The arrest of 53 activists in Hong Kong charged with national security represents the purge of an entire generation of politicians. The police too required documents from three news organizations and arrested for the first time a foreign national, US human rights lawyer John Clancey, on national security charges. These movements represent an assault on civil society whose goal appears to be the destruction of the system that fueled the kind of political engagement that brought nearly 2 million people, nearly a quarter of the population, to the streets in 2019.
Those arrested are suspected of subversion, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. By removing them from the political scene, the Hong Kong authorities have effectively bombed the opposition. But the subtext behind the official explanations for the arrests is proving even more chilling.
Hong Kong Security Chief John Lee told a news conference that these arrests were necessary as his “Malicious” plans because “mutual destruction” would have paralyzed the government, leading the city to a “bottomless abyss.” So what were these nefarious acts? In fact, the police detained everyone involved in the informal primaries last July designed to select pan-democratic candidates for a legislative election that was later postponed due to Covid-19.
The mismatch between seemingly moderate actions and hyperbolic accusations is key; it highlights how the government is attacking reality, perverting language and meaning itself. This epistemological offensive represents large-scale gas lighting, or even an attempt to reformat the public memory of the recent past.
The Communist Party of China used this tried and true tactic after cracking down on pro-democracy protests in 1989, which it recast as counter-revolutionary riots aimed at overthrowing the government. Back then, that strategy managed to intimidate Chinese cowed by their memories of the Cultural Revolution and the promise of economic growth.
But it is unlikely to persuade the 600,000 Hong Kongers that cast votes in the primaries last July. For them, the arrests represent an attack on the possibility of citizen participation, an attack on hope itself. They show the government’s propensity to play with fire, stealing the slogan of the protest movement itself inspired by the Hunger Games of “If we burn you burn with us” or laam-bye. The government appears determined to outmaneuver the protest movement, regardless of the havoc it causes as it makes its way into Hong Kong’s most treasured institutions.
In terms of time, China has opportunistically welcomed the distractions offered by a global pandemic, the Brexit trade deal, the second round of the US Senate in Georgia and a clumsy administration in Washington. Cynics point out that it is no coincidence that Beijing trade pact with the EU, at the negotiating table for seven years, it was sealed last week. But the fact that this deal may still be rejected by the European Parliament raises whether external pressure can continue to move Beijing; the Biden administration, which has pledged to support the people of Hong Kong, will soon find out.
In any case, it is too late for Hong Kong to return to its known world. Moderates who tried to work within the system have been criminalized, while Beijing has already stipulated that the new national security law overrides the basic law that had provided the framework for post-retrocession Hong Kong.
For the Communist Party of China, national security has always meant regime security. Thus, the risks posed by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement proved too great for the national audience, the only one that counts for Beijing. Since the 2019 protests, Beijing has tightened its controls on information to censor speech online and flood social media with comments describing Hong Kongers as pampered and unworthy. Despite their crudeness, these tactics have managed to undermine most of the feelings of brotherhood between the mainland and Hong Kong.
Recent Chinese political thought considers that sovereignty has no gray areas; people can be enemies or allies, with nothing in between.
However, this strategy still carries risks. Instead of marginalizing the most radical fringe, it criminalizes moderate politicians, and that could alienate fringes of the population that overwhelmingly support them in direct polls. But Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam has shown no qualms; in 2019, he called the protesters “enemies of the people”. In 2020, it extended that designation to everyone who opposed the security law. The act of opening 2021 with mass arrests seems designed to deepen the chasm between the governor and the governed, raising the deceptively delicate question of who are the enemies in this equation and, indeed, who are the people.
• Louisa Lim is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited and Senior Lecturer at the UniversityMelbournerne
• Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer and journalist based in Hong Kong.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism