Police officers detain protesters during a rally against a new national security law on the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in Hong Kong, China, 01 July 2020. EPA/Miguel Candela

Special Report – Understanding Hong Kong – A to Z (U – Z)

Universal suffrage –  It is common to hear that Macau and Hong Kong, despite the same cultural, linguistic, social, and political matrix, are going separate ways.
The objective of choosing policymakers through universal suffrage is one of the main marks of these divergent paths.

MB September 2020 Special Report | Understanding Hong Kong – A to Z

A reason can be found in a fundamental difference between the two SARs’ Basic Laws. For instance, Hong Kong’s ‘mini-constitution’ states the ultimate goal of electing both the Chief Executive and all Legislative Council members via universal suffrage, something that is absent from Macau’s. 

However, in the case of Hong Kong, “the devil lies in the detail” when it comes to implementing a “one-man, one-vote” policy. The pro-democracy camp demands an open, Western-type liberal democratic approach, while the pro-Beijing camp points to what is mentioned in the Basic Law with regards to the future election of the Chief Executive via universal suffrage, which must take place “upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”. And it shall be carried out “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress”

On July 31, 2014 the Central Government put forth an electoral reform package which included electing the Chief Executive via universal suffrage, but voters would only chose from a list of two or three candidates validated by a nomination committee. Beijing has reiterated repeatedly that the SAR model implies an executive-led model and stressed that the Chief executive responds directly to the Central Government.

The opposition strongly rejected the offer, and Hong Kong saw the rise of the Umbrella Movement, demanding open universal suffrage. 

The call for open democratic elections remains a priority for a sizeable share of the Hong Kong population. Last year, after the government’s intention to enact the controversial extradition bill, universal suffrage for Legislative Council elections and for the election of the Chief Executive was quickly placed among the five demands of the demonstrators (under the slogan “Five demands, not one less”).
Interestingly, a recent poll carried out for Reuters and revealed in June shows that support for universal suffrage is shared by 6 out of 10 Hong Kong citizens, despite a 7 percentage drop from 68 to 61 percent following last year’s continuous, at times violent, protests.   

The poll was conducted before the content of the national security law was announced. 

Open democratic elections are the common ground of the different opposition political groups, and is an aim even shared by voices in the pro-Beijing camp. It will surely continue to be an aspiration for a significant part of the population. 
What will be the impact of the new national security law on Hong Kong’s political development? 

Now that the Article 23 “legal loophole” has been closed, will we see the universal suffrage “ultimate goal” set on Articles 45 (on electing the Chief Executive) and 68 (on electing the Legislative Council members) coming into fruition? How and when will that take place?

Violence – The 2019 protests left wounds in the Hong Kong society in many ways. One of the most evident was the explosion of violence, in ways never seen before. Suddenly, it became normal to see images of Molotov cocktails on the main streets of Hong Kong, alongside clashes between protesters and police, shops, and MTR stations being vandalized.

Violence became one of the main arguments used by each side: the protesters complain about police violence, the authorities speak of the “terrorist-like” tactics of some radical elements. 

The truth is that, having started as a peaceful protest against the extradition bill, the situation changed very quickly (from June 12th), with a part of the protesters (the “fighters” group) destroying or vandalizing public or government facilities, which ended up causing cracks in the anti-law bloc.

The 2019 protests were so marked by violence that the government began to describe them as “riots,” although later amended the description to say there were “some” rioters. Protesters contest the label, and this was one of five claims.

Another was the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests on June 12th. But critics point out that not only police commanders reportedly ignored the wrongdoings of frontline riot police, as Lam’s administration itself also refused to use any disciplinary measures, always backing the police.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet demanded the Hong Kong government to conduct an investigation into police use of force against the protesters, also saying she was “troubled and alarmed” by the escalating violence used by the protesters. Amnesty International praised the protesters for their dedication despite facing “abusive policing tactics” which include the “wanton use of tear gas, arbitrary arrests, physical assaults, and abuses in detention.”

The level of violence employed by radical protesters led central authorities to condemn the acts in strongly worded statements. “Hong Kong’s radical demonstrators have repeatedly used extremely dangerous tools to attack police officers, which already constitutes a serious violent crime, and also shows the first signs of terrorism emerging,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council.

Washington – On May 27th, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo notified Congress that the Trump administration no longer regarded Hong Kong as autonomous from Mainland China. Two months later, Commerce Secretary William Ross said the special status had therefore been revoked. Revoking the special status would be “the nuclear option” and “the beginning of the death of Hong Kong as we know it,” stated Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, quoted by the Washington Post. Last June also, the U.S. Senate approved legislation via unanimous consent that would strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to sanction those violating China’s commitments to Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. And in Congress, a group of bipartisan legislators proposed a bill that could provide refugee protection for Hong Kong citizens.

