Protesters can now demonstrate more freely on the mainland than they can in the former British colony.
Hong Kong crackdowns continue. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg
The protest in Zhengzhou by victims of a bank fraud and its violent suppression by unidentified men caused an outcry on Chinese social media and captured the attention of the world’s press. Nowhere will the images have resonated more strongly than in Hong Kong. That’s partly because in the current climate it’s all but impossible to imagine a similar demonstration happening in the former British colony. In one key respect, a provincial city in the Communist mainland can now be considered freer than a global financial center that had Western-style liberties written into its foundational legislation as a special administrative region of China. It’s a sobering measure of how far Hong Kong has fallen.
Consider the banners that the bank protesters held up. “Against the corruption and violence of the Henan government,” read one in English, referring to the province of which Zhengzhou is the capital, in a clear attempt to appeal to an international audience. “No deposits, no human rights,” said another. Displaying such messages in Hong Kong would risk accusations of provoking hatred of the government and colluding with external elements, offenses under the national security law that Beijing imposed on the city two years ago.
The Zhengzhou demonstrators took chances in staging their protest, it is true; but the risk of being battered by plainclothes security personnel hardly compares with the threat of life imprisonment, the maximum sentence under Hong Kong’s security law. Together with Covid social-distancing regulations that currently restrict public gatherings to no more than four people, the law has served to effectively eradicate large-scale expressions of dissent since the sometimes-violent pro-democracy protests that convulsed the city in 2019.
Authorities aren’t focused only on the organized. In the days following the Henan incident, Hong Kong jailed two people for protest-related activities. One was a terminally ill 75-year-old, who was sentenced to nine months under a colonial-era sedition law for planning to demonstrate at the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. (Koo Sze-yiu, who planned to push a coffin on a trolley bearing anti-Communist Party slogans, was arrested by police before he could stage his one-man procession.) A day later, another magistrate jailed 66-year-old activist Alexandra Wong, popularly known as “Grandma Wong,” for eight months on two counts of unlawful assembly in 2019. This is how Hong Kong is responding to even minor and unthreatening displays of defiance, which for decades were tolerated as an integral part of the city’s free-speech tradition.
The Zhengzhou melee reverberates in other ways. The sight of men in white T-shirts charging into and beating a crowd of demonstrators unavoidably recalls a 2019 mob attack on commuters in Yuen Long, a town near Hong Kong’s northern border with the mainland. Many, though not all, the subway passengers were pro-democracy activists returning home from a protest. With no police present, they were beaten indiscriminately. The “721” incident was a turning point for trust in authorities, with protesters seeing the police’s absence as evidence of a mainland-style outsourcing of social control measures to thugs. (Police said that they were overstretched on the night and responded as quickly as they could.) Such tactics were hitherto largely unknown in Hong Kong, where rule of law and clean administration had been prized as core strengths. For those present in Yuen Long, the images from Zhengzhou are likely to have been a flashback to a bad dream.
On Monday, outgoing U.S. Consul General Hanscom Smith gave a blunt assessment of how Hong Kong has changed since passage of the security law. “Routine diplomatic activities are characterized as ‘interference’ and diplomats have even been threatened with the National Security Law for conducting ordinary business,” Smith said. “Strong nations are not terrified of dissenting opinions. An exchange of views is not collusion. Attending an event is not interference. A handshake is not ‘a black hand.’ Hong Kong has succeeded when it embraces openness and transparency, not ideological paranoia and groupthink.”
Smith cautioned that constraining Hong Kong’s political and social freedoms would inevitably damage the city’s status as a global business hub, saying Beijing “can’t have it both ways.” In response, a spokesperson for the China foreign ministry commissioner’s office in Hong Kong said the US had been trying to infiltrate and subvert the city as part of a plan to contain China, and Smith’s farewell remarks were a symbol of the bankruptcy of its strategy. Hong Kong society has become more stable and united, and the city is moving toward greater prosperity, the spokesperson said.
In fact, the territory has been seeing a record exodus of residents, in part because of the change in the political environment but also because of the city’s strict Covid rules, which have hewed closely to Beijing’s pandemic policies. A third echo of the Zhengzhou incident concerns that issue. Hong Kong is bringing in a color-coded health system for home quarantine that matches the method used in the mainland. Authorities in Zhengzhou managed to circumvent an earlier protest by changing the health codes of protesters to red, which restricted their ability to move about freely. That was a violation of how the system is supposed to be used, and caused outrage on social media.
The Hong Kong government has insisted it will use the codes only for legitimate health purposes. Not everyone may be reassured. Under current regulations, groups of as many as 120 people are allowed in restaurants — but the limit for outdoor gatherings remains at four. It’s difficult not to see this as another tool of social control aimed at preventing dissent.
Hong Kong once promised those who came to the city, if not affluence then at least safety from the political campaigns, corruption and uneven exercise of state power that characterized the Communist Party’s rule in the mainland. Those days are receding ever further into the past.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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