Frustrated by protests and an inability to win over civil society, China has destroyed its ‘one country, two systems’ relationship with Hong Kong. To discuss if this is the end of Hong Kong or the beginning of something new, I spoke with Kong Tsung-gan, Author of the just-released Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle (published by Mekong Review).
Kong is one of my favorite writers on Hong Kong, and having covered Hong Kong’s protests for many years, offers hard-earned insights and observations on this incredible movement. Part 2 of our interview can be found here
All Photos are from Studio Incendo under CC 4.0. Please support their amazing work.
Asia Art Tours: Centering Covid-19 for the start, in what ways has the government used the pandemic to contain, control, and police the Hong Kong Protest movement? If you could in particular discuss how things like ‘social distancing’ or ‘public health’ are being used as an excuse or method with which to refuse protest petitions or to target individual protesters involved in Hong Kong’s democracy movement?
Kong Tsung-gan: During the initial wave of coronavirus infections back in February, the government enacted no particular draconian or onerous measures to prevent gatherings. But in March, a second wave of infections occurred. Almost all of the new cases were people returning from abroad. Despite that fact, the government imposed social distancing and gathering restrictions. At the time, the Health Secretary emphasized that these should be enforced with discretion, but in fact the police have taken them as license to crack down on protests. All four protests for which organizers have applied for a so-called ‘notice of no objection’ from the police have been banned, in spite of the fact that organizers had planned the protests so as to ensure social distancing rules would be followed. Now, though there are almost no new cases of the coronavirus, these restrictions have been extended again to June 4, it looks all but certain that, for the first time ever, the June 4 candlelight vigil will be banned as well. When protests started back up on April 21 after about a three-week hiatus, police began issuing tickets to people they suspected of being protesters for violating social distancing rules. The tickets come with a $HK2,000 fine. Altogether, at least 130 such tickets have been issued. During the same period, almost no new local cases of the coronavirus occurred.
So people going to protests were doing nothing to endanger public health, and there’s zero evidence that anyone has ever been infected at a protest. And at the same time police were doing that, people were gathered in large numbers both in places exempted from social distancing rules (such as workplaces and public transport) and also places not exempted (for example, hundreds of foreign domestic workers gathering in public places, beaches, outside bars in upscale nightspots, etc), so not only did the targeting of suspected protesters make no sense from a public health point of view, but the rules were very selectively enforced. Recently, it appears police have let up on the ticketing and returned to mass arrests—for example, 230 were arrested on May 1.
The CCP and HK government have also used the coronavirus epidemic as an opportunity to take actions to impose stricter controls on Hong Kong and crack down, presumably calculating that it will be more difficult for opponents to mobilize under the draconian policing and social distancing rules. We are now looking at a situation where such rules could very well be extended indefinitely (they have to be renewed every two weeks), and we’re getting to ‘prime protest season’, with the June 4 candlelight vigil, anniversaries of last June’s mass protests, and the annual July 1 pro-democracy march, as well as the government trying to ram through a PRC anthem bill that would criminalize ‘disrepect’ for the anthem. It looks like government and police are angling to ban them all and crack down on those who dare to come out anyway.
AAT: Tim Mclaughlin of the Atlantic has written wonderful articles, and had a great chat with us about how Covid-19 inspired fresh waves of anger at Carrie Lam’s Administration. Could you discuss your own thoughts on how Covid-19 was handled or mishandled by Carrie Lam’s administration? And if this indeed added fuel to the protest movement? And for the success that Hong Kong has had against Covid-19, what would you attribute to this government, and what would you attribute to the precautions and care for others that Hong Kongers collectively have exhibited on their own?
KTG: Simply put, HK’s effective response (so far) to the coronavirus epidemic is almost entirely down to HK people as well as a good public health system. In late January, as soon as the magnitude of the crisis in China became apparent, people started calling for border closures. The government refused, justifying the refusal by citing WHO recommendations against travel restrictions, even though within China the most draconian of travel restrictions, with whole cities in complete lockdown and isolation, were imposed (a response which the WHO, contradicting itself, praised). So hospital workers went on strike through their newly created pro-democracy union. (Dozens of new pro-democracy unions have been spawned by the protests.) They struck for a week, with great support from HK society and the protest movement.
