Editorial The Economist, 01.07.2022
How a free and open Hong Kong became a police state
Aquarter of a century after Britain returned Hong Kong to China, the texture of the city, its sights and sounds, are little changed. In its thrumming wet markets, carp still lie under red lamps, fishmongers extolling their freshness. Shoppers worship the gods of purse and phone at upscale malls. Construction workers sweat in the wet air, their jackhammers a rhythm section to the chimes of the trams.
The topography of the island still makes the heart pound. Behind a cavernous convention centre that squats beside Victoria harbour, the jungled ridge running up to the famous Peak sparkles with lights from some of the priciest living rooms on Earth. A steep tram still pulls day-trippers up for the view. Far below, the iconic Star ferries chug across the busy harbour.
On the territory’s mainland, a knuckle-shaped mountain called Lion Rock stands guard over the more populous, less privileged conurbation of Kowloon. Slightly lower than the Peak, Lion Rock looms larger in Hong Kongers’ imaginations. A squatter settlement at the foot of the mountain provided the setting for “Beneath Lion Rock”, a popular television drama which first aired in the 1970s, celebrating the grit of a generation of Hong Kongers, most of whom had left China to escape turmoil and poverty. It told stories about struggling to feed the family and building a future in a new home. Start singing its theme tune to a Hong Konger of a certain age and there’s a good chance they will join in: “Of one mind in pursuit of our dream/All discord set aside, with one heart on the same bright quest…/Hand in hand to the ends of the earth.”
It was the people beneath Lion Rock who had, by the late 1960s, made Hong Kong one of the world’s most important manufacturing hubs. Ching Cheong, who was five years old when his family fled to Hong Kong in the 1950s, dreamed of returning to the mainland as he grew up living off church provisions in a housing estate. The dream vanished when, as a teenager, he saw corpses floating down the river from China, their hands and feet bound, victims of the Cultural Revolution unleashed by Mao Zedong in 1966. “Many of us remember the marine police picking up these dead bodies,” he recalls. “After that, none of us thought about returning to live in China.”
He and his peers built a new Hong Kong identity based on hard work, solidarity and a pride in the new life they were making. If they turned their back on China, they never forgot that they were Chinese, especially as Hong Kong was still governed by British administrators. Since seizing the island more than a century before to serve as a trading depot (from which to smuggle illegal opium into China) its colonial rulers had preferred to manage things with, as the historian Elizabeth Sinn put it, “the least effort and the greatest economy”. They had little interest in seeing the colony’s people pursue their dreams with one heart.
Under their neglectful, but not utterly repressive, rule, protest was inevitable. The most violent was that of 1967, when the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution spilled across the border. Supporters of Mao, backed by the underground party, set off bombs, slaughtering children playing in the streets. By September, 51 people (including ten police officers) had been killed. The majority was firmly against the protesters, and developed a new affinity for the police.
Yet these protests also increased the government’s awareness of social problems and laid the foundations for the decades of protests which followed. Most of them aimed to move things not towards the chaos of China but towards the sort of Hong Kong people wanted to see. They fought for improvements in education and social services. In the late 1960s and 1970s the administration reduced working hours, created a compulsory free education system, built new public housing and began offering basic medical and social-welfare services. It also added a new rule requiring permission from the police for any public gatherings.
They rarely refused such requests. Leo Goodstadt, an academic who served in the colonial administration, estimated there were, on average, more than 180 protests a year between 1975 and 1995. “Public protests and political activism in the 1970s created an awareness of the relevance of the rule of law to the rights of public assembly and freedom of speech,” he wrote in 2005. Never a democracy, by the 1980s Hong Kong had an independent legal system, a robust free press and entrenched civic and economic freedoms. This was the world Mr Ching and his peers inherited.
In 1970, to the well-earned pride of his determined parents, he won a coveted place at the University of Hong Kong. After graduating, though, he made what his elite classmates saw as an odd choice. For a paltry wage, he joined Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper. His high-school teacher had encouraged a love of Chinese culture, and Mr Ching wanted to contribute to creating a better China, one not brutalised by the Communist Party nor ruled by British mandarins. He was not interested in promoting Communist Party ideas, but excited by the chance to see the rest of China.
