2020: The year Beijing brought down the shutters on democracy in Hong Kong

·7-min read

2020 will be remembered as the year that Beijing took back control of Hong Kong. Since the handover by the UK in 1997, the territory existed under the “one country, two systems” policy, guaranteeing a certain flexibility in political matters. But after months of massive anti-China demonstrations, Beijing finally stepped in, heavily.

After Tsai Ing-wen won Taiwan’s presidential elections back in January 2020, people in Hong Kong took to the streets to celebrate. Members of the pan-democratic parties were elated – for once, Hong Kong had influenced Taiwanese politics.

“It was such a pleasant outcome,” said Claudia Mo, then one of the 35 directly-elected members of Hong Kong's 70-seat Legislative Council (Legco), of Tsai's victory. “We just didn’t expect her to get over 8 million votes. Now that’s a really pleasant surprise!”

Mo of the group HK First, a political entity she created herself, is one of the more radical members of the Hong Kong legislature – and is very critical of Beijing. She says that Taiwan closely watched Beijing's handling of months of often violent protests in Hong Kong in reaction to a proposed extradition law that would have allowed suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to the mainland. The proposal was eventually scrapped.

“For decades it’s Taiwan’s politics that impacted Hong Kong. It’s never been the other way around. But now, for the very first time, Hong Kong politics – the dire situation we have been in in the last six months – helped to shape Tsai Ing-wen’s election. The threat of the 'one country, two systems' ending up like in Hong Kong told the Taiwanese who to vote for."

Covid-19 came to Beijing’s help

Mo says that Hong Kong's business interests are being harmed by Beijing's growing control, and that this could lead to the emergence of candidates who are sympathetic to the Democratic camp.

"So we understand – young people have every right to fight for it. If they don’t come back out onto the streets, and instead return to work and to university – this could be the last battle. Then Hong Kong, by 2047, would be just like any other mainland Chinese city: no rule of law, no freedom of the press, no freedom to protest,” she says.

Ominous words. But before protesters could return to the streets, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out and locked Hong Kong down. Authorities silently continued the crackdown against dissent, while the world was slowly engulfed in the pandemic.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a prolific critic of Beijing, was arrested in March for taking part in last year's pro-democracy protests. The 72-year-old owner of the Apple Daily newspaper is accused of joining a banned rally on 31 August 2019.

Lai was charged along with veteran pro-democracy activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum.

The trio could be jailed for up to five years if convicted of taking part in an "unauthorised assembly".

Human rights groups have protested against the detentions. “These unjustifiable arrests are a shameless attempt to harass and silence those in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement,” according to Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, Man Kei Tam.

National Security Law

The arrest of Lai, Cheuk-yan and Sum came days after the People’s Intermediate Court of Ningbo in China sentenced Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence to foreign entities”.

Protest leader Joshua Wong was quick to point out that the arrests in Hong Kong “coincided with the fight against the coronavirus,” which attracted most of the territory’s press coverage, and also came “hours after the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee proposed a pay rise for civil servants”.

The axe fell at the end of June. The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress unanimously adopted the law on Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong, which was first announced in May.

The law went into effect on 1 July, marking the end of the hybrid “one country, two systems” policy, introduced by Deng Xiaoping to guarantee a smooth transition from colonial British rule to Chinese administration. For at least 50 years, Hong Kong was supposed to go on enjoying its own semi-democratic, capitalist system, without interference from Beijing. This ended with the adoption of the national security legislation.

The law was incorporated into Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution,” the Basic Law, in a list of mainland laws that are now applicable in the city. Hong Kong’s government said in a statement that it “welcomes the passage of the law” which will help to “restore stability in Hong Kong society”.

Secret Police State

"This marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before," Joshua Wong tweeted as his political party Demosisto announced it was disbanding. "With sweeping powers and ill-defined law, the city will turn into a #secretpolicestate."

Hours after the law went into effect, some Hong Kong citizens said they were deleting Twitter accounts and getting rid of other social media platforms on which they had been active.

The United States, Britain, the European Union and the United Nations rights watchdog have all voiced fears the new legislation could be used to stifle criticism of Beijing, which wields similar laws to crush dissent on the mainland.

But Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, on Tuesday defended the law in a video message to the UN Human Rights Council, stating that recent violent protests had degenerated into “groups advocating ‘Hong Kong independence’ and ‘self-determination’” which, she continued, “incited protesters, very often radicalised young people, to desecrate and burn the national flag, vandalise the national emblem and storm the Central Government's office in Hong Kong.”

Watershed

Under the new regulations, police in Hong Kong have been granted unprecedented powers. Officers will be allowed to conduct warrantless searches at private properties, restrict the movement of suspects, freeze their assets, intercept communications and require internet service providers to remove information.

Hong Kong authorities reacted swiftly after Beijing passed the Hong Kong National Security Law on 1 July.

Article 43 of the law includes seven conditions restricting the freedoms of Hong Kong people, including the restriction of movement, the freezing of property, and requiring NGO’s to provide data and eavesdropping.

And then, Beijing stepped up the repression, arresting people who they thought were too critical of the regime, using the “legal” regulations established by the new law.

Since June, the city’s protesters have been muzzled. More than 10,000 protestors have been arrested over the last 16 months, and the courts are overwhelmed. Many prominent protest leaders face prosecution.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, remains loyal to Beijing.

She lauded the new national security law as “remarkably effective in restoring stability” during her annual policy address, despite criticism that the legislation severely limits free speech and political opposition in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

In her annual policy address, she said that the law had prevented a return of political unrest and that bringing normalcy back to the political system is an urgent priority.

“Advocacies of Hong Kong independence and collusions with external forces have progressively subsided, some of the prominent figures have kept a low profile, radical organisations have ceased operations or dissolved,” Lam said in her address.

'Political interference'

Beijing has rejected all criticism of the law as brazen political interference and taken an ever-tougher stance on dissent in Hong Kong.

In the autumn, China passed a resolution disqualifying four pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmakers after they were accused of violating their oaths of office.

The move prompted Hong Kong’s pro-democracy legislators to resign en masse in a show of solidarity. Those who resigned included Claudia Mo.

In an interview with Vox, she said that the disqualification of the four was "the final, the very ultimate crackdown on Hong Kong’s opposition. It basically says if you are found 'unpatriotic' — things that are disliked by the powers-that-be in Beijing — you’re out. You’re not allowed to stay within the power structure in Hong Kong. So that’s it. That’s the very final nail in the coffin of 'one country, two systems'.”