Twenty-three years after the end of colonial rule in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has announced that it is imposing a long-dreaded “national security” law on the territory, effectively criminalizing dissent. Just as stunning as the content of the law is how it will be passed: Instead of moving through Hong Kong’s legislature—which is already rigged in favor of the city’s unpopular pro-Beijing establishment—the law will be enacted unilaterally by China’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. It’s a declaration of both the law’s incontestability and Beijing’s total authority over Hong Kong and its people.
Something profound has been lost. It is not democracy, because Hong Kong was never democratic. It is not autonomy, because Hong Kong never enjoyed self-determination. It is certainly not the will to resist; as I write this, activists are already planning a full calendar of mass protests, determined to fight until the bitter end.
What is lost is the feeling that Hong Kong’s future could be an open question. China’s apparent answer marks the beginning of a new disorientation.
In the near term, Hong Kongers’ greatest concern is safety. The law could be approved by next week and enacted by June. Officials close to Beijing suggest the law may be enforced by state security agents, the same group known for “disappearing” mainland activists without trial. This will have wide-reaching consequences in Hong Kong. The city is not only home to pro-democracy activists (and recently, a burgeoning union movement); it has also long been a refuge for China’s labor organizers and dissidents and a base for groups fighting to protect migrants, refugees, queer folks, sex workers, and other communities, both in Hong Kong and across the border. The city also headquarters journalists from all over the world, including many from mainland China.
Until recently, all of these people worked relatively freely in Hong Kong. They were able to speak critically of authorities without fearing government reprisal. But if the new law is anything like its mainland counterpart, those days will soon be over. Already, Hong Kongers anticipating increased surveillance have rushed to download VPNs, lock down their social media accounts, and scrub their public profiles of any traces of political opposition.
The danger is not theoretical. In recent weeks, under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, the Hong Kong Police Force has rounded up and arrested hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, as well as some prominent activists, on charges of everything from disorderly conduct to violating anti-virus measures. Officers have pepper-sprayed reporters who were covering a protest, forcing them to the pavement; one photojournalist said she was choked. This follows nearly a year of protests during which more than 8,000 people, including children as young as 10, are believed to have been arrested. Some protesters later reported they were tortured and sexually assaulted in detention.
It bears repeating that the protest movement’s central five demands are astonishingly humble. Its participants first mobilized around a single ask: that the local government withdraw an ill-conceived extradition bill that would have exposed Hong Kongers to China’s opaque legal system. When Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam responded with a police crackdown, protesters cohered into a movement: They began to demand an investigation into police violence, that the government stop calling the protests “riots” (which exposes protesters to rioting charges, punishable by up to 10 years in prison), amnesty for detainees, and the free elections long promised by Beijing.
These demands are hardly radical. Polls show that they’re supported by a decisive majority of Hong Kongers. This undercuts the Chinese Communist Party’s dishonest rationale for the new national security law, which is that the protest movement somehow represents separatism or even terrorism. In reality, Hong Kong’s present crisis is wholly a creation of the state’s refusal to engage with the people’s concerns—and its decision to, instead, bring violence against them.
It could have turned out very differently. In 1984, when the United Kingdom and China inked the treaty called the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the two countries agreed that Hong Kong’s “way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years” and that the city’s residents would eventually elect their own leader. At the time, many of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists sympathized deeply with the mainland and spoke passionately of bringing liberal-progressive values to China—a desire echoed by reformers in China’s top ranks. In 1984, before the Joint Declaration was signed, a group of Hong Kong University students mailed a letter to Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang to ask whether they could expect a democratic Hong Kong after the handover. His response from May 22, almost exactly 36 years ago: “It is a matter of course.”
Since then, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been defined by one heartbreak after another. The first was the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. The episode effectively extinguished the Chinese democracy movement, along with the lives of peaceful demonstrators. This unspeakable act of violence tore open a chasm between authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong’s stunned democrats, whose cautious optimism was replaced by intense fear.
The second heartbreak came in 2014, when years of attempts by Hong Kong’s democrats to pass a reform package for free elections ended in defeat. As a last-ditch effort to restart the reform process, student activists led a massive, 79-day street occupation around Hong Kong’s government headquarters—the Umbrella Movement—which authorities ultimately cleared by force, without making a single concession. The failure of that movement opened the gates to rapidly accelerating repression. In the years that followed, its leaders were jailed, and opposition-party legislators were ejected from their seats. Small-time booksellers who had published volumes critical of Xi Jinping were abducted at the border and spirited away to prison, where they were forced to record confessions. So when the extradition bill was proposed last year, it was seen as the final straw.
We are experiencing a third heartbreak now. If the path from the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration to the extradition bill was marked with increasingly ominous warnings, the national security law is the point of no return. From here on, Hong Kongers will be no longer be organizing just against the Hong Kong government—Beijing’s inept and obsequious proxy—but against the CCP itself. And nobody knows exactly how to proceed.
The problem speaks to a moment of global danger. It is no coincidence that Hong Kong’s increasing desperation has mirrored China’s worsening relations with the United States. Since its inception as a colonial trading post, Hong Kong’s defining characteristic has been its in-betweenness. China’s euphemism for Hong Kong’s postcolonial status—one country, two systems—points to its raison d’être: to be an interface for capital between China and the West. The territory has never been allowed to derive stability from its own resources or interests but rather from the intersections of multiple others’. Hong Kong’s place in the world depends on its ability to mediate between external powers. Its existential struggle is likewise a symptom of a larger collapse.
