Mainlandization: An overview of Communist Party attempts to control and assimilate Hong Kong

Mainlandization preceded the Umbrella Movement. Since then, the Party has stepped up and expanded it.

The primary dynamic of the current political situation in HK is a contest between Party-driven mainlandization on the one hand and democracy and self-determination movements on the other. The current article examines mainlandization. A following article will look at the self-determination movement.

Make no mistake about it: Communist Party-driven mainlandization is the biggest existential threat facing Hong Kong.

“Mainlandization” means attempts by the Communist Party and its allies to exert greater control over HK politically, economically, socially and culturally, with the objective of assimilating it and integrating it into the mainland as much as possible before the end of the 50-year “one country, two systems” period in 2047.

Before the Umbrella Movement of 2014, the Party already had a plan to achieve that. Indeed, the fake suffrage it attempted to implement in 2014 and 2015, against which the Umbrella Movement was a reaction, was a key part of that plan. The Party has not taken HK people’s defeat of fake suffrage lightly. Its main response has been to speed up mainlandization and expand it into areas where it had previously made few inroads. It appears to believe that if the changes come fast and furious, shock-and-awe style, HK will simply be overwhelmed and “hostile elements” will not have the strength to withstand them all. Its strategy is to transform every aspect of governance and society while preserving the veneer of allowing HK institutions to continue to exist as before.

Below is an overview of various aspects of mainlandization, divided according to sector of society. The sectors are

· Government, civil service, Legco and police

· Cross-border abductions

· Mega-infrastructure projects

· Demographics and tourism

· Business and the economy

· Civil society (the United Front)

· Media and the book industry

· Education

· The judiciary and rule of law

The overview ends with education and the judiciary because these are the areas which, prior to the Umbrella Movement, had been the most resilient in withstanding mainlandization, and for that very reason, they are ones into which the Party and HK government have invested major effort in the post-Umbrella period.

This overview is not exhaustive; much more could be said about each area as well as about other areas not covered here. It is primarily intended to map just how pervasive the mainlandization of HK is and to show a pattern of imposition: Perhaps if one looks at one or two manifestations of mainlandization, one may not see the aspect of imposition, but take the manifestations as a whole, and it’s hard to ignore.

If, after reading, you feel Armageddon’s upon us, the overview has achieved its intended effect. But none of the ways the Party is trying to make HK more like the mainland are irreversible. Many of the Party and HK government’s attempts to mainlandize are encountering strong resistance. Meanwhile, democracy and self-determination movements continue to develop. Weighing the balance between mainlandization and democratization, the conclusion is HK is up for grabs. But the threat of mainlandization needs to be seen for what it is and strategically and systematically countered.

Government, civil service, and police

The Communist Party’s failure to implement fake suffrage was monumental. It would have given it a permanent stranglehold over the formal political system with no legal obligation to implement any further changes. But even without fake suffrage, its control over the HK government is nevertheless greater than ever.

The Chief Executive and her political appointees act as little more than proxies of the Party, especially when it comes to issues which the Party sees core interests. It is hard to recall a case in which the HK government differed with the Party, even when it appeared the interests of the HK people and the Party were at odds. Recent examples of the lockstep routine include co-location for the express rail link, the Party’s Basic Law interpretation over oath-taking, a new mainland law on the national anthem which the Party intends to insert into an annex of the Basic Law to give it legal effect in HK, and Party agents’ abductions of Lee Bo and Xiao Jianhua in HK and their spiriting across the border. On all these matters and others, the HK government simply adopts the Party line. A memorable nadir was the 2016 annual policy address by former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in which he mentioned the Party’s “One Belt One Road” initiative 48 times, a project in which HK people have next to zero interest. He sounded like a ventriloquist’s dummy in an unintentionally comic performance, but he illustrated perfectly the relationship between Party and HK government.