Eventually, while the government never fully closed the border, they imposed travel restrictions that responded somewhat to citizens’ demands and proved to be quite effective in stopping the virus from entering HK. HK people were psychologically prepared for the coronavirus because of SARS, plus they were practically prepared to mobilize because of the protests. They have been highly disciplined and vigilant. That’s another reason why the police crackdown mentioned above is even more gratuitous and politically motivated: we don’t need the police or the government to police us; we police ourselves.
From the Causeway Bay Bookstore Reopening in Taiwan, to Hong Kongers protesting internationally on the video game Animal Crossing, to international “Mask Circuits” forming where Hong Kongers have sent PPE abroad, to the “Milk Tea Alliance” forming on Twitter among Netizens, there have been some interesting international permutations of solidarity. What has caught your eye about the way new spaces are opening up to express international solidarity with Hong Kong? Where do you expect these existing spaces to continue developing? And where do you expect them to slow down or to close?
Maybe I’m just an old-timer, but I tend to think of these kinds of mostly online-based forms of activism as being a bit superficial. But of course, there’s nothing wrong with people showing solidarity across borders, and if it helps to raise awareness and create something real on the ground, all the better. One thing we do need to consider more is how to reach out to people who share our values in other countries besides those of East Asia and the West. There’s been a lot of lobbying of Western governments in Europe and North America. Civil society and citizens in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan have been amazing in their support of the HK freedom struggle. But beyond that, it’s been rather spotty. Then again, it’s my impression that these days you just don’t see that much international solidarity occurring, whatever the place or the issue. So it’s not like a lot of other people fighting for their rights elsewhere are doing stuff HK people should be doing. After the Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong and other young HK activists made an effort to construct networks with young activists in Southeast Asia. This was made more difficult when Joshua was banned from Thailand and Malaysia and a Singaporean activist was convicted just for having a Skype call with Joshua at a meeting. We have to have clear principles, we have to recognize our allies wherever they may be.
(Joshua Wong’s home island in Animal Crossing: Twitter/FB)
We always say HK is on the frontline in the global struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. Well, there are other places on the frontline as well and it’s worth reaching out to them. It’s just that we only have so many resources, and that’s where, I guess, the online activism comes in useful. It just has to translate to the real world. Probably the most concrete result of our international activism has been the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the United States. The US has just postponed its legally required report under the HKHRDA, awaiting the results of the upcoming National People’s Congress in Beijing in late May. The US has now put itself in a position where it has to act or it will be perceived as all-talk no-action by the Communist Party. We hope it will at least impose sanctions on HK and Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses. The HKHRDA was a bi-partisan accomplish, but still, HK activists have to reach out more to more progressive and liberal forces in the US, as they’re our natural allies.
From afar, though, I tend to regard those progressive and liberal forces in the US as quite inward-looking, US-centric. I can’t think of many causes abroad they identify with.
Likewise, the “Yellow Economy” is a fascinating protest tactic. Could you briefly explain this tactic and review with us its domestic success? And do you believe its possible to export this tactic internationally for those who want to support Hong Kong’s democracy movement?
Rather than just a tactic, I would consider it a movement in its own right. And what’s fascinating about it is that while it’s a primarily economic movement, it’s got important cultural, social and political implications as well. It’s based on ideas of mutual solidarity and economic self-reliance as well as on boycotts. One thing to recognize is that for years, the CCP and HK government have had policies to foster economic integration between HK and China as well as HK reliance on China. One huge example of that is Chinese tourism to HK, with tens of millions of Chinese visitors every year, and a huge swath of the HK economy oriented to that. Of course, with the protests and then the coronavirus, that tourism’s almost completely dried up, much to the delight of many in HK. We know that the HK government won’t reorient our economy, so we’re doing it ourselves. The first impulse was, boycott blue (pro-Communist) businesses. The next was, support yellow businesses. And it just took off from there. So many businesses have supported protesters, and the HK freedom struggle is returning the favor. The idea is, don’t give money to our oppressors. The thing is, most big business in HK is allied with the Communist Party, so the more you look into it, the more you find that it’s pretty hard to entirely boycott blue businesses.
