AN EXPLOSION OF anti-government discontent in Hong Kong in 2019 prompted China to impose a draconian national-security law on the territory to prevent further protests. Officials say this has helped: Hong Kong has achieved a “major transition from chaos to order”, they insist. But even after thousands of arrests and numerous trials, both under the new law and dredged-up statutes from the colonial era, the authorities are twitchy. Increasingly, they warn of “soft resistance” that could trigger fresh unrest. A new phase may be unfolding in Hong Kong’s war on dissent.
For more than three years, fear instilled by the national-security law and other signs of China’s tightening grip on the territory has deterred most people with political grievances from attempting to stage demonstrations. Until they were scrapped in December, covid-related restrictions on public gatherings may also have helped to keep protesters off the streets. Some of those who were at the forefront of the months-long upheaval in 2019 have fled. Since then, Hong Kong has seen its biggest wave of emigration in decades and the labour force has shrunk by over 5%.
Though cowed, Hong Kong still feels different from cities on the Chinese mainland. Controls on speech, news media, books and culture are less sweeping. China’s “great firewall” does not surround its internet: sites such as Facebook and Google are not blocked in Hong Kong. In the rest of China, the Communist Party is omnipresent. In Hong Kong it operates largely out of sight, its watchful eyes not so keenly sensed in people’s day-to-day lives. Opportunities for the government’s critics to express themselves have become scarcer (since 2019 pro-democracy types have been purged from Hong Kong’s political institutions). But they do, precariously, exist.
On July 28th Hong Kong’s High Court rejected a government request to ban a protest song that was beloved of demonstrators in 2019, saying an injunction could undermine “freedom of expression”. (The government has filed an appeal.) Such a ruling would be unthinkable on the mainland. Equally unimaginable would be the kind of access given to the public (including foreign visitors—no ID required) to observe Hong Kong’s national-security trials. They are grim, juryless spectacles, but local media give accounts of proceedings. Citizen journalists help provide extra detail of defendants’ feisty testimony.
But many Hong Kongers wonder how much longer the territory can retain these shreds of distinctiveness. Their fears have been stoked by officials’ remarks about soft resistance. No authoritative definition has been given of the term, but it appears to refer to a broader range of activity than the crimes of subversion, secession and the like that are covered by the national-security act and the territory’s anti-sedition law (a long-disused relic of British rule that is enjoying a new lease of life). The way the term is often used by party-controlled media in Hong Kong suggests it could apply to any political activity that the government doesn’t like.
It was a mainland official, Luo Huining, who raised the idea that Hong Kongers were putting up soft resistance. In 2021 Mr Luo, who was then the central government’s most senior emissary in Hong Kong, called for such behaviour to be “regulated by law”. He did not elaborate.
In recent months officials in Hong Kong have picked up on the theme. Their strident tones on the subject suggest a push from Beijing. “Various acts of soft resistance continue to occur and spread through online media, cultural and artistic channels,” said John Lee, the territory’s chief executive, in June. “These latent forces could erupt at any time, endangering national security and disrupting social peace.” Later that month he told state television that such acts required Hong Kong to be “especially vigilant”. On July 24th, in response to a local newspaper, Hong Kong’s security chief, Chris Tang, said there must be “absolutely no compromise” on the matter. “It is imperative that we fight soft resistance with all our strength.”
The court’s decision not to outlaw the protest song, “Glory to Hong Kong”, is a hiccup. The anthem’s circulation online has been cited by pro-government media as an example of soft resistance (as has the alleged leniency of some judges when sentencing anti-government protesters). But the impact will be minor. Two of the song’s lines echo the words of a protest slogan—“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”—which the government has declared subversive. Police have swooped on the handful of individuals who have dared to play the tune in public since the imposition of the national-security law. The court’s ruling is unlikely to encourage more to try.
Officials’ talk of soft resistance replicates a tactic often used by their counterparts on the mainland: that of sowing fear with vaguely worded warnings rather than explicit reference to laws. Mr Lee, the chief executive, said “destructive forces” in Hong Kong were often engaging in soft resistance “below the red line of lawbreaking”. The idea, it appears, is to keep people well clear of that line by blurring it. Hong Kong’s two main party-controlled newspapers, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, attack those who stray too close. Their commentaries are widely assumed to reflect the views of mainland officials who pull the strings of Hong Kong’s government from behind the scenes.
