executive counselor, Lo Tak-Shing, was considered to be one of the most conservative pro-Beijing organizations, standing out the secretary
from The Hong Kong Progressive Alliance, another pro-Beijing pro-business political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) was born in 2005. Chaired by Starry Lee, DAB became one of three major parties in the city right after the 1997 handover, alongside the then leading opposition group, Democratic Party, and the pro-business (and pro-establishment) Liberal Party.
Between 2010 and 2013, 12 pan-democratic groups formed the Alliance for True Democracy, comprising 27 opposition legislators, in a bid to achieve full universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
The range of options is not complete without a reference to the Alliance, “a group of moderate, often pro-government, independent Legislative Council (LegCo) members who act as a third LegCo force between the pro-democratic and pro-Beijing camps. Without political party affiliation, they are all elected through the LegCo functional constituencies.”
Benny Tai – This former Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong has become in recent years one of the most, if not the most, influential opposition political activists and intellectuals.
Over the past few years, he has been the ideologue of the movement to challenge the SAR’s government and Beijing’s interests in Hong Kong.
He is one of the names behind the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a self-declared “non-violent civil disobedience campaign to pressure the Hong Kong government to implement full democracy in 2014.” After the protests, he launched the “Operation ThunderGo” in the 2016 Legislative Council election, aiming at getting the most pro-democracy candidates elected.
Benny Tai is also the brain behind the successful “Project Storm” for the opposition to win the majority in the 2019 District Council election.
In March 2018, he received all-around attacks from the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, the pro-Beijing media and politicians for his remarks on Hong Kong independence.
His statements suggesting the city could consider independence or enter into a confederation with other regions of China became famous and gave rise to serious rebuttal by mainland Chinese authorities and pro-Beijing legislators. Once in particular, DAB lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-Ding, accused the activist of turning Hong Kong’s streets into “rivers of blood.” Tai argued he was exercising academic freedom by considering such a possibility.
Even before Beijing’s intention to create a national security law for Hong Kong was known, Benny Tai revealed his plan for the elections initially scheduled for this month: a “massive constitutional weapon” or the (impossible?) dream of a pro-democratic majority in the 70-seat council: the “35 plus strategy.” He claimed: “The Legislative Council majority is the most lethal constitutional weapon.”
After learning the details of the new law, Tai appears to have abandoned his plans: “This is the end of one country two systems and the process to ‘authoritarian-ize’ Hong Kong is completed” the legal scholar told ABC News. “Hong Kong people have made history again,” he also said after almost 600,000 participated in the primary election for the city’s opposition. Last July, Tai was sacked by the publicly funded University of Hong Kong, over his criminal convictions last year over public nuisance offences related to the civil disobedience movement he co-founded in 2014.
Covid-19 – The truth is that when the opposition candidates overwhelmingly won last November’s District Council elections, the street protests that dragged on from June, were already losing steam. After the vote, this was accentuated.
Even so, small groups of protesters were still involved in rows with the police, especially on weekends.
At that time, too, it was already clear that the Government would not yield to any of the demands other than dropping the extradition bill. So many people asked how to resolve the impasse? How to return to normality?
Before an answer could be provided, Hong Kong was dealing with the greatest pandemic that humankind has experienced in one hundred years.
A tourist hub and an economy very dependent on mainland Chinese consumers, Hong Kong had to close its borders and closed itself at home. Street protests stopped.
In fact, the authorities continued to invoke the need to avoid gatherings and to respect social distancing in order to ban June 4th vigil (Tiananmen) – which, nevertheless, went ahead – and June 12th (first anniversary of the first major anti-extradition clashes). A few thousand people took to the streets, but an evident minority.
It was in this context of great concern over the risk of Covid-19 contagion that the Central Government imposed the new national security bill on June 30th.
In July, Hong Kong saw a spike in Covid-19 cases, bringing to daily number of cases to over one hundred. In late July, Carrie Lam invoked the emergency ordinance to postpone the LegCo election by one year, citing the resurgence of coronavirus cases, signalling a political impact of the pandemic in the city. The opposition has accused the government of using the pandemic as a pretext to stop people from voting, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam explained: “This postponement is entirely made based on public safety reasons, there were no political considerations”. Seventy-one countries have so far delayed elections due to Covid-19.
As for the economic impact of the pandemic on the local economy, it is too early for numbers.