“I thought it was a turning point. I was wrong, of course, but I was very optimistic at the time.”
In 1981 Mr Ching became the first Hong Kong journalist posted to Beijing, where he inhaled the excitement of the country opening up. In 1989, by then the paper’s deputy chief editor, Mr Ching spent weeks among the students who had occupied Tiananmen Square, reporting on—and sympathising with—their demands for democratic reform and an end to corruption. When it became clear that a crackdown was coming, he was ordered back to Hong Kong, arriving on June 3rd. By dawn on June 4th, hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters had died around the square.
The carnage in Beijing sparked a political explosion across Hong Kong. In 1984 the British had signed an agreement to return the territory to China in 1997, built around the formula of “one country, two systems”. The negotiations which had come up with that idea, at which Hong Kongers were not represented, promised that the territory would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years, with a degree of self-rule. But the protests crystallised a sense that the liberties gained in previous decades through stable administration, business success, popular protest and the rule of law would not persist under Beijing’s rule. Almost 1m people marched through Hong Kong as rumours spread of an imminent crackdown. Afterwards Mr Ching and 40 colleagues resigned from Wen Wei Po. Pro-Beijing businesses and civil-society groups, normally sympathetic to the party, condemned the bloodshed.
One of those marching was a young man named Jimmy Lai. Born just across the border, he had stowed away on a boat bound for the colony in 1959, when he was twelve. From child labourer in the rag trade he worked his way up to be factory manager, then founded his own clothing line—the very embodiment of the self-improving Lion Rock spirit. In 1989 he brought out T-shirts supporting the students in Tiananmen Square and sent all the profits to a pro-democracy group. “I thought it was a turning point,” he later said. “I was wrong, of course, but I was very optimistic at the time.”
Civic leaders continued to push the British for more representation in the post-handover polity. Many thought that China would not keep its two-systems promise unless the people had clear ways of standing up for themselves. By 1995, says Mr Ching, “I had been able to get very close to the party, to understand its aspirations, its mode of operating, its ulterior motives.” He wrote an article for China Times, a Taiwanese paper, warning that China would not keep its promises.
Before the handover, the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, had many concerns about China’s leaders keeping their word. But on June 30th 1997, his speech in the convention centre beside the harbour was full of professional optimism about “a day of celebration, not sorrow.” No dependent territory, he said, had ever left British rule more prosperous, or with such a “rich texture and fabric of civil society”. Under “one country, two systems”, he concluded, “Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise. And that is the unshakeable destiny.”
In fact, under the Basic Law—the city’s post-handover constitution—Hong Kongers had few ways to take part in the city’s governance. Despite last-minute reforms to allow greater scope for elections, key appointments still had to be approved in Beijing. Most legislators and the city’s new “chief executive” were appointed by bodies controlled by party loyalists, many with business interests in China.
In 2008, when Mr Ching returned after more than two years in a Chinese prison on dubious spying charges, he found the culture of protest flourishing. In 2014 after the party ruled out universal suffrage, protests morphed into what became known as the Umbrella Revolution. At one point protesters draped a banner that read “I want genuine universal suffrage” over the top of Lion Rock, claiming its spirit anew.
In 2019 the government sought to introduce a law that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China to face justice. Hong Kongers quickly understood that, at the party’s whim, anyone could be whisked to China, where courts have no transparency or presumption of innocence. By summer the protests were the largest the city had ever seen.
Young people were the face of the protests. But lawyers provided pro bono advice to those arrested, and accountants volunteered to do the books for crowd-funding campaigns that raised millions of dollars. Ordinary workers bought prepaid Mastercards from convenience stores so they could donate food and gas masks anonymously. In August 2019, 200,000 Hong Kongers linked hands to form human chains that wound for 50km around the harbour and over the top of Lion Rock itself. The scale of such demonstrations would have brought down nearly any democratic government—and some authoritarian ones, too.
