The city of protest is no longer an apt moniker for Hong Kong. Over the past two years, key mass demonstrations have been banned and opponents stifled. Ironically, the most glaring shots at Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor now come from within a faction of pro-Beijing elements who find a second term of office for her unpalatable.
Tourism guidebooks used to recommend Hong Kong’s protest culture to their readers. In its 2019 edition on the Special Administrative Region, Lonely Planet highlighted the annual ritual to mourn the dead in the 1898 bloodbath in Tiananmen Square: “Every year on June 4, tens of thousands of people gather at Victoria Park to attend a candlelight vigil held in commemoration of those who lost their lives – though they come under increasing pressure not to do so.”
The next edition is due in December. The publisher will have to rebrand such protests as a tradition of the past. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China’s applications to stage the ritual has been denied two years in a row. The police have reportedly mobilized 7,000 officers to ensure that there would be no public gatherings at Victoria Park or elsewhere on the sensitive date this year. It is doubtful whether the Alliance would still be around to apply for a permit in 2022. It has come under mounting pressure to either dissolve or be disbanded.
When challenged about the erosion of freedoms under her watch, Lam used to duck behind the tally of protests on the streets. She had penned a newspaper article to mark the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of the Basic Law, which she said guaranteed freedom of speech, assembly and protest.
“These are not empty talk, but are freedoms that Hong Kong citizens enjoy and exercise every day, every moment,” she said. “Hong Kong has seen over 11,000 marches and gatherings in 2019, ten times the number in 1997. This proves that the freedoms enjoyed by citizens have increased instead of decreased[decreasing].”
That was two months before a million citizens voted with their feet against her extradition bill in the summer of 2019. Her song sheet has outlived its validity. Lam’s assurance has become empty words.
As of last April, 10,260 persons had been arrested in connection with the anti-extradition bill campaign. Of them, 1,754 were underaged. A total of 715 people so far have been found guilty. The Humanitarian Relief Fund is appealing for donation. It needs $15 million to provide legal back-up to 641 defendants and material support for over 100 others either imprisoned or remanded in custody. It only had $2,030,000 at its disposal at the end of last month.
A hotline set up by the National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police has received some 100,000 reports against purported national security threats. In its first six months of operation, 107 persons were implicated in such offences against the nation. Among them, 57 are being prosecuted. The crackdown has drained the pool of most popular politicians and viable candidates of the pro-democracy camp.
Meanwhile, many of the most vocal critics of the authorities have found new safe haven overseas, if they are not already behind bars.
Stephen Shiu Yeuk-yuen of memehk.com, award-winning lyricist Albert Leung Wai-man, political scientist Simon Shen Xu-hui and lawyer-cum-writer Sang Pu have moved to Taiwan. D100′s Albert Cheng King-hon and Lai Chak-fan, as well as Lau Sai-Leung of the YouTube channel, Singjai, are in Canada. Former RTHK host Sam Ng Chi-sum and Ivan Ko Kwong-woon, the mastermind behind the plan for a Charter City for Hong Kong migrants, have left for the UK.
Martin Oei is one of the Hong Kong critics among the some-10,000 signators of the Charter 08 initiated by the late Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2008. He now updates his social media contents in Dusseldorf, capital of North Rhine in Western Germany. This list of political KOLs in self-imposed exile is set to lengthen over the summer.
Now that there is hardly any organized opposition to the authorities, the most acidic criticisms of Lam are now led by vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Leung Chun-ying, and other local deputies to the national body, such as Charles Ho Tsu-kwok and Cheung Chi-kwong.
The Chief Executive election next March is widely billed as a two-horse race between Leung and Lam. Their political masters in Zhongnanhai are unlikely to be amused to see a former Chief Executive and the incumbent gnawing at each other at the expense of public confidence in the SAR.
When and how Beijing is to put a lid on the duo’s war of words in the run-up to the polls will offer a glimpse of who is favored to lead Hong Kong for another five suffocating years.
(Andy Ho is a public affairs consultant. A former political editor of the South China Morning Post, he served as Information Coordinator at the Chief Executive’s Office of the HKSAR Government from 2006 to 2012.)
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