On July 30, President Trump suggested that the November elections might be postponed. American progressives took him seriously, or pretended to, and the presidential tweet was followed by a spasm of public feather-ruffling. It was all for show. Postponing the elections was not going to happen — not in the United States. It did, however, happen in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, a place where the threats to liberty are much more immediate and drastic than in North America.
On the same day that Trump made his infamous tweet, Hong Kong Executive Carrie Lam announced that she was postponing legislative elections for one year. “The postponement is entirely made based on public safety reasons,” she said, citing the coronavirus. “There were no political considerations.”
On the contrary, the considerations were almost entirely political. Last year the former British colony was in a state of turmoil for months. In a territory of some seven million people, hundreds of thousands had swarmed into the streets, again and again, to protest a proposed extradition law that would subject them to trial in mainland China. In lower-level elections, “pro-democracy” candidates took control of 17 of 18 district councils. When she postponed the elections set for September 2020, Chief Executive Lam was obviously afraid that the opposition would make similar gains in Hong Kong’s high-level Legislative Council.
Lam is not subject to the voters herself. She is effectively appointed by China and is obliged to do what China says. Only half the seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are elected by the Hong Kong people, the other half being selected by “functional constituencies” such as the district councils, the labor unions, and the chambers of commerce. The nondemocratic seats have been easier for friends of China to control, and at the moment they control 42 of the Council’s 70 seats. For that reason, a landslide vote for the pro-democracy candidates would not necessarily mean an opposition takeover — though it might. A strong vote for the pro-democracy parties would, however, cause China and Carrie Lam to lose face. It would also embolden the opposition. China doesn’t want any of that — hence the postponement.
Hundreds of thousands had swarmed into the streets, again and again, to protest a proposed extradition law that would subject them to trial in mainland China.
A year ago, during the mass protests, I argued here that the protesters had no chance to win. I thought that China would send in the army. In the event, armed intervention wasn’t necessary. The coronavirus provided a public-health excuse to do what China’s leaders wanted to do all along, which was to crack down.
On June 30 of this year, China imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong. It has 66 articles. They impose a maximum sentence of life in prison for acts of secession, or acts that undermine the power or authority of the central government, or collude with foreign forces. The law allows China to set up a police force in Hong Kong, a police force that China controls, with the power to use wiretapping and electronic surveillance. This new authority will have the power to send suspects to be tried in China. China, not the Hong Kong courts, will have the power to interpret the national security law, which will be superior to the British-influenced law of Hong Kong.
“Effectively, they are imposing the People’s Republic of China’s criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system,” said Johannes Chan Man Mun, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.
On July 28, the university fired one of Chan’s law school colleagues, Associate Professor Benny Tai, because of his open support of the protests.
On July 29, the day before Chief Executive Lam postponed the Legislative Council elections, she banned 12 pro-democracy candidates from running. The cited reasons were that they had advocated Hong Kong’s independence from China, they had opposed the extradition law, they had announced their intention of voting against the government in the Legislative Council, and they had solicited foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.
On August 10, the Hong Kong government arrested several political opponents, including newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai. Lai had fled Communist China at age 12 and made his fortune in Hong Kong in the apparel industry. He became politically active in 1989 after China’s crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. In 1990, when I was living in Hong Kong, I bought a T-shirt with the word “Freedom” in four languages from one of Jimmy Lai’s Giordano stores. He was an opponent of the Communists then, and he has continued to be an opponent. He sold the Giordano chain and founded the Apple Daily, which he built into Hong Kong’s most-read Chinese-language newspaper. It is not a newspaper friendly to the Chinese government.
The coronavirus provided a public-health excuse to do what China’s leaders wanted to do all along, which was to crack down.
Lai was released on bail, thanks to Hong Kong’s still-British legal system. But bringing criminal charges against newspaper publishers for their political statements is an ominous act. And Lai was duly chastened. Speaking to the opposition, he said, “We have to be more careful and creative in [our] resistance . . . We can’t be as radical as before, especially young people, because the more radical [we are] the shorter lifespan we have in our fighting. We have to really use our brains and patience, because this is a long fight.”
It looks like a very long fight. If there is any chance of victory — and there is almost none in the short term — it will come with the political transformation of China. Many in the West expected that to happen by now, or at least begin to happen, and it hasn’t. It has in Taiwan, so it is not impossible. Change can come quickly, as it did in Russia in the 1980s. Or slowly. Right now it looks like slowly.