And since mid-August, US Customs and Border Protection determined that Hong Kong’s imports would be labelled “Made in China.”  Washington has also terminated three bilateral agreements with Hong Kong related to extradition and tax exemptions and imposed sanctions to 11 Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Carrie Lam, over what Washington considers to be “their role in curtailing political freedoms”. 

 Why all this? An April poll from Pew Research Center showed that 66 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of China and 62 percent view it as a major threat. At the same time, it has been learned that the FBI director considers China’s alleged acts of espionage and theft “the greatest long-term threat” to the United States’ future. Christopher Wray revealed last July that the FBI had over two thousand investigations open against the Chinese government.

“Let’s dispense with the idea that Donald Trump cares about democracy in Hong Kong,” was the title of an analysis from CNN’s Stephen Collinson and Caitlin Hu. In other words, it is impossible not to take into account that there are elections in the United States in a couple of months. “Now Trump has a political incentive to be the tough-on-China populist he promised to be back in 2016,” they also wrote.

But “despite the strong U.S. rhetoric against the national security law, the U.S. measures taken so far have been quite modest,” Tommy Wu, lead economist at Oxford Economist, stated. Maybe because “the more American officials and organizations can preserve a productive presence in Hong Kong, the better the odds that elements of the ‘One country, two systems’ model can be preserved,” advised Ryan Hass, John L. Thornton China Center. 

Another perspective comes from Former U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, who authored an OP Ed on Foreign Affairs magazine criticizing the Trump administration’s approach to the SAR. Tong slams “Washington’s Self-Defeating Hong Kong Strategy,” calling on the U.S. to “defend the status quo instead of assist in its demise.”

The Beijing and Hong Kong Governments have strongly condemned Washington’s interference in the city’s affairs over the past year. And more so on the heels of the decision to cease to recognize Hong Kong as autonomous and the recent sanctions imposed on certain officials. “The move by the U.S. does not only smack of political manipulation and double standards, but is also gross interference in China’s internal affairs and a grave violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations,” the Hong Kong government said.

Xi Jinping – The President’s linkage to overseeing the developments in the Hong Kong SAR dates back to 2007, when Xi Jinping inherited, from former Vice President Zeng Qinghong, the portfolio of both SARs in the top echelons of the Communist Party of China (CPC). 

He had visited Hong Kong before, but it was on July 1, 2017, that Xi was in town for the first time as State President to preside over the inauguration of Carrie Lam as Chief Executive and to join the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the handover.

It happened three years after the Umbrella Movement erupted. And Xi issued a warning: Do not cross the red line thereby undermining Chinese sovereignty.     

While acknowledging “Hong Kong is a plural society, so it comes as no surprise that there are different views and even major differences on some specific issues,” the President underlined that the city “cannot afford to be torn apart by reckless moves or internal rift.”

Even though Hong Kong’s most turbulent post-1997 times years occurred with Xi Jinping as leader, probably neither the President nor anyone could have anticipated what would happen a year and a half later, when – following the large-scale anti-extradition bill protests and the violence that ensued – Hong Kong appeared on the brink of collapse.

Since the anti-extradition bill protests broke out, Xi seemed to be on a wait-and-see approach in terms of public remarks on Hong Kong. When in early November 2019, the President met with Chief Executive Carrie Lam, he praised the SAR leader for “fully discharging her duties” and “trying to stabilize the situation and improve the social atmosphere.” This came days after he presided over the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) meeting, which laid the ground for improving Hong Kong’s “legal system and enforcement.” Seven months later, these words were translated into the announcement of a Beijing-enacted, tailor-made, national-security law for the SAR. 

Some analysts say it’s as if Xi Jinping had lost patience and played the final card between recovering Hong Kong and losing influence at the international level. “The Chinese leadership likely anticipated a strong response from the West to the arrest of the pro-democracy leaders and the release of the Hong Kong national security law. But it was willing to pay the price,” according to Joseph Yu Shek Cheng, a former Hong Kong opposition politician and retired professor of political science.

In return for this bold move, the Central Government expects and predicts that the law will “safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, and ensure long-term peace, stability and prosperity in Hong Kong”, as highlighted by Shen Chunyao, director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee.

 Since early January, the top leadership – and mostly likely Xi was directly involved – moved on to reshuffle the officials in charge of Hong Kong matters. And the personnel appointments are telling about the importance attached to those tasks. 

