China Bulletin
The New Hong Kong: A City Without a Soul

The organizer of the primary election Professor Benny Tai.

The organizer of the primary election Professor Benny Tai.

© picture alliance/EPA-EFE | JEROME FAVRE

In traditional Japanese folklore, there is the famous story called the “47 Ronin”. The story begins with the forced suicide of a feudal lord for the offense of insulting a court official. A band of 47 samurai who were loyal to their feudal lord plotted for the revenge of their master. In some odd ways, this traditional Japanese folklore is now replaying in Hong Kong.

A group of 47 opposition members of the democratic camp are facing the trial of their lifetime. Whilst they were not plotting to avenge any deaths, they have been put on trial for avenging Hong Kong’s loss of freedom and democracy. Their crime? They were ‘plotting’ to win back control of the Hong Kong legislative council by holding a primary election in July 2020. A democratic primary to select the best candidates to run in the general election. The primary was held one month after the imposition of the National Security Law by Beijing. The authorities now say that the primary election, which was perfectly lawful and peaceful under the old Hong Kong legal system, is now an offense under the National Security Law. The offense being that of ‘subversion’: any act which would subvert the state power is considered a criminal offense. It doesn’t matter if the act in question is by way of speech, or peaceful protest or primary election. All acts which have the possibility of disrupting state power are now an offense under Hong Kong laws.

How Hong Kong has changed

Some members of the 47 are likely to face up to 10-15 years in prison. The organizer of the primary election is Professor Benny Tai. Professor Tai was one of the top constitutional lawyers in Hong Kong. He used to teach law at the University of Hong Kong. Professor Tai has pleaded guilty to the offense which the authorities have charged him with. He pleaded guilty knowing full well that the trial is just a show. That the results are written on the wall. The judges were pre-selected by the Hong Kong government and Mainland officials. There is no jury. Any hope that the HK judges would apply the law leniently is fanciful thinking.

Politics and legal developments in Hong Kong are dictated by the macro climate in Beijing. Whilst Xi and Putin are entangled in an ever tighter union of unlimited friendship, Hong Kong is drawn further and further into the orbit of the PRC with no hope of return. This has deeply affected the social and economic developments in Hong Kong. The property market is down by 30%, Hang Seng Index is a shadow of its former self. Foreign companies and financial firms are all moving to Singapore leaving very few staff in Hong Kong. A massive exodus of Hong Kongers continued unabated. Since 2020, at least 500,000 Hong Kongers have left for the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States. These people were the backbone of Hong Kong. Hong Kong had no natural resources or industries to speak of, but we had a solid middle class – teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, legal and finance professionals. Together they formed the core support for Hong Kong’s once thriving economy. Now shops and restaurants in Hong Kong close at 9pm. The post-Covid rebound did not happen. Hong Kongers would rather spend their money elsewhere even in neighboring Shenzhen or Taiwan or Japan, then to stay in a City which no longer has its soul intact, a City which has become a stranger to its residence. A City that ‘never sleeps’ is now in slumber.

Even the Hong Kong authorities can no longer pretend that everything is ‘back to normal’. Shows were put up by the Hong Kong government to try lure visitors back to Hong Kong, and to revive the night scene. All came to a naught. As the Chinese economy continues to enter a structural decline which the world has not seen in 40 years, Hong Kong is dragged further into a one-way integration.

The National Security Act is to be further strengthened

In the policy address announced by Chief Executive John Lee a few days ago, he vowed to enact further national security laws to close the loopholes. He plans to do that with laws to counter-espionage activities, censor internet contents which endanger national security, and target foreign organizations with links to political groups outside of Hong Kong. The biggest fear is that the authorities will cut down one last difference between Hong Kong and the Mainland - the Chinese internet firewall. It looks that the new national security laws will remove the last difference between Hong Kong and Mainland China. When that happens Hong Kong will forever disappear behind China’s great internet firewall. Making the metamorphosis complete.

Some former political prisoners have left prison after serving their full term, but they are effectively put under house arrest and completely silenced. We do not know when people like Professor Benny Tai or Jimmy Lai would ever get to leave prison. Even after they leave prison, would they be allowed to leave Hong Kong? Would they ever regain their freedom?  

Anonymous is a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong.