While the international media is focused on the global outbreak of COVID-19, little attention has been given to the worsening internal security situation in Hong Kong.
The arrests on Friday last week of Hong Kong’s high-profile media tycoon Jimmy Lai (黎智英) and two pro-democracy politicians on charges of illegal assembly has had a chilling effect on legitimate forms of political expression in the territory, and could stifle public debate on issues critical of Beijing.
Although there are signs that the internal security environment is deteriorating, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s (林鄭月娥) regime appears to have survived a widespread financial downturn that could have triggered a terminal legitimacy crisis at a time when China’s economic slowdown is badly affecting the territory.
Flush with cash accumulated from local taxpayers during a decades-long boom, she has invested heavily in policing and control programs, buying political loyalty from government employees and muscling her way through crisis after crisis.
Imposing a rule of fear and brutality might hold public pressure at bay, but it causes institutional atrophy, social instability and economic decline.
Political dysfunction has spread quickly and concertedly at all levels of the local government bureaucracy.
The coronavirus threat to the territory is not worse than the systematic epidemic of police corruption and cruelty.
Previously known as “Asia’s finest,” Hong Kong’s police force has degenerated into Asia’s worst and shameful because of its deliberate use of abusive and deadly violence against peaceful demonstrators since last spring.
This inhumane strategy is poorly suited to the latest governance crisis, as Hong Kong finds itself in a full-scale conflict with China, in which each side challenges the other not just because of what they do, but also because of what they are and what values they represent.
On the surface, this competition involves the use of a great deal of force by the Lam administration, which constantly sends in riot police to silence critics, disperse peaceful demonstrations, and even conduct forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Beneath this confrontation is a changing political balance of power. The retrenchment of civil society could concede victory to the regime, and make it harder to maintain a broad cross-sectional alliance.
This explains why Hong Kongers routinely disrupt the Lam regime’s governing efforts. Some conscientious consumers withhold their economic power by boycotting pro-Beijing businesses, while others withhold their labor through sabotage, desertion and strikes.
These small protests exemplify a collective response to the deteriorating conditions and exploitative oppression that people see around them. Even though these localized resistance efforts cannot bring down the regime, let alone produce any serious transformative result, they manifest growing anti-communist and anti-authoritarian sentiment from all levels of society.
The frequent occurrences of such episodic protests indicates how frustrated, disillusioned and skeptical people feel about Hong Kong’s arrogant and incompetent officials, and how determined they are to oppose them.
Inspired by the 228 Incident, Hong Kongers are following in the footsteps of Taiwanese by organizing regular, sporadic and peaceful rallies to raise morale and show solidarity among opposition groups.
In light of a deadly police attack on passengers inside the Prince Edward subway station in August last year, last weekend’s protests in Mong Kok have used commemoration as a vehicle for political mobilization and grassroots resistance.
The activists have sought to push the territory toward political consciousness, posing challenges to the regime regarding law and order, which has been handicapped by months of resistance, and is incapable of stabilizing the situation on the ground.
Pushing back against such a distasteful government that brutalizes civilians has become a new consensus in Hong Kong. The efficacy of popular resistance requires better coordination efforts among diverse civic sectors and international supporters.
After all, authoritarian states that rule by fear also rule in fear; they are vulnerable to threats and instabilities that arise from within, especially defections from within the upper elite.
Winning global support for the pro-democracy cause is as important as consolidating internal unity. Perhaps Hong Kongers should participate in more lobbying efforts to urge Washington to implement the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, reassessing the territory’s special bilateral relations with the US.
They should also appeal to US allies and Taiwan to employ the Global Magnitsky Act, which sanctions foreign officials involved in human rights violations. Lam, her Cabinet ministers and police commanders are obvious candidates for such sanctions.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
China took advantage of the vacuum left behind when US carriers stayed out of the western Pacific Ocean due to COVID-19 outbreaks on several US Navy warships. The Chinese government is solidifying its hold on artificial islands in the South China Sea by moving in missiles and surveillance equipment, and formalizing its occupation by creating two municipal districts in the region under Hainan Island’s Sansha — Xisha District on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) —
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