The police soon responded in heavy-handed fashion. The protests grew in number and, occasionally, violence. One, surrounding the building that houses the legislature, prevented a second reading of the extradition bill. In the face of such opposition, the bill was shelved. But the stubborn, party-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, remained in office. No conciliatory gesture was made towards the protesters.
Instead, the Communist Party made the subtext of its previous attempts at change explicit: the Hong Kong identity created in the late 20th century and the independent-minded tradition of protest that went with it was a threat. In May 2020 China announced that a new national-security law was to be imposed on the territory, bolting legislation against secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers on top of the Basic Law. The final text of the law was published only hours before its promulgation at 11pm on June 30th. Not even Mrs Lam had been shown the details beforehand. Arrests began soon after.
So much for an unshakeable destiny.
Almost every prominent democrat in Hong Kong is now either in jail or exile. The fabric of “professions, churches, newspapers, charities, civil servants” which Lord Patten honoured at the handover has been torn apart. A national-security committee, modelled on a counterpart in mainland China, sits above the rest of Hong Kong’s government. July 1st, the 25th anniversary of the handover, sees an ex-policeman and security chief, John Lee, sworn in as chief executive, the first to be drawn from the security services. In 2019 he oversaw the benighted extradition bill. After the national-security law was imposed in 2020 his role as secretary for security made him a prime mover in the city’s devastation. He was chosen from a party shortlist of one, despite being widely loathed in the territory.
The city’s police budget has grown by 45% over the past five years, and the force has been granted sweeping powers to target individuals and organisations without judicial supervision or scrutiny. Nearly 200 people have been arrested under the national-security law, which has a presumption against bail.
One of them is Jimmy Lai, who donated the profits from his T-shirt sales to students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After his criticism of the party saw him forced to shut down his Giordano clothing chain in mainland China, he pivoted to publishing, founding Apple Daily, a newspaper. In the 2000s it grew to be Hong Kong’s most influential pro-democracy publication. But as time went by, various big firms stopped buying advertisements, fearful of being shut out of the Chinese market. Journalists backed by the party hunted for gossip to undermine him. Pro-Beijing media outlets camped outside his house, intimidating his family and photographing everyone who visited. He was the victim of firebombs and, in 2008, an assassination attempt. Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, was the target of relentless hacking attempts. Mr Lai’s popularity among Hong Kongers only grew.
In 2019 the party sent Mr Lai’s sister from mainland China to Hong Kong with a chilling message: they would send her son to prison if Mr Lai did not shut his paper. He refused and was expunged from a family tree which goes back 28 generations. In August 2020 he was arrested. Mr Lee froze Apple Daily’s bank accounts and Mr Lai’s personal accounts. Unable to pay the paper’s staff, or even its electricity bills, the directors had no choice but to shut the paper down, according to Mark Clifford in his book, “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World”. Mr Lai sits in a prison cell facing multiple charges. A devout Catholic, he prays daily. His family and friends say his letters show him to be in good spirits.
Every other major pro-democracy news outlet in Hong Kong has been closed. The newspapers which matter are Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po—which the party now uses as proxies to help run the city. Democrats have learned to read them closely. If you become one of their targets, you can expect a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
“We look at scholars in mainland China and see our future. To survive, we will have to be the government’s mouthpiece.”
A culture of fear and reporting has seeped into the civil service and schools, courts and universities. Some outspoken teachers have lost their licences. Many others have received warnings after being anonymously accused of saying the wrong thing. Their so-called crimes are often vague, which encourages those who want to avoid their fate to attend to every possible aspect of their lives that might call down disapproval.
It is a long-established approach. In 2002 Perry Link, an American scholar of China now banned from the country, wrote:
“The Communist Party’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide’, after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally’. The Soviet Union, where Stalin’s notion of ‘engineering the soul’ was first pursued, in practice fell far short of what the Chinese Communists have achieved in psychological engineering.”
Look up in today’s Hong Kong and the snake is there. The authorities have established an anonymous hotline for Hong Kongers to report on each other. More than a quarter of a million such reports have been lodged over the past two years.