Still, people are trying, and this has a strong social and cultural effect, creating ties between people, changing people’s ideas of themselves as ethical consumers, strengthening the movement, and it’s made people more aware of the relationship between politics and the economy. Generally, there’s just a wonderful spirit about it. It makes buying and selling more than a transactional relationship when you care about the person you’re buying from and they care about you and you know that you both share the same values. Recently we held a Yellow Economic Week. In China, there are two ‘Golden Weeks’ a year, around May Day and National Day. So we took that concept and said, let’s spend a week concentrating on patronizing yellow businesses. It was a huge success. It’s even gotten the Communist Party’s ‘seal of approval’, getting denounced in a recent statement from the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office. Of course, we’d prefer if people elsewhere avoided “Made in China”. I don’t know how well it will go over internationally, though.
The reason I say this is that Western consumers don’t seem to think that much about whether or not the products they consume are produced ethically. In a strict sense, hardly anything in China is produced ethically, simply because independent trade unions are banned and workers have few rights. The global supply chain’s been grossly unethical for a long time, and Western consumers have been conditioned to that. So why should they suddenly wake up over HK? It does seem, though, that at least some places in the world, people are beginning to wake up a bit more to the nature of the Communist regime. That is encouraging, and hopefully it will continue. If anything, it will be economic and financial considerations that push Western businesses to reduce their reliance on China, both as a producer and consumer of their products.
Voting for the district councils elections went solidly for pro-democratic forces. What has been the success of those elections? How have they been undermined? And will elections within Hong Kong be a viable avenue for the protest movement going forward?
Not just solidly but spectacularly well. We won over 80% of the seats and now control 17 of the 18 District Councils. It’s important to remember, though, that there’s a reason why the elections for DCs are the only ones in HK that mostly resemble what one would consider ‘real democracy’: DCs are almost entirely powerless, essentially advisory groups. They were created by the British to give their colonial subjects the illusion of political participation without any real power. And arguably, that’s still their primary function, as well as a way for the much better financed pro-CCP groups to entrench their interests at the local level. So simply by winning the elections, we disrupted that cozy arrangement. I’m skeptical about working within the formal political system in HK in general because it’s so rigged, but I agree it’s necessary to do and support those doing it. What I didn’t quite understand until it occurred was that we flipped the DCs, turning them back on the government that was using them as yet another means to oppress us.
It was truly a fantastic victory, with the big asterisk that it didn’t mean much- real power is elsewhere. That said, I have a very positive impression of the new pro-democracy District Councilors. They’re high visibility, all over the place, full of dynamism. They show up at the protests in their districts to advocate with police on behalf of citizens, a very important (and dangerous) role. Some have said they should have a more transformative effect and do more to promote and foster grassroots, participatory democracy, but there’s only so much they can do; it’s up to ordinary citizens to do that as well. Coming up are Legislative Council elections in September. The pro-democracy movement announced its intention to win half, or 35, of the 70 seats. Legco’s rigged so that dozens of rotten functional constituency seats are all but reserved for pro-Communists, so aiming for half is already a big ambition. Whether we can do it, I don’t know. If we don’t, it will be quite a setback. The elections are structurally complex, based on proportional representation, so they’re extremely difficult to strategize for. There needs to be a good mix of old-time, traditional pro-democracy candidates to appeal to more moderate voters and new, young candidates to bring out the crucial youth vote. I think we can do it, but so much depends on what happens between now and then. It’s important to remember that the HK freedom struggle has several pillars.
One is protests. Two is working within the rigged system (Legco and District Councils). Three is grassroots, community activism, unions, Yellow Economic Circle and civil society generally. Four is international lobbying. All of these are important and inter-dependent. And if one’s not going well, it makes it more difficult for the others. So whether we do well in September Legco elections also is related to whether or not we’ll be able to get people out on the streets this summer under very intense police repression. The Communist Party is doubling down. You might think after the extradition bill debacle, it would say, Let’s step back for a while. But it’s afraid of losing control, so it’s cracking down. You’d think that would doom its allies in Legco elections, but it’s important to remember that even with the DC landslide victory, we only won 56% of the overall vote, compared to 41% for the pro-Communists. My wife always says you have to remember about 40% of people everywhere are idiots—that’s a constant–, and that must figure in to your calculations in any politics you engage in. When on top of that you factor in Communist propaganda and their many efforts to buy off and co-opt sectors of HK society, not to mention the rigged system that guarantees dozens of seats in Legco to pro-Communists, you see the electoral challenge we face. That’s why I always tell people here, Yes, fight hard for those seats, but don’t forget that it’s not through the system that we’re going to beat the system. We’ll win by other means.
