I am Antony Dapiran, author of City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, and this is A Procrastination, an email dispatch from Hong Kong.
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I’ve been putting off writing this latest Procrastination for over a month now. The pace of events in Hong Kong has been so relentless, and so disheartening, that it has been hard to know how or when to pick up the metaphorical pen. By now there is a fairly critical mass of updates overdue, so here goes…
Hong Kong Update
Last weekend was supposed to have seen Hong Kongers going to the polls to elect a new Legislative Council. Those elections were summarily postponed by the government for “at least” one year, ostensibly on public health grounds, but really, many suspect, because in this post-National Security Law environment, the pro-Beijing parties were in for another drubbing that may even have cost them control of the heavily-gerrymandered legislature. This was even after government returning officers disqualified a raft of pan-democrat candidates on political grounds.
On top of the delayed election and disqualifications, there has been plenty else to be dispirited about in Hong Kong lately: teenagers arrested for Facebook posts; activists going into exile; the firing of Professor Benny Tai by the government-stacked HKU council; a dozen political refugees attempting to flee Hong Kong by boat disappearing into mainland detention; government attempts to rewrite history in the face of unambiguous video evidence to the contrary; an unprecedented crackdown on political speech; attacks on the education and legal systems; and courts revealing flimsy prosecution cases and police misconduct (perjury, evidence tampering) in protest-related cases.
The press has also been under attack, with police raids on media organisations and foreign journalists denied visas. For New Statesman, I wrote about the deteriorating environment for press freedom in Hong Kong — and the heartening public response (published 13 August).
Then of course we had last weekend’s aggressive policing of gatherings planned in Kowloon to protest the delayed election. The following incident in particular appalled the local community and made headlines across the world:
Meanwhile the institutional deconstruction of Hong Kong as we knew it continues apace. On Monday we had a statement from Beijing, declaring that advocating the position that Hong Kong implements a three-way separation of powers — a cornerstone of our independent judiciary and common law legal system — amounts to subversion and secession.
And in #Lawfare news: yesterday police revived the old colonial era sedition law to charge activist “Fast Beat” Tam Tak-chi with the crime of “uttering seditious words”. The alleged seditious slogans chanted by Fast Beat at a street stall were the same protest slogans chanted continuously by hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers over the past year: “Five demands, not one less” (五大訴求缺一不可); “No rioters, only tyranny” (沒有暴徒只有暴政); “Disband the police” (解散警隊); “Down with the Communist Party” (打倒共產黨); and of course “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” (光復香港時代革命). Tam has been denied bail and is now sitting in jail awaiting his next hearing in November.
Recent writing & the National Security Law
In a piece for Asialink Insights (published 29 July), I sought to highlight that the National Security Law is about much more than simply creating four new criminal offences. Its purpose is fundamentally institutional and structural:
[The new Committee for Safeguarding National Security] will be the single most powerful agency in the Hong Kong government, with power to formulate policy and intervene in the work of all other arms of government, the education system and broader society. … Mr. Luo Huining, the director of the Central Government Liaison Office and Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, has been appointed the inaugural National Security Advisor [to the Committee].
It is not an exaggeration to state that Luo has thereby become the Party Secretary for Hong Kong. The National Security Law effectively replicates in Hong Kong the same parallel Party-Government structure that exists throughout the rest of China, integrating Hong Kong completely into the Chinese Party-State. This is the most profound change wrought by the National Security Law. It is for this reason that 1 July 2020, rather than 1997, may come to be seen as the real handover of Hong Kong.
For Inside Story (in a piece published 14 August), I revisited a dilemma I set out in the final chapter of my first book, City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, in light of the National Security Law. In City of Protest, I referred to Chris Patten's famous description of Hong Kong’s political system as one of “liberty without democracy”, and explained how this unique position had left Hong Kong in a state of disequilibrium. From my Inside Story piece:
This precarious balancing of a high level of rights and freedoms against a low level of representative democracy was not a natural state. As I wrote in the conclusion to City of Protest in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, “As long as the disequilibrium between rights and freedoms and representative democracy prevails in Hong Kong, the competing pressures to right that imbalance will also persist.”
Both the Umbrella Movement and the protest movement of 2019 aimed to tackle that disequilibrium by pushing for increased democracy. At the same time, though, as I also noted in City of Protest, “there is also another way to address that disequilibrium: reduce the rights and freedoms that Hong Kong enjoys.”
The National Security Law, it would seem, is the ultimate attempt to do just that.
With these two pieces as background, it was instructive to read about last week’s protests against plans to wind back Mongolian-language education in China’s Inner Mongolia.
Official public security bureau WeChat posts circulated showing images of hundreds of wanted persons taken from video surveillance of the protests, with instructions on how to report those identified to the authorities — for a RMB1,000 reward.
A police source within Inner Mongolia...showed The Times images of arrest orders on the police force’s platform and said they received new targets every two to three hours, usually people who had been protesting or supporting protests online.
The police were...making them sign pledges to not speak against the bilingual program anymore. If they did not comply, they were detained, and would become “key individuals,” marked in China’s police databases as threats to security requiring targeted surveillance and control...[T]hose marked as key individuals would be put under lifelong surveillance.
The National Security Law provides all the tools necessary to carry out the same kind of crackdown in Hong Kong. Indeed many pro-democracy politicians and activists are already effectively under “lifelong surveillance”: shadowed on the streets, harassed in the pro-Beijing press, their every public utterance & online posting scrutinised.
When thinking about the National Security Law, always bear in mind that its key purpose is to implement the Mainland security state institutionally and structurally in Hong Kong. The ultimate aim is that whatever is possible for state security in the Mainland should be equally possible, normalised and accepted in Hong Kong.
We are already not too far off.
Nourishment and Consolation
Hong Kong Writing
I was delighted to host a recent online reading event, “Hope for Hong Kong”, organised by Asia Pacific Writers and Translators and featuring poets Jennifer Wong, Jason Lee and Ravi Shankar, and prose writers Sreedhevi Iyer and Xu Xi. You can watch the replay here (I give opening remarks on recent events in Hong Kong and the context for the readings):
Hong Kong Contemporary Music
The latest episode of contemporary classical music podcast Relevant Tones hosted by musician Seth Bousted features contemporary Hong Kong composers. The music of Austin Yip, Hin Yan Austin Leung, Fung Lam, Galison Lau and Mei-Fang Lin is featured, as well as interviews with William Lane of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble — and me on the political context. You can listen here or on your favourite podcast platform.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a transnational novel of Bangkok spanning centuries and continents, and adopting a very Asian approach to narrative — while also reminiscent of the work of David Mitchell (for better or worse). A vast cast of characters step on and off the stage, their stories intertwining in often-surprising ways across generations, from the 19th century through the present and into a post-diluvian future. Luminous.
Social distancing restrictions are being relaxed again here in Hong Kong as the virus seems to be under control (c.f. delayed election, above). Schools are even resuming on-campus classes in late September, to wide celebration. So, at least in this respect, life here is resuming some semblance of normalcy.
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Below, a selection of my photographs from one year ago this week. Remarkable how much has changed, and how quickly.
This has been A Procrastination. Thanks for reading.