Leticia Wong is someone in their sights. She runs a small bookshop called Hunter in Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong’s poorer neighbourhoods and a magnet for young, upwardly mobile people in search of cheap accommodation. Ms Wong, who is 30, resigned from her elected post on a local council in 2021 after the government required every public-office holder to swear an oath of loyalty to the People’s Republic. She believed she would be disqualified for being insincere. Ms Wong opened Hunter last year, offering books related to the protests of 2019 and other sensitive topics.
Even under the national-security law, specific books are rarely banned in Hong Kong. Last year, however, five speech therapists were jailed for sedition. Their crime was to publish a children’s book that seemed to portray Hong Kongers as sheep fending off wolves (apparently representing China). And self-censorship abounds. Libraries have removed works they believe may fall foul of the new law: books about the pro-democracy upheaval that engulfed mainland China in 1989, for example, or those written by Hong Kong’s jailed activists. In May Mr Lee said public libraries should ensure they do not “spread any kind of messages that are not in the interests of Hong Kong”. He also noted that books about the Tiananmen Square protests could be found in private shops. If people “want to buy, they can buy”, he said. That is true, but the campaign against soft resistance may change that.
In May an article in Ta Kung Pao featured Ms Wong and her bookshop. “Her anti-China, chaos-inducing evildoing in Hong Kong has long been known to everyone,” it said. “After the implementation of Hong Kong’s national-security law, she still did not repent…She continued engaging in soft resistance by selling books that are anti-government or confrontational.” Ms Wong laughs at this—such accusations have helped to drive up footfall, she says. “More people come to buy books and see if I’m still alive.” Nearly one-third of her customers are from the mainland, she reckons.
Ms Wong still pushes the envelope. In July she organised a four-day book fair in a small room above a nearby clothing shop. It provided a handful of independent publishers with space to display new works of a kind unlikely to be seen in the territory’s official book fair that was being held in a vast convention centre. A popular offering at Ms Wong’s event was “Deaf Voice in Court”, a book about the travails of defendants with hearing difficulties, including someone charged with assaulting a policeman during the protests in 2019. Ta Kung Pao said that among the “main attractions” of the official event was an updated edition of “An Outline for the Study of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Mr Xi is China’s leader.
But Ms Wong is pessimistic. “I don’t think they are smart enough to leave some room for Hong Kong people like me,” she says. On Facebook, Ms Wong hinted at the political pressures she faces. She said she thought her bookshop would not survive to put on another fair next year.
No room for campaigners
The soft-resistance label is being attached even to people who are far removed from the front lines of dissent. In May a full-page article in Wen Wei Po attacked activists who have been campaigning on behalf of residents of Hong Kong’s notorious “subdivided flats”: small apartments that have been converted into multiple dwellings, often with only just enough room to fit two bunk beds (see chart). Such accommodation has been multiplying in recent years to satisfy demand from people who are on years-long waiting lists for public housing, or unable to afford the sky-high prices of property.
Chinese officials say grievances over Hong Kong’s acute shortage of affordable housing were a leading cause of the unrest in 2019. The city’s government has vowed to speed up construction of subsidised flats. Yet Wen Wei Po suggested that complaining about these efforts could spark renewed unrest. It said vigilance was needed against people who use the housing issue as a form of soft resistance by arousing “negative emotions among citizens”. A sinister-looking graphic showed recent tiny housing-related protests morphing into tear-gas filled scenes from 2019.
Eyes are now turning to new security-related legislation that the government says it will enact this year or next. Doing so is mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, but public misgivings—highlighted by a massive protest in 2003—have delayed the task until now. Ominously, Mr Tang, the security chief, told Wen Wei Po in July that drafters of the bill were “paying attention to soft resistance” as well as “loopholes” in existing law involving the internet.
