NPC's National Security Law for HK is the beginning of the end of CCP
Updated: Jun 6, 2020
The Optimistic Case for Hong Kong
A lifelong acquaintance with the city’s resistance thinkers suggests that a crackdown by Beijing isn’t the end of the story.
Politico 26 May 2020. Anka Lee (bold format added).
Anka Lee is a former journalist who has advised the U.S. government, business executives, and the California state legislature on developments in China. He was the former co-lead of the Asia Expert Group at the Truman National Security Project.
C.K. Chan patiently combed through his old diaries with me for most of 2007. He was a language instructor at Harvard and my teacher, who exactly four decades before had been throwing rocks at Hong Kong’s colonial police force, agitating against British rule in a Mao-inspired uprising.
His commitment to Hong Kong never wavered, though his targets had changed, from British governors to the Communist Party in Beijing, after China acquired control of Hong Kong in 1997. Over dinners, we’d go line-by-line together, wondering whether there was anything that we could learn about Hong Kong’s conflicted relations with China from the words of an antsy teenager fighting a different government for the same reasons.
I never became a historian of modern China. But my work continued to touch on Hong Kong, observing its changes over time as a journalist and foreign policy adviser. Chan, now retired and still living in the Boston area, remained generous, putting me in touch with his network in Hong Kong, which has benefited my own writing over the years. But last week, I realized how much more his lessons and perspectives have meant to me as I grapple with all that is rapidly evolving in that city. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s iron-fisted move last week to crack down on political dissent in Hong Kong shocked, saddened and angered many who know the vibrant global hub. When China regained control over Hong Kong 23 years ago, London and Beijing agreed that the city would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, with its own legal system, under a framework known as “One Country, Two Systems” for 50 years, until 2047. Last week, in response to recent growing protests in Hong Kong, China’s rubber-stamp legislature introduced a draft national security legislation—bypassing elected leaders in Hong Kong—that would target broadly defined acts of secession, terrorist activities and efforts to subvert state power in the city. Beijing has deployed its “nuclear option,” effectively reneging on the promise that it made in an international treaty to preserve Hong Kong’s way of life.
Many see this as the end of free expression, and even the idea of Hong Kong.
But is it? Hong Kongers as a people are deeply proud of their unique status as citizens of a place that’s not just another city in Asia but a metropolis with cosmopolitanism in its DNA, built on global connections and a strong commitment to free expression. They have prospered under the rule of law; they have, over generations, nurtured a vibrant community of freedom-oriented thinkers who are actively serving as guardians of the city’s future, with broad support from the public. Their voices continue to resonate, even in these uncertain times, perhaps stronger than ever before. Hong Kong is both a city and an idea, a liberal tradition all its own. We should not despair just yet.
In one sense, Hong Kong has always been living on borrowed time, conscious of its precarious position as an old British trading hub next to a Communist giant. And for that it has a noted obsession with countdowns and eventful dates. Five years until British rule expires. Ten years after the handover. Twenty years after Tiananmen. Perhaps this is what happens when your future is decided by someone else, whether in London or Beijing. Counting down is how you assert some sense of control and figure out how you’d respond. To that list of dates we’ll add 2020, when the course toward 2047 was shortened, the year through which Hong Kong’s autonomy was supposed to last.
My whole family had lived in Hong Kong for generations. We counted down, and well before 1997 we knew how we’d respond. One by one, over the span of a decade, we all moved to California. Most of us never looked back and gradually lost the ability to speak our native language. But then I got to graduate school, recognizing that China would likely define my career as I had an eye toward foreign affairs amid evolving global politics. That’s when I met Chan, to relearn Chinese—and with it the chance to meet those in his activist network who were still counting down in Hong Kong.
My early days as a China watcher led me back to Hong Kong on some of the most eventful dates over the past two decades. Each time I found myself spending time with the most resilient souls—the poets and lawyers, the opposition lawmakers and the implacable activists, pushing for democracy and the rule of law in the former colony. One has since passed, another was just released from prison for his role in organizing peaceful demonstrations, but all remained outspoken, their spirit marching on, even on the darkest days, part of Chan’s network.
In 2007, 10 years after the British left, I met up with Kin-man Chan (no relation to my teacher) at a local university. He was a sociology professor, but in his younger days was involved in electoral politics, where he found in my teacher a partner. A data-driven man, he brought up survey after survey, proud of his hometown’s civic-mindedness, believing that people would be willing to rock the boat should something draconian happen. Six years later, he co-founded the Occupy Central Movement, which inspired three months of protests calling for universal suffrage. He was right: Hong Kongers would push back hard if their rights were infringed.