The last time Hong Kong faced a comparable crisis was more than 50 years ago, at the height of the Cold War and the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution. In 1966, spilled-over unrest from the mainland sparked with local labor grievances, igniting a violent anti-colonial uprising that pushed the occupying British regime to the brink. What’s happening now is a kind of cruel inversion: The same brutal policing tactics and authoritarian legal frameworks developed by the British to suppress leftist dissent are being recycled by Chinese authorities against pro-democracy Hong Kongers. The CCP constantly casts itself as the answer to Western imperialism. But Chinese state media now argues Hong Kong’s new national security law would improve on the “frail” British security framework—in other words, that it wants to bolster, not dismantle, the colonial machinery of repression.
Today, Hong Kong is caught within the contradictions of global capitalism. The cosmopolitan, at times even utopianist neoliberalism of the 1990s—when Hong Kong enjoyed its heyday—has unraveled through repeated financial crises. The result is a world that has not so much rejected market ideologies as it has been locked into increasingly bitter, nationalist competition, with powerful states wrestling for control over diminishing returns. The Covid-19 pandemic could have been an opportunity for a shared international response. Instead, it has only exacerbated the fallout, with top officials in the United States and China—our “global leaders”—hurling conspiracy theories at each other over social media.
The middle ground that Hong Kong occupies is more precarious than ever. Denied agency, increasing numbers of Hong Kongers feel pressure to align with an external power—if not the CCP, then the West. Last fall, some pro-democracy Hong Kongers took the new step of directly lobbying the United States for assistance. US lawmakers eagerly accepted the chance to wield yet another symbolic cudgel against China, signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law last September. The act purports to “safeguard” the city’s autonomy using a type of suicidal logic: Whereas current US policy treats Hong Kong as an entity separate from China for the purposes of trade and immigration, the act threatens to revoke this policy, should China continue to infringe upon Hong Kong’s autonomy. The unspoken assumption is China would not dare hurt its prized conduit to global capital, the goose that lays the golden eggs. With the new Hong Kong national security law, China has called the United States’ bluff.
It’s unclear what Hong Kongers could still accomplish by continuing to lobby the US government, providing ammunition for a conflict in which Hong Kongers would be the first to suffer. But neither is it straightforward for Hong Kongers to align with mainland Chinese, despite their now facing increasingly similar state repression. Intense censorship on the mainland makes it difficult to gauge the level of sympathy for Hong Kong democracy; Chinese activists, artists, writers, and ordinary Internet users have been detained for expressing even mild support for the protests. Moreover, Chinese state media appears determined to continue its false portrayal of Hong Kong democrats as secessionist traitors, if not foreign operatives—a storyline designed to whip up domestic nationalist fervor. Even Hong Kong–based labor rights groups, community organizations, and social activists have found it increasingly impossible to work in China, thanks to the central party’s intensifying crackdown against NGOs.
To make things worse, some hard-line nativist Hong Kongers—who make up a minority of protesters—have harassed and even assaulted mainland Chinese immigrants, tourists, and workers. This all but forecloses the few viable paths forward for solidarity.
An escape route for Hong Kong could have meant an escape route for all of us. Few other places have served as such a dramatic meeting point, where competing desires are held in continuous tension. Hong Kong’s defiance of geopolitical binaries made it a rare space for their negotiation. Certainly, Hong Kong’s exceptionality has been the key to enriching the generations of colonizers, compradors, financiers, and oligarchs for whom the city was chiefly designed. Hong Kong is also a space contested and shaped by the struggles of migrants and misfits, dreamers and dissidents who—as oppressed people have so often done—found in the intersections of contradictory systems a starting point for rebellions.
The way out was never going to be simple. Liberating Hong Kong from any law or state power, from the totality of these clashing histories, would require undoing colonialism, capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism all at once. This was both Hong Kong’s impossible challenge and the source of its emancipatory potential: to not just stand at the midpoint of competing poles but also produce alternative ways of being.
We have briefly glimpsed these new worlds. During the Umbrella Movement, thundering traffic overpasses became tranquil encampments; today, elderly Hong Kongers stand on the front lines to protect younger protesters from police, while students-turned-volunteer medics cleanse strangers’ eyes of tear gas. This is the spirit that has allowed Hong Kongers to quickly organize themselves despite government inaction during the pandemic—to wear masks and to survive. This consciousness often feels like a new, invisible society overlaid on the old. It is an idea that is hard to describe in ways an economist, party official, or American congressperson would find legible. It is also, I believe, the true source of people’s deep love for Hong Kong.
Our lives cannot become permanent political mobilizations. If Hong Kong’s future cannot be won on our terms, we can at least complicate its emergence with our stories. Hong Kongers mark the anniversaries of pivotal dates like secret codes: We refer to 8-3-1, 7-1, 6-4, and, now, 5-2-1. Some of these dates represent bitter political tragedies, others moments of euphoric togetherness—each of them a way point toward our shared self-knowledge. Languages like these do not so much circumvent censorship as guard against forgetting. Knowing the CCP’s efforts to bury remembrances of similar events in China under the sediment of disinformation, we will need even more imaginative strategies for what lies ahead.
Last fall, while protests still raged in the streets, a Hong Kong Internet user started a Facebook thread asking friends what they would do with their lives if the city became truly free. The post—now deleted—went viral, as protesters glimpsed one another under the masks. Some responses were refreshingly quotidian: “I want to open a fishball stand,” wrote one person, “because I like eating curry fishballs.” Many others expressed the desire to become storytellers, archivists, museum curators, librarians, to preserve narratives of resistance: “I want to tell children how their brothers and sisters fought for them.”
One day, perhaps beyond our lifetimes, these dreams could guide Hong Kongers home.