How has civil society in Hong Kong changed?

“Hong Kong’s brand used to be coloured by lots of nonviolent and mass-scale protests, but this character vanished when authorities used the national security law and coronavirus-related measures to crack down on nonviolent protests,” said Eric Lai
How has civil society in Hong Kong changed?
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Hong Kongers around the world have been marking the third anniversary of protests in 2019, which were sparked by opposition to a controversial extradition bill but quickly morphed into a wide-scale movement opposing policies of the city’s pro-Beijing government. On June 12, thousands of people gathered in London and chanted the iconic protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” In Canada’s Vancouver, hundreds of demonstrators re-enacted clashes between protesters and police that took place exactly three years earlier.

Similar protests also took place in dozens of cities in the United States, Australia, Japan and Taiwan. Participants chanted slogans and sang songs now banned in Hong Kong under a national security law that was imposed to crack down on demonstrations. There were no such open protests in Hong Kong, however. “Hong Kong’s brand used to be coloured by lots of nonviolent and mass-scale protests, but this character vanished when authorities used the national security law and coronavirus-related measures to crack down on nonviolent protests,” said Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

“Street protests and nonviolent actions used to be the more effective ways for Hong Kong people to resist unfavourable policies or laws, but now they can no longer do that,” he told DW. In 2019, mass-scale protests were triggered by an extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government that would have allowed “fugitives” to be transferred to mainland China for prosecution, essentially bypassing Hong Kong’s judicial independence. The demonstrations went on for months, with violent clashes between frontline protesters and riot police. Over 10,000 were arrested and Hong Kong’s police force was repeatedly accused of using excessive force. The bill was eventually scrapped in October 2019.

But in July 2020, Hong Kong enacted the national security law, criminalising any acts of “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers.”

Since then, opposition lawmakers have been removed from the legislative council, several pro-democracy media outlets have been forced to shut down, and more than 100 activists and opposition figures have been arrested. During an appearance on a local radio program last Saturday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that she had no regrets over “pushing for the extradition bill.” “Nor have I thought the government had done anything wrong in this regard,” she said, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

Lam is due to leave her post in a few weeks, to be replaced by John Lee, a former security chief. “It is expected that when John Lee becomes Hong Kong’s new chief executive, he will introduce more censorship laws or policies to regulate different aspects of society while eliminating any potential opposition forces in Hong Kong,” said Lai.

Maggie Shum from the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame predicted that more hardline policies would emerge from China. “Beijing is sending a signal that the framework will concentrate on national security. That’s probably what Hong Kong will become in the future,” she told DW. “They will forcefully mold an identity and if people don’t agree with the Chinese patriotic identity, they will be hit with a baton,” she said. “That’s the continuation of the hardline repression that started during the protest.” Lai from Georgetown told DW that the Chinese government had felt threatened by the mass mobilisation in 2019, and its response was thus to exert more control over Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous legal system.

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