Academics at the city’s world-class universities have stopped researching subjects deemed sensitive by the party such as Taiwan, religion in mainland China and public opinion in Hong Kong. “We look at scholars in mainland China and see our future. To survive, we will have to be the government’s mouthpiece,” says one Hong Kong academic. “If you are outspoken, the government will attack you through its newspapers.” In April 2022 Peter Baehr, a retired academic who worked at Lingnan University in Hong Kong for 21 years, wrote that “University senior managements are the chief drivers of repression…They are opportunists and weathervanes, rather than militants and pioneers. It is ambition more than ideology that motivates them.” Such mediocre opportunists are now littered throughout the texture and fabric of Hong Kong.
A once outspoken legal profession has been neutered. The former chair of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Paul Harris, vilified by the pro-Beijing press, fled the city after being questioned by national-security police. Barristers know they may lose business from mainland firms if they speak up. In his first interview as the new chair of the bar, Victor Dawes said the organisation would not discuss politics. He means the bar will not oppose the government.
The authorities have used similar tactics, as well as colonial-era laws, to bring teachers, social workers and labour unions to heel. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong suspended its annual human-rights press awards just days before the winners were to be announced in April. “Successful reporters know where the red lines are…Some may decry that as self-censorship. I call it common sense,” Keith Richburg, the club’s president, wrote. The anaconda above gave a soft, satisfied hiss.
A record number of civil servants have resigned and the number of new applicants fell by 30% in 2021. In April, having found it increasingly hard to recruit Hong Kongers, the police force ditched a requirement that applicants must have lived in the city for at least seven years. The justice department has rapidly promoted prosecutors who have worked on high-profile cases against protesters. In an attempt to increase the prestige of working as a government lawyer, prosecutors are now allowed to hold the title of senior counsel, a term previously reserved for the city’s top barristers.
In 2021 over 100,000 Hong Kongers applied for a British National (Overseas) visa which, if granted, allows them to live in Britain. That number is likely to rise. Many more have left for Australia, Canada and Taiwan. At the same time new government policies have made migration from the mainland even easier. For young, ambitious mainlanders fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, the future in Hong Kong is brighter than ever. In 2019 party cadres in Hong Kong were ordered to study an article that outlined a policy known as “keep Hong Kong but not its people”.
Many of those who remain lose themselves in popular culture—a trend that was also seen on the mainland after 1989. Songs about saying goodbye have become some of the city’s most popular tunes. Mirror, a local boy band, shot to fame in 2020. Instead of singing conventional love songs, their lyrics are about looking after yourself. “You can’t protest,” says one fan. “You can’t sing protest songs, so you listen to Mirror.”
Natalie Wong, a middle-aged banker and mother, signed up to Instagram to follow Keung To, one of the members of Mirror. She thinks most famous Hong Kong singers are compromised because of their desire to make money in China. Ms Wong (not her real name) points to Eason Chan, one of Hong Kong’s most famous singers, who cut his ties with Adidas after the sportswear brand announced it would not use Xinjiang cotton. Some fans perceive Mirror to be pro-democracy, but the band has not explicitly said so. But they give Hong Kongers something to unite around and enjoy. “Keung To is very authentic,” she says. “This is a quality now missing in Hong Kong, a society filled with hypocrisy and distrust.” His motto inspires her, she says. “‘You got a dream, you gotta protect it’.”
Not pursue it hand-in-hand with others, to the ends of the earth. Just protect it.
“Rarely do people understand Hong Kong from the perspective of China,” wrote Jiang Shigong, an influential Chinese scholar, after working for the party’s outpost in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office, from 2004 to 2008. “Instead, they understand Hong Kong from the perspective of the West, or from the perspective of Hong Kong, or they use Hong Kong to understand China.” He was right. To understand why the party crushed Hong Kong when it did, rather than either doing so earlier or not doing so at all, the Chinese side of the story is vital—as it is to understanding why the clampdown has been so effective.
