Payback Time

Hongkongers are in the news again. New security legislation, protests, and the inevitable arrests. Shock and dismay expressed around the world. Many claim that Beijing has violated the 1997 treaty pursuant to which the United Kingdom relinquished control over Hong Kong.

But the writing has been on the wall for a while. The Chinese are famous for their ability to take the long view.

In contrast to the Western approach of treating history as a problem of modernity achieving a series of absolute victories over evil and backwardness, the traditional Chinese view of history emphasized a critical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world can be understood but not completely mastered.

Henry Kissinger, On China (Allen Lane 2011)
Kissinger, Zhou, Mao
Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong.
Image source: Wikipedia

The last period of decay started with the loss of Hong Kong. This was the century of humiliation. China endured invasion and occupation, paid crippling war reparations, and lost its people’s faith.

Now, China enters a period of rectification. The power of the state is again ascendant. Ask the fractious Uighur locked into concentration camps or forcibly sterilized. Or ask a dissident like artist Ai Weiwei, Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo and any of the Tiananmen Mothers. Let’s call it payback time.


Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping. Image source: Wikimedia

China has not always shown its spleen to the international public eye. When China was weak in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping counseled the country to act meek and bide its time. When negotiating the terms of the Hong Kong handover, China played up the many concessions contained in the Basic Law. It pledged to safeguard the civil liberties Hongkongers already enjoyed under British rule and promised some future form of democracy.

These concessions dazzled Western observers. We thought Hong Kong would remain free thinking until 2047, when the Basic Law would lapse. We didn’t see the sleeper clauses and caveats embedded in the Basic Law.

The inevitable second stage is unfolding today. Now that Hong Kong is under the watchful eye of both Chinese soldiers garrisoned in the city and their newly loyal local cousins — the increasingly violent and politicized Hong Kong police force — Beijing is activating the sleeper clauses of the Basic Law to feather the deathbed of the city’s autonomy.

Yi-Zheng Lian, “How China Scammed Hong Kong” in The New York Times international edition, 3 July 2020


Meanwhile, the coronavirus strengthens China’s hand. Last winter, China rolled out a surveillance system in the form of a mandatory coronavirus app. If you violate the Alipay Health Code, the government freezes your bank account or blocks you from using public transportation. It’s not hard to imagine other ways to deploy such an app.

Hongkonger pro-democracy political party Demosisto
Demosisto Party logo. Image source: Wikipedia

Ask Hongkongers like Demosisto and other pro-democracy parties who preemptively disbanded once Beijing passed the Hong Kong security law. By the time the act entered into force, some civil society groups had decamped to Taiwan, Australia or the US.

The law targets sedition and terrorism, at home and abroad. It will likely have a chilling effect on all forms of civil society. By expelling US journalists last March, China silenced one source of criticism. The punitive measures contained in the national security law will likely take care of the rest.

The timing for the Hong Kong security law is impeccable. It entered into force on 30 June, the eve of the handover anniversary. China knew that hardcore protesters would come out to march. The Hong Kong police were waiting for them.

Fast and Slow

Last year, when millions of Hongkongers protested a proposed extradition treaty, Beijing backed down. This time, with a law that has much further-reaching consequences, Beijing has nothing to fear. Coronavirus has crippled the world. Meanwhile the US, once the world’s policeman, buckles under the dead weight of a criminally incompetent administration.

Hongkonger literary journal Cha

So the Hongkongers and the Uighur and anyone who values the Chinese people’s civil liberties are on their own. Some observers see possible alliances among these beleaguered groups. Others see hope in the indomitable, intransigent, stubborn soul of the Hongkongers.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is the co-founder and editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. It’s the only English language literary journal based in Hong Kong. Some of its works may run afoul of the new security law. Will Ho change her editorial guidelines?

The imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong has caused many people to feel the need to instantly self-censor or to remove content published online. […] I have no intention of removing these works, unless expressly requested to do so by their authors, and I take sole responsibility for their publication. I will also continue to publish high-quality work on Cha [] and our blog [] as long as I can.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, Facebook post on 2 July 2020