Cracking Down on Political Agency and Imagination: The Suppression of Civil Liberties and Legislative Freedom in Hong Kong

Since the passage of the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have been systemically undermining the civil liberties and separation of powers in the Special Administrative Region. The events that occurred in just one day on November 17, 2020 encapsulate the recent wave of assault against activists, teachers and pro-democracy lawmakers.

On that day, Beijing first called for a reinterpretation and reform of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, as well as its judiciary and legislative branches. Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, announced that the Basic Law should be adapted and “enlarged through legislative interpretation” by Beijing, and the judiciary should be reformed accordingly. He also applauded Beijing’s recent decision to oust four dissident Legislative Council members, claiming that those who govern Hong Kong must be “patriotic” and pro-Beijing. That same day, the Department of Justice requested that a specialist national security judge be appointed to oversee pro-democracy legislator Tak-Chi Tam’s case, even though Tam was not prosecuted under the NSL. Unlike other judges in the judiciary, national security judges are handpicked by the Chief Executive to hear specific cases, thus blurring the separation of powers and casting doubt on whether the defendants will be afforded due process.

Meanwhile, educators received another blow as former Chief Executive C.Y. Leung lambasted teachers for “brainwashing” and “radicalizing” students, akin to Islamist terrorists in Europe. Leung has previously released information identifying teachers who are supposedly facing protest-related charges. Leung was not the only one amplifying the NSL’s chilling effect in educational spaces. That day, pro-Beijing news outlets accused Hong Kong University of Science and Technology sociology professor Ching-Kwan Lee of violating the NSL after she opined in a talk that “it helps not to think of Hong Kong as a Chinese city. We don’t belong to China. We belong to the world.” Pro-Beijing press urged the university to fire Lee, claiming that she would turn Hong Kong students into pawns of “foreign forces.” Such accusations could have grave consequences for Lee as, under the NSL, collusion and secession could result in a life sentence. This case intensifies the chilling effect of the NSL against intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, with scholars worrying that they will become the next target of state persecution.

Activist groups have also been accused of colluding with Western forces. On the same day Lee was attacked for her remarks, Beijing law professor Tian Feilong wrote a scathing critique, accusing the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of violating the NSL. The Alliance is a non-profit organization that works to foster coalitions between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese pro-democracy activists. The Alliance has also been a key organizer for the annual June 4 vigil in Hong Kong, which, until this year, was the only place within China that openly commemorated the incident. In his article, Tian argued that the Alliance was spewing “untrue and provocative” information about history, while alleging the organization of colluding with the West to stage a color revolution. Specifically, he advocated for the Hong Kong Security Bureau to disband the Alliance using the Societies Ordinance. Even though Tian has no official capacity in the Chinese government, as the executive director of the Beihang University’s One Country Two Systems Legal Studies Centre, his remark carries significant weight and is reflective of the Chinese government’s approach. Hence, his attacks against the Alliance signal further crackdowns on activist groups.

For Hongkongers, the events that unfolded on November 17 were merely a continuation of the erosion of civil liberties and due process they have been witnessing for the past few months: student activists were charged with secession; key democratic figures like Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam were once again jailed on protest-related charges; teachers and professors were suspended for political reasons; and journalists from credible news outlets faced persecution, harassment, and unprecedented institutional obstacles amidst rampant self-censorship in the press, Moreover, after the government postponed the Legislative Council election to September 2021 citing COVID, the expulsion, arrests, and resignation of pro-democracy lawmakers renders the Council completely void of dissenting voices.

The simultaneous targeting of educators, lawmakers, journalists and activists by the state and its mouthpieces is not coincidental. In addition to undermining the separation of powers in Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” framework, suppressing these groups of people will have a far-reaching psychological and political impact on the Hong Kong public. By promoting only pro-Beijing media while deterring journalists from independent investigations and reporting, the government’s actions are sowing confusion and distrust of media outlets among the public. Such confusion is purposeful, as it in turn motivates the citizenry to accept their political reality with resignation because, as social movement scholar Zeynep Tufekci points out, when the media sphere is dominated by pro-government disinformation, people feel that the truth is unknowable, and they no longer have any power to resist.

Educators play a crucial role in helping students and the public develop critical information and political literacy to discern credible facts from mis- and dis-information. Classroom spaces have been vital in cultivating students’ critical thinking and deliberation skills. Censorship and self-censorship in education spaces under the NSL, however, significantly hampers these pedagogical processes that are crucial to Hong Kong’s civil society. Rather, they extend a colonial education framework that fosters unquestioning compliance. By muzzling educators and school administrators so that they teach and endorse only pro-establishment materials, Beijing and the Hong Kong government will likely promote a sense of disempowerment among the citizenry in the long term, normalizing the lack of deliberative spaces where dissenting voices are heard and taken into consideration.

The ousting of pro-democracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council to create a Council void of oppositional voices is emblematic of the government’s intention to stifle dissent, public deliberation, and legislative freedom. The government’s rampant crackdown on activists further demonstrates to Hongkongers that any grassroots organisation that would destabilize Beijing’s power is strictly prohibited. Done in tandem, the crackdown on activists, pro-democracy lawmakers, and educators promote a feeling of disempowerment and resignation among Hongkongers. Disempowerment and fear of state persecution, in turn, function as deterrence against expansive political imagination and collective organizing that would challenge Beijing’s top-down model of governance.

Taken together, the recent wave of crackdown in Hong Kong demonstrates Beijing’s determination to suppress the public’s will and sense of agency to challenge the status quo, while damaging the educational spaces that would allow future generations to openly invent and develop new political futures.


Photo credit: LN9267, Wikimedia Commons.