Hong Kong citizens are testing the Chinese law enforcement formula

Hong Kong citizens are testing the Chinese law enforcement formula
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This month, an estimated two million protesters, one in three of the Hong Kong population, took to the streets to protest a bill that would allow for easier extradition of suspects to mainland China. Political action has now entered its second month. The demonstrators across the city have packed metrorail stations and the streets leading up to the grounds of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Current demands that the bill be fully withdrawn and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam step down have prompted the continuous demonstrations across the city, including massive groups of activists and work stoppages by both individuals and local businesses.

The Hong Kong charter of “one country, two systems” has a deadline of 2047, when the 50 year agreement with China expires. In the interim, however, the goals of Beijing to make Hong Kong politically agreeable have been consistent since the handover. Local judiciary and policing imperatives have reflected the current strain of nationalism in mainland China. Through administrative actions, the dissent response strategy of China quickly becomes clear. Beijing paints targets on protest leadership, moves activism to the margins, and raises the costs of political action.

Dissent tactics that are reasonable or legal one day may not remain so another day. Lawyers who take up human rights or labor law cases find themselves stripped of their licenses or sentenced to jail. Workers striking at Jasic Technology Company saw their activities shuttered and activists arrested last year. In the wake of these crackdowns, local branches of the All China Federation of Trade Unions, the official regulator of trade unions, withdrew support from local organizers, delegitimizing their activities at the factory and curbing their ability to advocate better work conditions.


The tightening environment for dissent in Hong Kong has started to mirror these cases of pushback from mainland China, albeit in a slower process. In 2014, young activists occupied the Hong Kong Legislative Council buildings after key electoral processes handed Beijing greater leverage. Organizers like Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, and Yau Wai Ching became easily identifiable as leaders responsible for coordination.

Nothing happened to these activists right away, and at the time, they were able to take to the streets and demonstrate along with other students and young professionals. However, in the months and years that followed, the responses to such individuals grew stronger, and Beijing started to deem them “foreign influenced” agents. Activists have seen protest responses ranging from increased scrutiny to criminal charges and imprisonment.

Political speech in Hong Kong remains relatively free on certain topics that are strictly banned in the mainland, which are the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, Uyghur repression, and criticism of Chinese human rights and labor practices. However, cultural and political standards of speaking about Beijing in official settings have shifted. In 2016, the simple mispronunciation of “China” in lawmaker oaths of offices barred local activists, who unraveled “Hong Kong is not China” banners in protest, from holding office. Hong Kong was also considering a bill that would jail individuals showing any disrespect toward the Chinese national anthem.

Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has not seen it fit to step directly into Hong Kong just yet because he does not have to. The central government in Beijing still largely relies on a combination of local entities and business interests supporting China that can get the extradition bill passed in some form. Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong Police Force remain the key actors that move fastest on the ground, and will resume policy coordination in the short term, barring new political developments and allowing judicial and legislative proceedings to continue developing in favor of Beijing.

Observers of the Hong Kong protests, including those in Beijing, see a distinct message. While China and lawmakers in favor of China hold vast amounts of power, Hong Kong citizens are willing to exercise civil society options while they hold them. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Hong Kong police and certain legislators are expanding the law enforcement actions that they are willing to use on the public. The harsh treatment of marginalized populations within Hong Kong, including Southeast Asian minorities and lower income workers, predate current demonstrations.

However, as larger numbers of protesters continue to express grievances on the streets, the police have quickly began using more crowd control tactics, stopping just short of live ammunition. As the city government ponders criminalizing demonstrations, and law enforcement reacts with harsher tactics and officers march without identification numbers visible, many in Hong Kong cannot help but wonder is 2047 has now come early.

Rui Zhong is the program assistant for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.