“The magnitude of Hong Kong’s economic recession in the first quarter may be worse than in the 2008 global economic tsunami, or the impact of the Asian financial crisis [1997-1998],” said Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po.
There will also have to be added the impact resulting from almost a year of protests. The numbers point to HKD 18 billion decrease in retail sales between Q1 and Q3 of 2019, caused by the lack in tourism. In addition, this caused a 3.7 percent GDP drop during the same period.
Disqualification – One of the features in recent years of Hong Kong’s political-electoral system is called disqualification.
Since the last Legislative Council election in 2016, a total of six elected legislators from the pan-democracy, localist, and “self-determination” camps ended up being disqualified as a result of their behavior during the oath-taking ceremony. Two pro-independence members displayed a “Hong Kong is not China” banner and mispronounced China’s name in an insulting way. Other elected legislators were disqualified over inserting their own words, including anti-government and anti-Beijing slogans while reading the oath.
There were also young radical opposition politicians – seen as “pro-independence” – who got disqualified from running in local district council elections due to their opposition to the Basic Law.
So, since 2016, all candidates, before they’re able to qualify as such, should first affirm their support to the Basic Law by signing a new form pledging to uphold the “mini-constitution”. A decision on whether they truly uphold the commitment is then taken by a returning officer. Signing the form may not be sufficient to guarantee a place on the ballot papers. Back in 2016, separatist activist Edward Leung signed the declaration, but was eventually disqualified, as the returning officer did not believe him quoting his publicly known advocacy for Hong Kong independence.
More recently, Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s only representative in the NPC Standing Committee, wrote that candidates who oppose the new National Security bill “should be disqualified.”
But, as Carrie Lam seems to have acknowledged, the situation can be somewhat ambiguous: “I cannot simply say what acts or speeches will disqualify a person. The most important thing is to act according to the law”, she said.
On the other hand, Tian Feilong, a legal expert on Hong Kong affairs at Beijing’s Beihang University, said “Under the nationals ecurity law for Hong Kong, the legal boundaries have become much clearer”. Tian told Global Times that “opposition groups should know how to adjust to a changing environment”.
After the new law was implemented, Hong Kong authorities warned that popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” has the “connotation of separating the HKSAR from the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”, signaling a new red line.
Pro-Beijing heavyweight Maria Tam said she believed returning officers failed to properly vet candidates, because no one had been disqualified due to the slogan in local district councils elections.
Against this backdrop, Civic Party (pro-democracy) leader Alvin Yeung, stated: “No one in the opposition can guarantee that they would be able to get into the race.” Last July, officers at the Electoral Affairs Commission informed that 12 election nominations had been ruled invalid, once the candidates’ “intention” to uphold the Basic Law and swear allegiance to the HKSAR was not deemed “genuine and truthful.” Some days later, the elections were delayed for a year. Among them are four legislators currently serving in the Legislative Council: Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung and Dennis Kwok and Kwok Ka-ki and indirectly elected lawmaker and accountant Kenneth Leung.
Extradition bill – No one could have imagined that a crime committed in Taiwan in early 2018 would change the course of Hong Kong’s history.
In fact, if 2019 was the most turbulent year in Hong Kong’s recent history, it’s due to the crime that 19-year-old Hong Kong resident Chan Tong-kai confessed to committing (he murdered his pregnant girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing in Taiwan). Chan admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed Poon, but the police were unable to charge him for murder or extradite him to Taiwan because no agreement was in place between Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The case led pro-establishment forces to ask for an extradition bill, which was confirmed when, in February last year, Carrie Lam’s cabinet proposed the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, which would come to be known as the extradition bill.
The document was immediately contested, and some in the pro-Beijing camp even demonstrated their reservations. But it was on the streets that the situation quickly escalated, culminating in the mega-demonstration that took place on 9 June, which organizers say was joined by one million people (the police only counted 270,000 participants). In addition to asking that the proposal be rejected, protesters also asked for the resignation of the Chief Executive.
A few days later, Lam announced she would ‘suspend’ the proposed bill, and on 23 October, Secretary for Security John Lee announced the government’s formal withdrawal.
But that was not enough to silence the street protests, which soon turned into veritable street battles (read violence) and requests for greater democracy (universal suffrage).
The Covid-19 pandemic ended the protests. Four months later, Beijing introduced the national security law.