Every man for himself as Hong Kong’s opposition caves under weight of national security law

The new national security law for Hong Kong covering crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion, with possible punishments as harsh as life imprisonment, was passed yesterday. Since then and even before that, opposition camp leaders past and present have been announcing their departure from politics. Does this mean the national security law is having the deterrent effect it was designed to have? And what lies ahead for Hong Kong in such a changed landscape? Zaobao correspondent Yang Danxu examines the issues.
Joshua Wong (L), Nathan Law (C) and Agnes Chow (R) of pro-democracy political group Demosisto hold a press conference in Hong Kong on 30 May 2020. On 30 June, the three announced they were stepping down. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
Joshua Wong (L), Nathan Law (C) and Agnes Chow (R) of pro-democracy political group Demosisto hold a press conference in Hong Kong on 30 May 2020. On 30 June, the three announced they were stepping down. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

Following the passing of the national security law for Hong Kong yesterday, Demosistō’s secretary-general Joshua Wong, founding chairman Nathan Law, and member Agnes Chow announced that they were stepping down, shocking Hong Kong’s opposition camp.

However, these young people were not the first to do so. Before them, several big names of the opposition camp had also announced that they were leaving politics or cutting ties with the idea of Hong Kong’s independence from China.

On 26 June, Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan released a statement announcing that she will retire from politics and other civic engagements, and “lead a quieter life”. She stressed that Hong Kong will continue to be her home, and called on young people “not to lose hope for their future”, and to “continue to hold fast to the values that underpin our unique city, but to do so in a law-abiding and peaceful manner”.

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Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan announced her retirement from politics through a statement on 26 June. (SPH)

China’s state media had earlier dubbed Chan, along with media tycoon Jimmy Lai, Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee, and former lawmaker Albert Ho the “new Gang of Four” that “colluded” with Western forces to “instigate unrest”. And while Chan did not mention the national security law in her statement, people would draw a link between the two, given the timing.

Some netizens in Hong Kong also read Chan’s statement as a change in stance and an endorsement of the national security law. Pro-establishment Legislative Council (LegCo) member Elizabeth Quat shared the news on Facebook, unkindly saying “a traitor retires”, and adding a hashtag in Chinese translating to “everyone is panicking about the national security law”.

“The laam caau people, they haven’t got a clue.” - Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee

Opposition camps abandoning ship?

On 28 June, Chin Wan, known as the “father of the Hong Kong localist camp” also announced on social media his retirement from politics. In his statement, he strongly criticised Hong Kong’s opposition and pro-independence camps, and said if Hong Kong’s fate was left to them, Hong Kong would be pushed into a black hole of international political strife.

In an interview with The New York Times, Martin Lee also changed his tune. He publicly criticised the laam caau  (揽炒, meaning ‘mutual destruction’ or ‘if I die, you die’) philosophy as naïve, noting: “The laam caau people, they haven’t got a clue.” He stressed that he was a staunch defender of “one country, two systems”, but knew that calls for independence would cost Hong Kong its international support.

martin lee
Democratic Party founder Martin Lee arrives for a June 4 service to commemorate those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing, at Holy Cross Church in Hong Kong's Sai Wan Ho, 4 June 2020. (Sarah Wu/REUTERS)

The announcements by Anson Chan, Chin Wan, and Martin Lee can be said to be more symbolic than substantial; after all, these once-powerful people are now past their prime, with limited influence over the younger generation of Hong Kongers. But this younger, more pro-independence group might be shaken more by the announcement from Joshua Wong and his Demosistō colleagues, as well as by the news about Hong Kong Independence Union convenor Wayne Chan jumping bail and leaving Hong Kong while awaiting trial on charges connected to allegedly participating in an anti-extradition bill demonstration in Wan Chai on 10 June.

A “snake head” (蛇头, a leader of an illegal immigration outfit) told Hong Kong media that recently, some young people who have been charged amid the protests have been trying to leave Hong Kong illegally; fees have jumped from some tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars a month ago, to between HK$500,000 (nearly S$90,000) and HK$1 million now, and there is still demand.