A relatively non-corrupt, efficient and unpoliticized civil service has been one of HK’s saving graces, but since the Umbrella Movement, the government has increasingly used various agencies and departments to further the Party’s agenda, largely through denial of services and facilities to perceived enemies. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department banned the pro-independence HK National Party and the localist Youngspiration from the Victoria Park New Year’s Market on ludicrous “public safety” grounds and refused to publish a line in the bio of a theater director from Taiwan that said she had gone to Taipei National University of the Arts. The Companies Registry continues to refuse to register the pro-democracy self-determinationist political party Demosistō more than a year after it applied, without giving any reason. It also rejected the application of the National Party. Before the 2016 Legislative Council election, as the nomination period was about to open, the Electoral Affairs Commission suddenly demanded that prospective candidates sign a new additional form pledging fealty to the Basic Law, in particular Article 1, which asserts that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China. The EAC’s returning officers then proceeded to disqualify half a dozen potential candidates on political grounds having to do with their unsubstantiated and uncontestable suspicions that the applicants would not uphold Article 1.

Legco started low and is getting lower. With only half of its 70 seats filled through free and fair elections according to principles of universal suffrage and the fact that it is hardly a legislative body in that members cannot introduce any legislation which costs government money, it was hardly a paragon of democracy to begin with. But now it is apparently to be scrubbed of any elected representatives with political views deemed unacceptable by the Party. Of course, there are the infamous cases of the six pro-democracy Legco members, elected with 183,236 votes total, who were disqualified after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee interpretation of the Basic Law on oath-taking in November 2016. In addition, the HK government has brought six criminal cases against five elected pro-democracy Legco members for statements made and actions taken as part of their work in Legco: Cheng Chung-tai was convicted of desecrating the PRC and HKSAR flags; Long Hair was acquitted of misconduct in public office and is awaiting trial for contempt of Legco; Kenneth Leung is being personally sued by former CE Leung Chun-ying for defamation; and Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching await trial for unlawful assembly outside a Legco chamber. This pattern represents a new trend: previously, the HK government left Legco’s matters to Legco to sort out, whether oath-taking or disciplinary issues. Its interventions are unprecedented attacks on the little democracy HK has, and indeed on the concept of representative government and the will of the people.

The police force has more links than ever with its mainland counterparts, and both top officers and ordinary officers go to the mainland in greater numbers and more frequently than ever. Since the Umbrella Movement, the police force has become more insulated than ever from accountability, and there is still exceedingly deep distrust of the force on the part of a great many HK citizens. (A recent conversation: Me: “When it comes down to it, police officers are just ordinary people, like most everyone else.” Interlocutor: “Maybe, but when they’re ordered to shoot you, they’ll shoot. So whose side are they on?”) Upwards of a third of its 28,705 officers were used to guard both Zhang Dejiang and Xi Jinping during their respective 2016 and 2017 visits to HK. This number far exceeded that needed to address legitimate security concerns. Their primary purpose was to protect the Party leaders from encountering protest by HK people or any other “embarrassing” situations. Both during the Umbrella Movement and since, in lieu of viable solutions to political problems, they have been used as the guard dogs of the regime. And they have been impotent in pursuing potential crimes in which Party agents are implicated (see below).

Cross-border abductions

And then it happened again, this time to the mainland tycoon Xiao Jianhua staying at the luxury Four Seasons hotel. This abduction didn’t excite nearly as much alarm, perhaps because it was seen as an internal Party matter, Xiao being a politically well-connected businessman. But it should have, coming so soon after Lee Bo’s abduction. Until then, some might have argued Lee Bo was a one-off, perhaps even a “mistake”, but after Xiao Jianhua, it’s clear that when the Party feels the need, it will not allow something as inconsequential as the law to prevent it from abducting people in HK.

Just as alarming as the actions of Party agents in HK has been the utter incapacity (or perhaps lack of will) of the HK government and police to do anything about them. In neither Lee Bo’s nor Xiao Jianhua’s case did the police so much as even determine that a crime had been committed, nor did they get to the bottom of what exactly occurred. So HK people are left with the prospect that the government and police either can or will not protect them even within HK, let alone elsewhere (HK permanent resident Gui Minhai, the bookseller kidnapped by the Party in Thailand, has been held incommunicado in detention without trial for over a year). Of course, it all depends on who’s doing the kidnapping: By contrast, when the Bossini clothing heiress was kidnapped in HK in early 2015, HK police worked closely with mainland police to apprehend the suspects, and by the middle of 2016, nine kidnappers had been tried in Shenzhen and one in HK.