The first move came with the replacement of the head of the Central Government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Wang Zhimin was replaced by Luo Huining, a veteran 65-year-old former Communist Party chief in Shanxi province where he led a resolute anti-corruption campaign and the first Liaison Office Director to have never held a Hong Kong-related position. In February, Xi Jinping moved on to overhaul the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council, demoting director Zhang Xiaoming to the position of Deputy Director, a post also held by the Liaison Office heads of Hong Kong and Macau. The new HKMAO was a long-time ally of Xi. Xia Bolong, was the President’s number two CPC official when Xi was the Party leader in Zhejiang province. 

A more recent call took place right after the enactment of the national security law. Another so-called “hardliner” was appointed. This time it was Zheng Yanxiong to head the newly established security agency – the Central Government’s Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong. Cantonese-speaking Zheng had become known after helping quiet a 2011 uprising against local CPC leaders in Guangdong province’s Wukan fishing village.

Yellow Economic Circle – “Despite many challenges, the Yellow Economic Circle (YEC) potentially could flourish into a global ecosystem, detached from the influence of the Hong Kong government and big enterprises, and shape the city’s future.” These remarks were made by pro-protesters scholar and entrepreneur Simon Shen in an article published in early May in  The Diplomat magazine. Back then many in the ‘Yellow” camp of businesses openly putting messages in support of last year’s protests and against the Government, saw the YEC as a ‘beautiful dream’ that had been left over from the violent months after the extradition bill. “In lieu of witch-hunting, the YEC’s priority should be converting more businesses to participate and include more middle-ground civilians to promote the cause”, Shen added.

Three months on, some would say it seems now more like a “pipe dream”.

News came from the end of May and from that time on YEC was one of the first  “casualties” of the new national security bill.

“Many yellow shops are worried that their propaganda posters will land them in trouble, such as being implicated for inciting subversion of the state”, said Gordon Lam, convenor of the Hong Kong Small and Middle Restaurant Federation, to the South China Morning Post.

The YEC may have been an indirect victim of the new law, but the truth is that the phenomenon of buying only from ‘pro-protest stores’ has long been bothering many in the Hong Kong community who oppose last year’s protests. And has also “ruffled feathers” in Beijing.

In May, the Central Government Liaison Office made a statement slamming shoppers’ support for pro-protesters businesses as “violating” free market principles. More: the same statement accused opposition lawmakers of using the “yellow economy” to guarantee seats in the September’s election and claiming that Hong Kong’s economy had been “hijacked” by those politics.

At the beginning of June, YEC was still, in the words of another academic, Sharon Yam (Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky), in the Hong Kong Free Press, a reminder “to the more global socioeconomic problem of collusion between multinational corporations and oppressive state regimes. The yellow economic circle, in other words, has far-reaching impacts in and out of Hong Kong. “

One year from now it will be possible to see what colour the yellow was.

Zen, Joseph – The first time the (pro) Chinese press brought together the main “enemies of power” in Hong Kong, Bishop Emeritus Joseph Zen was one of four (see Gang of Four on these pages). At one point in time, it seemed that if there was a ‘public enemy number 1’ of China in Hong Kong, it would most likely be the controversial cleric

A few years later, the retired Cardinal has neither lost his high-profile in slamming both the central and local governments, nor did he diminish his civic participation.


“Despite his retirement, Zen, is still an important leader in the anti-China and anti-communist forces”, wrote Zhou Bajun, from state-owned group China Everbight Group, in a China Daily Op-Ed.

Zen remains very popular in the pro-democracy camp and a reference for anti-Beijing forces in Hong Kong. He has been joining all major protests over the years. While opposing last year’s extradition law he stated: “Keep calm in Hong Kong, let’s find new ways to fight for democracy”, advocating for a peaceful movement. 

However, his deep political engagement is not shared by some sectors of the local Catholic community who dislike his ‘radical anti-China’ approach. 

The 88-year old Bishop Emeritus, retired in 2009, remains an influential voice in Hong Kong. He regularly updates a blog where he shows his two main targets: China, namely the Communist Party of China, (“China has become a threat to the world,” he said about the pandemic) and the Vatican.

Zen is one of the loudest voices against the deal between the Vatican and Beijing. 

“In Hong Kong, in all this time of turmoil, with so many young people suffering the brutality of the police, not a word from the Vatican,” he said. “We need a miracle,” the retired Hong Kong cardinal said on security law.

His successor holds a very different stance on these matters. Cardinal John Tong Hon, the administrator of the Hong Kong Diocese, is a keen supporter of the rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican as a way to protect the Catholic community on the Mainland, and rejects Zen’s allegations that the new national security law poses a risk to religious freedom in Hong Kong.

Special Report | Understanding Hong Kong – See A-E > F-J > K-O > P-T