Kiwi Chow, a film-maker, is feeling the chill in his business. Two years ago his documentary about the unrest of 2019, “Revolution of Our Times”, became a hit among Hong Kongers abroad (cinemas in the territory will not show it). His most recent movie, a romantic comedy, has nothing to do with politics. Yet his mere association with a protest-related film sent investors and actors scurrying. To complete it, he had to raise money from friends. His family fears he may be “arrested at any time”, he says. But he brushes off the government’s warnings about soft resistance. “I won’t try to guess what they want because that would keep haunting me.” ■
Officials are sowing fear with vaguely worded warnings against “soft resistance” AN EXPLOSION OF anti-government discontent in Hong Kong in 2019 prompted China to impose a draconian national-security law on the territory to prevent further protests.Why was Hong Kong given back to China? ›
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration had set the conditions under which Hong Kong was to be transferred, with China agreeing to maintain existing structures of government and economy under a principle of "one country, two systems" for a period of 50 years.How did Hong Kong gain independence? ›
In 1984, the British and Chinese governments signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration which stated that the sovereignty of Hong Kong should be transferred to the PRC on 1 July 1997, and Hong Kong should enjoy a "high degree of autonomy" under the "One Country, Two Systems" principle.Who controls Hong Kong? ›
Hong Kong was briefly occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1945 during World War II. The whole territory was transferred from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. Hong Kong maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under the principle of "one country, two systems".Is Hong Kong is a country? ›
No, Hong Kong is not a country. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. Hong Kong's status as a special administrative region stems from its history as a former British colony.What is the problem between China and Hong Kong? ›
More broadly, there exists resentment toward mainland-Hong Kong convergence and assimilation, as well as the increasing interference from the government of China and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Hong Kong's internal affairs.What was China's promise to Hong Kong? ›
Erosion of autonomy of Hong Kong
After Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing promised that Hong Kong citizens would be free to elect their local government.
On 1 July 1997, the lease ended, and the United Kingdom transferred control of Hong Kong and surrounding territories to the People's Republic of China.Who owned Hong Kong before the British? ›
Britain seized Hong Kong during the First Opium War, and China's Qing Dynasty formally ceded it to the U.K. in a treaty in 1842.Why did Britain want Hong Kong? ›
Britain also wanted more control over their trade with China, as they could only trade with certain officials called Hong merchants. The Opium Wars resulted in two treaties, each expanding the size of Britain's Hong Kong territory.
On 1 July 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to China. Overnight, Hongkongers gained a new identity as Chinese citizens. Since then, China has been keen to ensure the city's residents see themselves as Chinese.Does Hong Kong have its own military? ›
Hong Kong has never had its own military forces because it has never been a sovereign state, except voluntary auxiliary force like The Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers). All defence matters have been dependent on the state which controls Hong Kong.Who did Hong Kong belong to before China? ›
Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 until its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, with the exception of Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945.Does Hong Kong pay taxes to China? ›
In addition, under Article 106 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, Hong Kong has independent public finance, and no tax revenue is handed over to the Central Government in China. The taxation system in Hong Kong is generally considered to be one of the simplest, most transparent and straightforward systems in the world.What is your nationality if you were born in Hong Kong? ›
According to the explanations, for those Hong Kong residents who are of Chinese descent and born in Chinese territories (including Hong Kong) are Chinese nationals, notwithstanding that they hold or have held any foreign passport for the purpose of travelling to other countries and territories.What is the old name for Hong Kong? ›
Hong Kong in brief. Destination Hong Kong, a Nations Online profile of the territory, also known as Xianggang, the "Fragrant Harbor." For more than 150 years, Hong Kong was a colony of the British Crown. In 1997 the British returned the city.Why was Hong Kong returned to China after years as a British crown colony? ›
In the Hall of the People in Beijing, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang sign an agreement committing Britain to return Hong Kong to China in 1997 in return for terms guaranteeing a 50-year extension of its capitalist system.Why was Hong Kong important to China? ›
WHY DOES CHINA NEED HONG KONG AS IT IS? While China still has extensive capital controls and often intervenes in its financial markets and banking system, Hong Kong is one of the most open economies in the world and one of the biggest markets for equity and debt financing.How and when did China lose Hong Kong? ›
Britain occupied the island of Hong Kong on 25 January 1841 and used it as a military staging point. China was defeated and was forced to cede Hong Kong in the Treaty of Nanking signed on 29 August 1842. The island became a Crown Colony of the British Empire.What was the agreement between China and Britain about Hong Kong? ›
The Sino-British Joint Declaration was a treaty signed between the United Kingdom (UK) and the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1984 that set the conditions in which the entirety of colonial Hong Kong would be transferred to Chinese control and how the territory shall be governed after 1 July 1997.