How the national security law will be implemented, how tough Beijing and the Hong Kong government will be in enforcing it, whether anyone will be arrested in the next couple of months, who will be first to be made an example of, whether the pro-independence camp will be prosecuted for their previous actions — none of that is clear at the moment.

In what sounds like scenes straight out of Hong Kong police thrillers, the snake head also revealed that some people dress up like they are going out on a fishing trip, then leave Hong Kong on fast boats. Some hide on outlying islands before being transported by tugboats onto oil tankers to places such as Taiwan or the Philippines.

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Pro-democracy protesters march during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. (Dale de la Rey/AFP)

Beijing’s aggressive, non-negotiable stance in suddenly announcing the national security law while bypassing Hong Kong’s LegCo took Hong Kong’s opposition camp by surprise. The impact of the national security law is much greater than the previous proposed amendment to the extradition law, but the opposition camp has not launched a larger-scale resistance. On the contrary, members have pragmatically cut ties with ideas of any kind to do with Hong Kong’s independence from China, announced their departure or even fled Hong Kong in a clear show of “every man for himself” and avoiding trouble.

... for Beijing, the fact that Hong Kong’s opposition camp is falling like dominos already shows that the national security law is having a deterrent effect.

Hong Kong’s future hangs in the balance

How the national security law will be implemented, how tough Beijing and the Hong Kong government will be in enforcing it, whether anyone will be arrested in the next couple of months, who will be first to be made an example of, whether the pro-independence camp will be prosecuted for their previous actions — none of that is clear at the moment. (NB: Reuters reported today that a first arrest has been made under the national security law in the case of a man holding a flag advocating for independence.) Beijing will also continue to be tested: how many of the “small minority who commit serious offences” have to be punished in order to have a deterrent effect, while not sparking strong backlash from Hong Kongers? How can a balance be struck?

However, for Beijing, the fact that Hong Kong’s opposition camp is falling like dominos already shows that the national security law is having a deterrent effect. In the short term, there will be significantly fewer challenges to Beijing, and calls for independence will also lessen. There is a chance for the violence in Hong Kong to ease, and for order to be restored.

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Riot police clear a street as protesters gathered to rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on 1 July 2020, on the 23rd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. A man found in possession of a Hong Kong independence flag became the first person to be arrested under Beijing's new national security law for the city, police said on 1 July. (Dale de la Rey/AFP)

However, whether Hong Kong will be prosperous and peaceful as Beijing hopes remains unknown. The “big baton” might hit the opposition camp in the short term, but suppressed frustration will be expressed through voting and other methods. Hong Kong was torn apart by the protests against the extradition bill, and this will not be healed overnight with the national security law. More importantly, Hong Kongers’ low sense of national identity and lack of trust in the central government will take a long time to improve.

In order to maintain prosperity and growth, Hong Kong will be more integrated with mainland China. But will its openness and diversity remain untouched?

Besides, even as Hong Kong avoids becoming a pawn for the world against China, it might become the biggest victim caught between US sanctions and China’s counter-sanctions, which would make it difficult to hold on to its special position in Asia. In this context, the Hong Kong government will face a tougher challenge in resolving long-standing economic and social issues, such as the rich-poor gap, growing lack of social mobility, and a homogenous economic structure. In order to maintain prosperity and growth, Hong Kong will be more integrated with mainland China. But will its openness and diversity remain untouched?

It looks like the domino-type fallout among the opposition camp is just the beginning of a change in Hong Kong’s political climate. It will take some time to see if Hong Kong’s future will be changed completely.

Related: US sanctions on Hong Kong: How far will they go? | National security law for Hong Kong: The US will not back down, so where are we headed? | Will it be 'one country, one system' for Hong Kong? | National security law for Hong Kong: Will America's ‘smart sanctions’ work against China?