China’s offer of “one country, two systems” was made because the Chinese Communist Party felt a flourishing post-handover Hong Kong would be a valuable source of capital, trade and business expertise. For it to make the most of that situation, however, it required a Hong Kong which, although governed by another system de jure, was de facto aligned with the interests of the party. Well before the handover it had begun a thorough and ambitious campaign to take clandestine control of key parts of the Hong Kong government and to co-opt the city’s elites.
During British rule the party was an illegal organisation (indeed even today it has no official presence in the territory). That did not stop it from recruiting. Mr Ching estimates there are currently some 400,000 underground party members in Hong Kong, around 5% of the population. Roughly half were born and raised in Hong Kong. The other half were born on the mainland and resettled themselves in the city.
In her book, “Underground Front”, Christine Loh, an official in Hong Kong’s government in the 2010s, cites one estimate that 83,000 mainland officials entered Hong Kong under assumed names and false identities between 1983, when negotiations on the handover began, and its eventual achievement in 1997. After seven years in Hong Kong the infiltrators qualified for permanent residency, which gave them the right to apply for jobs in the Hong Kong civil service. The party prioritised infiltrating departments like the police, customs and immigration to ensure it had control over the city, says Mr Ching. The response to the protests of 2019 had been years in the making.
The party had, decades before, set up a shadowy department to work alongside supporters who were not members. It was known as the United Front Work Department, and it continues to cultivate individuals and organisations around the world. Friendly scholars and businesspeople looked to it for access to things the party controlled, such as research materials and photo-ops with senior officials. Chairman Mao called the United Front one of the party’s “magic weapons”.
Dr Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who wrote columns in the city’s newspapers, was one such target. In 1997 he bought a flat in Guangzhou where he liked to spend weekends reading and thinking. A mainland official, who Dr Chung suspected was from the United Front, regularly invited him for tea or beers. After the official learned Dr Chung loved football, he took him to watch the English Premier League at a sports bar. Many Hong Kongers have similar stories of efforts to build and maintain relationships and exchange information.
Compliant civil-society organisations could look to the United Front for money before and after the handover. For every pro-democracy trade union or newspaper, the party ensured it backed an equivalent pro-Beijing one, if necessary building it from scratch. This is one reason why the impressive number of civil-society bodies the city boasts today should not be taken as a sign of a robust civil society. Many are simply legal fronts for the party’s underground operations, posing as alumni associations, chambers of commerce and travel groups. “Not all these societies are party cells, but the majority are,” says Mr Ching, who himself was approached to join the party. He declined. “This is one way the party infiltrated Hong Kong.”
Party operatives initially attempted to cultivate relationships with pro-democracy groups. The movement’s members were often willing partners; as several former lawmakers attest, they believed that opening a channel of communication with state security would be helpful. And many felt that a few cordial meetings would be unlikely to change anyone’s mind. But they gave the party a detailed understanding of Hong Kong and, in the end, leverage over many of its leaders.
“Looking back, we were very naïve,” says one former lawmaker. Many democrats were invited to dinners and meetings in Beijing where party officials would offer money, women or positions of power in exchange for co-operation and information. “They can give you anything, except democracy,” says Lee Wing-tat, a former leader of the Democratic Party who now lives in Britain. Several pro-democracy politicians were co-opted, he says.
An obvious way to influence governance was to boost pro-China voices among the business elite, many of whom had served in government roles under the British and continued to do so after the handover. “[We were ordered] to hinder British business, consolidate Chinese business, bring together investment from Taiwan and the overseas Chinese community,” wrote Xu Jiatun, who was the top Chinese representative in Hong Kong from 1983 to 1990 when, as an opponent of the 1989 crackdown, he fled to America.
For the first 15 years after Hong Kong’s return to China, this effort seemed to have little impact on the city’s governance. But the ascent to power of Xi Jinping in 2012 marked a change which would lead to the party using its power in Hong Kong far more directly.
The boom which had followed China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation meant that China’s need for Hong Kong’s capital, expertise and connections decreased. As leader of the party’s Hong Kong policy group from 2007, Mr Xi came to see the city’s tycoons as arrogant and entitled. The dinners that played to their self-importance (and provided lucrative business opportunities) became infrequent and formal. The party became more demanding.