For his role in political organizing, he faced a 16-month prison sentence, from which he was recently released. In his final lecture before standing trial, with references to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., he remarked that when the nights were dark, all one could do was to look to the stars. Reading that, I thought of the time when I offensively asked him what the United States could do to help, his reply was blunt: nothing, just be an example to the world. Citizenship had to be cultivated, he said, adamant that Hong Kongers must be the guardians of their own future. He had no regrets, he said upon release. Imprisonment was the price he paid in the fight for democracy.
Indeed, the Hong Kong where Kin-man Chan found his place is a city unlike any other in China. Free press, independent judiciary and unrestricted exchange of ideas with the broader world—none of this exists across the still-remaining border. For the civic-minded Mainlander, Hong Kong had, in the words of a local journalist, become China’s conscience—a place where the hope for political change can be maintained and forbidden historical memories like the Tiananmen massacre can be sustained.
And so as the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen approached in 2009, I found myself in Hong Kong again, this time as a freelance journalist. C.K. Chan put me in touch with Meng Lang, an old friend who’s also a poet and promoter of dissident writers—including the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who protected students from advancing troops in the summer of 1989. We met up several times. His backpack and ponytail were his identifying trademarks; his appreciation for Hong Kong was his constant fuel, publishing essays critical of Beijing’s official account of the country’s past. “I have lots of freedom here,” the Shanghai native told me, hoping that it could be kept, developed and exported to the Mainland. That’s how civil society is nurtured.
We stayed in touch over the years, but never saw each other again. When I first learned of his passing two years ago, what came to mind wasn’t so much his poetry or writing but his gratitude for Hong Kong as a platform where young people not only can speak freely but were also encouraged and conditioned to do so. He trained my thoughts on the next generation—to pay special attention to what they would say. Of all that I heard that spring, I most remember a college student telling a television reporter why it was important to account for Tiananmen. The country was sick, she said. She wanted it to be better. Meng Lang would be proud.
As for my teacher, C.K. Chan, he has recently expressed skepticism about the violent turn that has consumed some of the protests last year. He argues with old friends about what he felt were uncompromising tactics that could cost the movement the hearts and minds among the broader public that it’d need to push forward—mindful, perhaps, of the lessons from his younger protesting days. He admits that the question over what’s next for the city has made him feel increasingly uneasy as events continue to churn. There are no easy answers, and in this moment no one is sure what the future holds. But Hong Kongers will pursue what they think is important for Hong Kong.
As our Hong Kong conversations continued over the years, agreeing and disagreeing, I also came to appreciate what Chan’s perspectives, personal arc of the city’s political history and deep network have meant for my own efforts to process the past several tumultuous years in Hong Kong—and what the implications are for the broader relationship between the United States and China. It’s easy to despair when a powerful Beijing has declared its insistence in snuffing out the righteous resistance exploding in the former colony. But can it? Can the indiscriminate thumps of the iron fist keep up with the yearning that has stirred in so many Hong Kong hearts for generations?
I got a hint of an answer about 10 years ago, when I sat down with Martin Lee, popularly known in Hong Kong as the father of its democracy, who was also recently arrested as part of China’s broader crackdown. I told him that on the last night of British rule, in 1997, I had returned to the colony as a young American journalist and had heard him speak from the balcony of the old British Legislative Council Building, declaring that the flame of democracy had been ignited in Hong Kong. He looked pleasantly surprised, but quickly added that I had forgotten the more important sentence that came after: that it was burning in the hearts of the people.
And that’s the whole point. Hong Kong is not just another city trying to prevent oppression by a bigger power, but rather a place forged by successive waves of resistance. It was built by refugees who fled Mainland China amid wars and revolutions. The next generation protested for a more responsive colonial government. The one after that demanded a voice as their futures were negotiated between London and Beijing. Anyone who doubts whether the commitment to the rule of law and active citizenship can take hold in Greater China should look at what’s organically emerged out of that former colony.
That’s what’s at stake in Hong Kong today, and all those who are now fighting for their rights know it.
Xi is not likely to let go at a time when authoritarian thuggery gains currency around the world. But when you look at young Hong Kongers like Joshua Wong, whose bravery and moral clarity will carry forward the fight, the world should take note that defenders of liberal values know no boundaries. They can come from anywhere. Their resilience is not unlike what I see here in the United States and across the free world. There’s a long, committed history of that, as my teacher taught me.
They’re still counting down. And that’s how we’ll carry on.
A former professor at a top training institute of the Chinese Communist Party, Cai Xia, has slammed President Xi Jinping’s forceful push of national security law in Hong Kong as “extremely foolish”, making the party “the enemy of human civilization”, according to a speech shared by a Chinese dissident. NextMedia, Apple Daily, 28 May 2020