Posted inOpinion

How to Crush Popular Dissent in Three Easy Steps – A Lesson from Hong Kong

#1. Dismantle the electoral process.

When your pesky political opponents start winning elections, simply pass a National Security Law (NSL) which allows you to arrest them for ‘subversion’. Then make sure that anyone standing for election is vetted by the government so that all politicians are aligned with your views. Excellent. Now your faithful citizens can make only one choice on polling day.

#2. Criminalise protest.

Use that handy pandemic – which you may or may not be responsible for – to ban mass gatherings. Conduct a ruthless program of arbitrary arrests and jail suspected protest ringleaders. With the help of a pliant judiciary, you can be assured of imprisoning dissidents for years, even for life. Perfect.  

#3. Destroy the free press.

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The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign against the democratic liberties of the 7.5 million people who call Hong Kong home has now entered this third stage. It is extremely frightening.

On the 24th of June, the Apple Daily newspaper published its final edition. It marked the end of 26 years of swashbuckling, boisterous, and rebellious journalism from an outlet whose staunch pro-democracy stance had made it an enemy of the Chinese state. It was Hong Kong’s most popular pro-democracy daily. Now, if you attempt to look up Apple Daily’s Twitter, you are confronted by a blank screen and a stark message: ‘This account does not exist’.

The paper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, had already been imprisoned by a CCP whose ruthless authoritarianism only seems to strengthen. He was marched from his office by glassy-eyed secret police in December of last year

The colourful life story of this unruly 73 year-old deserves a film all of its own. Born on the mainland but smuggled out in 1949 when the Communists took power, Lai initially earned $8 a month in a garment sweatshop before managing to establish his own fashion chain, Giodarno. The retailer’s astonishing success – it now has over 2,400 outlets – promptly turned Lai into a billionaire. The Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1989 determined his future focus: ‘I knew evil when I saw it’ he said. Now he would confront the organisation governing his homeland.

‘Fear is the most inexpensive and convenient way of ruling people and controlling people (…) and they know it and are very good at it’. That was how Lai described the tactics of the CCP and the Hong Kong regional government in his last interview before being detained. But Apple Daily was anything but fearful. Amongst salacious sex and drugs celebrity gossip, it kept up a constant stream of healthy criticism against the party which brought economic growth but not political liberalisation to China.

In keeping with the best traditions of tabloid journalism, the paper’s relationship with the truth was sometimes sketchy. A story from last year alleging ‘problematic’ connections between Hunter Biden and the CCP has been called into particular question (Apple Daily favoured Trump in the 2020 election because of his strong anti-CCP stance). Nonetheless, it was a strident voice for democracy, even as Beijing’s grip tightened on the former British colony.

The paper spoke for the millions who had turned out to protest against the pro-Beijing Extradition Law in 2019. It even printed placards for them. So it’s no wonder that when legislation permitting the Hong Kong authorities to detain anyone accused of undermining ‘national security’ was passed by the People’s Congress in Beijing last summer, Apple Daily was in their sights.

On the 17th of June, 500 police officers raided the paper’s headquarters. They arrested the editor-in-chief Ryan Law, his opinions editor Li Ping, and the paper’s CEO Cheung Kim-Heung. They are charged with ‘colluding with foreign powers’. Simultaneously, Apple Daily assets amounting to HK$18 million (US$2.32 million) were frozen. In seeking to silence this dissenting voice, the authorities were nothing if not thorough.

With only a few weeks of cash left, and intimidated staff choosing to resign rather than risk arrest, Apple Daily had no choice but to close. The paper decided on a final show of defiance. Instead of its normal print run of 80,000, it would produce a million copies of the final edition. That every paper had been sold by lunchtime on the 24th is testament to the support Apple Daily enjoys from the people of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands had queued in the early hours to take part in the last gasp of vibrant, uncensored press freedom in the territory.

What the authorities have done to Apple Daily is indicative of a wider crackdown on the press since the introduction of the NSL. The broadcast media has received the same treatment as the papers. The airing of BBC programmes in Hong Kong is now prohibited as a consequence of the Beeb’s coverage of ongoing CCP atrocities against Uighurs in Xinjiang. Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) is being slowly purged of questioning journalists, and has had its director replaced by the pro-Beijing bureaucrat Patrick Li, who has promised to tighten editorial control. Since 1989, Hong Kongers had been free to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This year, even that was banned.

All of which has led Ronson Chan, head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), to say: ‘I’m afraid that it will make society feel (…) that people can be put in prison because of what they write’. A survey of local reporters by the HKJA returned results indicating that more than 90% of journalists believe press freedom in Hong Kong has reached a record low. The deliberate ambiguity in a National Security Law which can see anyone accused of ‘subversion’ prosecuted also encourages journalists to self-censor. 

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam insists that restrictions on press freedom actually have nothing to do with journalism, and are matters of ‘national security’. With her powers expanded by the NSL, this drone of Beijing seems all too happy to continue crushing pro-democracy opposition. Rumours are swirling of a ‘fake news’ law, which would give the Hong Kong government absolute power to decide which stories are ‘true’.

The political and press freedoms that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region used to enjoy lie in tatters. The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ doctrine has been abandoned, and the territory’s absorption into the political reality which already governs the mainland is almost complete.

For the CCP, the end goal is a monopoly on the flow of information within Hong Kong. The authoritarians dream of a future where the minds of their citizens will not be disturbed by ugly notions like democracy. The right to ‘receive and impart information and ideas through any media’ is enshrined as Article 19 of the UN declaration of Human Rights for a reason. If ideas cannot be exchanged freely, then a vibrant, thinking public discourse cannot be maintained. The Chinese Communist Party draws inspiration from the purest form of authoritarianism: they would prefer it if their citizens did not think for themselves at all.

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Having been detained at the end of 2020, Lai has just had another 14 months added to a one-year prison sentence. The ominous arrival of the NSL had prompted friends to urge him to leave Hong Kong. As a billionaire and British national since 1996, he would have found this easier than most, but he decided to stay. Since founding Apple Daily, he had faced arson attacks on his home, and even an assassination attempt. He wasn’t about to abandon his supporters now.

Still, when asked by the BBC last December if he ever fears what the authorities might do to him, he made no attempt to put up a dauntless front. Through tears and a quavering voice he managed a response: ‘Yes. I do have fear’.

And why should we – ensconced safely in liberal democracy – be concerned about Hong Kong? Lai has the answer: ‘We are sharing the same value system as theirs [the West]. They know we are fighting on the frontier for their values. If we lose, then that means the defeat of the value system’.

So the stakes are high. Apple Daily fought the good fight, but it has been swallowed by authoritarians who view their citizens as little more than property of the state. Every encroachment on the freedom of Hong Kong has taken place against the wishes of the majority of the territory’s residents. Beijing has delivered a masterclass in crushing popular dissent. Where will the attention of the CCP’s autocrats turn next?

On its now-defunct website, Apple Daily has left a final message: ‘Good luck, and goodbye’.

Image: BBC News