“I could feel the screws tightening,” says Desmond Shum, a former tycoon now living in the West. “They kept asking us to do more things, give more donations.” This included prominently campaigning and voting for party interests in the city. “All of us were being directed to facilitate China’s direct meddling in Hong Kong’s elections. What amazes me is that none of us ever came out publicly and said ‘This is what I did and it was wrong’,” Mr Shum wrote in “Red Roulette”, a memoir he published last year. “It tells you how much we feared the party and the possible repercussions of saying no and speaking out.”
Mr Xi launched a revitalisation of the national-security complex. Unlike in the West, where concerns about national security focus on external threats, in China they encompass all threats to the party’s grip on power. In the more explicitly repressive context of Mr Xi’s rule, Hong Kong came to be seen ever less as an engine of growth and ever more as a site of subversion.
When the protests of 2019 erupted the party quickly began weaponising its carefully cultivated relationships with Hong Kong’s civil society. Dr Chung was turned back at the border when trying to visit Guangzhou. His sports-bar buddy visited him in Hong Kong, suggesting he could sort the matter out. “But only if I stopped writing for Apple Daily,” says Dr Chung. He declined. Stories abound of the party finding the pressure points of thousands of Hong Kongers in this way.
Pressure on business leaders was sometimes highly public. When Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s wealthiest tycoon, called for restraint in 2019 from both the government and protesters, the party and its proxies labelled the 91-year-old billionaire the “king of cockroaches”. He got the message. From then on every Hong Kong tycoon voiced support for the government’s harsh response to the protesters. They all saw what happened to Jimmy Lai.
Big brands surrendered, too. In 2019 John Slosar, chairman of Cathay Pacific, an airline, defended his employees’ right to protest. “We…wouldn’t dream of telling them what they have to think about something.” The party threatened to ban Cathay’s planes from Chinese airspace. Mr Slosar was forced out. His successor, Patrick Healy, enthusiastically took part in the sham election of Mr Lee, the city’s new leader.
All of this meant that when Beijing announced Hong Kong’s national-security law, the city’s business establishment offered no opposition. The city’s largest businesses like HSBC, Standard Chartered, Swire and Jardine Matheson all issued statements of support for the law. HSBC, Europe’s largest bank by assets, has frozen the accounts of pro-democracy politicians and civil-society organisations. The Big Four accounting firms—Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC—all published advertisements in pro-Beijing newspapers congratulating Mr Lee on becoming the city’s chief executive.
With the new national-security law and Hong Kong police backing them, China’s ministry of state security and the United Front started using their middlemen to make personal threats against leaders they had long cultivated, according to interviews with six people who had direct contact with the middlemen involved. Sometimes the warning came through a mysterious phone call, at other times from a long-time acquaintance at church. Delay or prevarication saw arrests. “One of my colleagues was warned, ‘You had better leave Hong Kong soon’,” says the former lawmaker. “But he didn’t heed that warning. Now he is in jail.”
Dr Chung, the football fan, came out of retirement in 2020 to take part in some polling. He was questioned twice by police and received “threats from powerful bodies”. Yet it was not until his friend, another retired lecturer, was jailed that Dr Chung realised he could not face it if his elderly parents “could only see me by visiting me in prison”. In April, he fled to Britain, where the middlemen still contact him.
Understood from the perspective of China, Hong Kong has not just seen the tactics of co-option and threat, developed for a gentler takeover, turned to the service of a far more draconian one. It has also seen the perfection of methods of co-opting businesses and academics, infiltrating institutions like universities and funding pro-party propaganda on social media which can be used farther afield. “I saw what was coming,” says Mr Ching, who first warned of the threat the party posed in the lead-up to the handover. “But nobody listened.” Today, the need to listen remains urgent everywhere in the world where China seeks influence.
But in Hong Kong, there is little left to listen to. Just trams and jackhammers, deal-making and everyday conversation—and a cover version of “Beneath Lion Rock”, recently released by Mirror. Some see the recording as yet another piece of co-option, the government despoiling something which once had real meaning. Others enjoy the lilting melody.
Some remember, but say nothing.