With the expulsion of several major Western media organizations from China and Hong Kong, coupled with the increasing authoritarian measures taken against the freedom of the press, are contingencies being put into place for if Freedom of the Press is completely abolished? And what do you expect the future of media and freedom of speech to look like in Hong Kong?
As far as I know, no Western media organizations have been expelled from HK. Some Western reporters from three organizations were expelled from China, and those orgs were told they wouldn’t be allowed to work in HK either, even though according to law, China is to have no say in immigration matters pertaining to HK. As far as I know, none of those organizations has tested that supposed ban.
But when it comes to free speech and free press, HK is definitely under attack on several fronts all at once. To begin with, it isn’t just protesters police are attacking but also journalists. On May 10, they indiscriminately kettled and stop&searched large numbers of journalists, arrested some, and pepper-sprayed and manhandled others. Even the police commissioner admitted the situation was not ‘ideal’, but police treatment of journalists at protests has been an on-going concern all along, and the Hong Kong Journalists Association has complained about it repeatedly. Police hostility to journalists extends beyond the protests. They recently arrested two journalists for ‘loitering’ while the journalists were doing an investigation into a scandal involving Rupert Dover, a police officer infamous for his role in policing the protests. They are conducting two criminal investigations into Apple Daily, the one and only mass-circulation pro-democracy newspaper in HK. And they have resorted to making complaints about their depiction in the media.
This last dovetails with another government campaign against RTHK, the respected public broadcaster. The Communications Authority, a governmental body responsible for media regulation, censured RTHK for two programs, in both cases having to do with their depictions and statements about the police. In one, a guest host criticizes police for their siege on Polytechnic University in November. In another, a renowned satirical program, an actor makes fun of the police. The latter program has been running in HK since 1989 and is comparable to Saturday Night Live in the US. After the CA censured RTHK for it, the government demanded RTHK apologize and review its programming. RTHK apologized and said that after this season, the program would be suspended. This is a very serious case of censorship. It appears that the intent is to intimidate the mainstream media against running any programs critical of the police. Not only are the police above the law when it comes to crushing the protests, they are also to be protected from media scrutiny.
Students finishing secondary school are taking their exams now, and the government objected to a question on the history exam asking students whether Japan did more good than harm to China from 1900 to 1945. Students were to answer the question using their historical knowledge, critical and analytical skills and referring to two source texts provided. Pretty straight-forward liberal education stuff, huh? Not only did the government object, saying the question was ‘inappropriate’ and ‘hurt the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people’ (echoing a standard Communist propaganda line), it ordered the quasi-independent exam authority to invalidate the question, while the exam session was still going on. So far, the exam authority has not responded whether it will or not. Education is one of those areas the Party has been trying to get greater control over ever since the Umbrella Movement. The matter of the exam question might appear something of a tempest in a teapot but at its heart is the question of what sort of education are HK students to have, and what sort of society is HK to become: liberal or authoritarian, bowing to the dictates of the Party whenever it insists. In one of the two Party-owned newspapers in HK, Carrie Lam recently said in an interview that the educational system in HK had been ‘infiltrated’. That kind of language, of course without any evidence whatsoever, is chilling. The Education Bureau, the governmental authority for education, has already punished dozens of teachers for expressing their political opinions on social media outside of their job, saying, basically, that their conduct was improper and a bad example to students.
No, no contingencies to protect free speech. Just keep fighting. They’ll keep pushing to tighten the screws. We’ll keep pushing to free HK.
For more with Kong Tsung-gan, please follow him on Twitter
You can also listen to our Podcast interview w. Kong, where we discuss the psychology of Hong Kong’s police and judges? Why have they enacted such violence on the city they call home? Listen and hear Kong’s thoughts.