The spirit of protest in Hong Kong is still alive – but they need help

Jemimah Steinfeld
·4-min read

The reports out of Hong Kong are desperate. Since the passage of the National Security Law on Tuesday, people have been arrested for protesting, scores have left social media, chat histories have been deleted, organisations that fought hard for a free Hong Kong have disbanded and citizens have started looking into how they might leave the city indefinitely. We’re not even at the weekend.

Hong Kong is unravelling. Once the bastion of freedom in the region – a city where journalists and corporations went to escape the restrictiveness of mainland China – Hong Kong is being turned into a Beijing of the south.

As we watch from afar we might feel safe. “It’s OK”, we tell ourselves, “it’s happening over there”. But it’s not just “over there”. Hong Kong’s new law, which criminalises four types of activity — secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign entities — can apply to actions committed “outside the region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the region.” This means someone in the UK writing for a UK publication could fall foul of the law. Let that sink in.

Even if this scenario is unlikely, Hong Kong’s fate should still be of global concern. Beijing is asking us to decide how much we are willing to forsake to stay on good terms with the superpower. What will our answer be?

Hong Kong’s unravelling didn’t happen overnight. On 1 July 1997, when the last British governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, handed back the city to China, he said: “Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise – and that is the unshakable destiny.” Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, universal freedoms were supposed to be guaranteed for Hongkongers until 2047.

Back then people already had concerns. In a special report for Index on Censorship magazine at the start of 1997, it was noted that, “Beijing’s strident policies on Hong Kong seem to be confirming some darker fears about the continued protection of freedom of expression after 1997.” In the same issue, prominent Chinese writer Ma Jian spoke of his fears, saying that “from 1 July, the drift begins: Hong Kong becomes a floating island, migrating on the map.”

His fears were justified. While Hong Kong has remained overwhelmingly liberal, an increasingly assertive China has chipped away at the city’s rights. And since Xi Jinping became leader of China, this process has accelerated. Over the last eight years Beijing has tried to impose features more typical of the communist systems on the mainland, starting with the educational and electoral systems, and then moving onto other key areas of civil society.

Booksellers disappeared, local journalists were attacked. Even foreign media, largely shielded from harassment, have been targeted. The world was stunned when, in 2018, FT journalist Victor Mallet had his working visa denied after chairing a talk with Andy Chan, a pro-independence activist.

Hongkongers have remained defiant throughout. 2003 saw the largest protest in the city since the handover, a response to an anti-subversion law that many felt would limit their freedoms; reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2014 sparked the Umbrella Movement; the extradition bill of 2019 resulted in as many as two million out on the streets in protests, stalled only by Covid-19.

“Protest remains a fundamental part of the Hong Kong identity,” lawyer and writer Anthony Dapiran told me this week. Dapiran is hopeful the protest spirit will continue. And maybe it will. Leading activist Joshua Wong declared on Wednesday while at a march: “We shall never surrender. Now is not the time to give up.” The hope for better days has not been fully extinguished.

Back in 2018, Evan Fowler, who had been a journalist for now shuttered Cantonese news site House News, told me Hong Kong was “a city being ripped apart”. We were sitting in a Pret a Manger in London’s Victoria. His voice shook as he spoke of the harassment he had suffered and the subsequent bouts of depression. It was a perfect English summer’s day. Hong Kong felt many miles away. Today, less so.

Jemimah Steinfeld is deputy editor at Index on Censorship.