Of course, the outbreak of covid-19 has drastically changed the landscape for contentious politics. Hong Kong’s rules on social distancing and prohibitions on group gatherings have rendered mass mobilization impossible.
Has the pro-democracy movement receded? No — that’s the short answer. Protesters have largely moved to online forums and the courts. Here’s what you need to know.
The Hong Kong government continues to crack down on dissent
The Hong Kong police have been arresting protesters and pro-democracy political veterans. The latest arrests targeted prominent lawyers Martin Lee and Margret Ng, media tycoon Jimmy Lai and opposition lawmakers.
Since January, 15 newly elected district councilors have been arrested on questionable charges. The Hong Kong government revived a colonial-era offense — sedition — to prosecute Cheng Lai-king, chairwoman of Central and Western District Council, over an online post calling for justice for the Indonesian journalist who lost her eye in September after being hit by a police projectile.
In April, a Hong Kong city court convicted Au Nok-hin, a former legislator, of “assaulting” a police officer via use of a megaphone while mediating a July 2019 clash between the police and protesters.
As the pressure from the street protests subsided in recent months, the battle moved to the city’s judicial corridors. According to a Reuters report, China’s state media warned Hong Kong judges and lawyers not to “absolve” protesters arrested during last year’s demonstrations. The Arrested Persons Concern Group, a group tracking the arrests, notes 7,929 people last year were arrested on dubious charges, almost half of them students, and 364 people were charged with rioting — which can carry a 10-year prison sentence. The Hong Kong government also boosted the police force budget by nearly 25 percent. The US$3.3 billion budget includes plans to add new crowd-control equipment and recruit more officers.
Media freedom is also under attack. Police Commissioner Chris Tang lodged two complaints to the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) targeting a satirical program, “Headliner,” for smearing the police reputation and misleading the public. The government subsequently removed all RTHK programs from public channels.
The Hong Kong government also accused RTHK of breaching the “one-China” principle by broadcasting a WHO interview on Taiwan. And a world-renowned Hong Kong microbiologist named Yuen Kwok-yung retracted an op-ed in Ming Pao on the origin and naming of the Wuhan virus, apparently bowing to pressure from Beijing to control the narrative on the origins of the pandemic.
De-escalation does not mean demobilization
But the pandemic itself appears to have fueled Hong Kong’s ongoing political struggle. New criticism of the government in 2020 targeted the lack of responsiveness to the coronavirus threat, and poor governance in handling the outbreak. In early February, newly unionized health care and hospital workers launched a five-day strike, an attempt to pressure Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to close the border with mainland China completely. District councilors along with pro-democracy political groups such as Demosisto helped the vulnerable population by sourcing and distributing surgical masks, amid the shortages.
As front line protesters retreated from the streets, moderate supporters continued the fight — another indication of the decentralized structure and fluid tactics of the Hong Kong protests.
Smaller-scale rallies take place every month to commemorate critical incidents such as the Yuen Long mob attack last July, the Prince Edward station police attack in August, and the November death of a student, Chow Tsz-lok. Emotionally charged footage of those incidents circulate widely on the Internet in remembrance of those injured and killed. And the pro-democracy movement became part of the virtual world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where participants can hold protests and re-create the movement’s iconic designs: protest-themed clothes, Lennon Walls, movement mascots and chants.
What happens next?
In the political arena, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) election in September is the highly anticipated battleground, with pro-democracy candidates aiming to secure a majority (35 or more of the total 70 seats) — which has never happened since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule. As 2014 Occupy Central organizer professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting put it, this would be “a massive constitutional weapon to veto the government budget.”
Pro-democracy groups are trying to mobilize eligible voters to register, seeking to generate the same high turnout that led to the landslide victory in the 2019 district council elections. Activists also facilitate coordination among the pan-democracy (pan-dem) candidates and independents via internal ballots, which would minimize internal conflict and vote splitting, optimizing the number of pro-democracy seats.
The pro-establishment camp is also gearing up. Legislator Junius Ho and others have recently called for reintroducing national security laws under Article 23, which led to the mass demonstration in 2003 against the undermining of core freedoms in Hong Kong. Two mainland agencies — the Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office — criticized the pan-dem’s filibustering tactics in the LegCo, resulting in the probable disqualification of Dennis Kwok, deputy chairman of the House Committee. Many in Hong Kong fear Beijing will expand its prerogative to interfere with Hong Kong’s political and constitutional order.
While many leaders enjoy the “rally around the flag effect” during times of crises, neither Carrie Lam nor the Hong Kong police found much refuge in the pandemic. Lam’s approval rating remains extremely low, with 68 percent of Hong Kong residents dissatisfied with the government, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.
And 46 percent expressed zero trust in the police, according to the latest survey by the Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey. This survey, conducted in late March, suggests half of the respondents support mass protests demanding democracy and social justice, once the pandemic is over. The extent to which the struggle has become entrenched in Hong Kong suggests mass protests are likely to return.
Maggie Shum, research associate at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, is a native of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on party organization, participatory institutions and contentious politics in Latin America and Hong Kong.