Mega-infrastructure projects

The transport links are meant to integrate HK more closely with the mainland. The vision is of a Pearl River Delta mega-city with Shenzhen and Zhuhai. Ultimately, HK is to be rendered virtually indistinguishable. The expenses of the HK portion of the projects are borne for the most part by the HK government, mostly through tax and land sales revenues (the bridge partly through loans and the museum capital expenses entirely through donation from the HK Jockey Club).

The express rail link was originally estimated to cost HK$39.5 billion. Then the cost rose to $65 billion, and now, most recently, to $84.42 billion, more than double the initial estimate. Seven years after the HK government got initial approval for funding from a Legco dominated by Party allies, it finally announced its agreement with the Party for a co-location arrangement, according to which mainland immigration authorities will be allowed to operate in HK, in direct contravention of Basic Law Article 18. Prior to this agreement, it did not consult the people of HK and says it won’t now either, apart from moving a non-binding Legco motion. Thus, the project has become the Party’s Trojan horse, introducing mainland law enforcement to HK.

The cost of the main section of the HK-Macau-Zhuhai bridge is unknown, though announced to have gone over the initial estimate of HK$17.74 billion, with HK contributing $7.62 billion. In addition to that, HK will spend $48.5 billion on the HK section of the bridge infrastructure.

So, just on those two projects, a minimum of HK$140.54 billion from HK government coffers for primarily Party priorities whose purpose is to link HK closer to the mainland.

The Palace Museum annex in HK is the result of a secret agreement between the HK government and the Party. The discussions between the Party and the HK government regarding co-location were also secret, but at least the HK public was informed they were going on. In the case of the museum, no one knew about it until it was announced. Astonishingly, not even the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, itself a government agency, was informed of the agreement until after it had been made, let alone given any say in the matter. The site where the Palace Museum annex will be built was originally intended as a major performance venue. That idea was scrapped after the government said it had not been able to procure funding. But it had no problem funding the HK Palace Museum: Part of the secret agreement was that HK$3.5 billion in capital would be provided by the HK Jockey Club. Since it is a non-governmental entity, the HK government does not have to seek approval for funding from Legco, and there is therefore even less public oversight of the project than of the other two major infrastructure projects. It is unclear who will administer the museum, but it will presumably involve mainland government agencies given that the collection it houses will continue to belong to the Palace Museum in Beijing. Apart from the entirely opaque decision-making process, many object to the concept of Chinese-ness foisted upon HK by the Palace Museum annex at a time when fewer HK people than ever identify themselves as Chinese, 21 percent overall and only 3 percent of young people. What, after all, does the Palace Museum have to do with HK? It is as if the Party were planting its assertion that HK is Chinese right in the middle of the city, on the site of the HK government’s largest ever cultural initiative. The West Kowloon Cultural District was originally intended to put HK on the global map culturally. The Palace Museum annex subverts that outward-facing intention, instead emphasizing Chinese culture.


HK is an immigrant city par excellence. Virtually everyone came here from somewhere else (mostly China) within the last century. But many feel that the post-handover immigrants are different and represent an attempt by the Party to change the demographic composition of HK to one more favorable to Party rule. Prior to the 1997 handover, the brunt of mainland immigration to HK occurred before the 1970s. Only after the handover was an official policy to facilitate immigration in large numbers from the mainland implemented. In the past, many immigrants fled the mainland due to political turmoil or famine, and therefore tended to have at the very least an ambivalent attitude towards the Party, but post-handover immigrants appear to be apolitical or inclined to support the Party, not necessarily actively but because the mainland’s is the only political culture they’ve ever known. Political docility probably comes top of the list of the Party’s desired attributes in its subjects. It is unclear the extent to which the Party has recruited recent mainland immigrants to participate in United Front organizations (see below). Indeed, little is known of them in general.

In addition to immigrants, over 40 million mainland tourists visit HK every year, more than five times the size of HK’s population, enough to have a decided impact on the cityscape. This number has risen from 4 million per year in 2003, due not least of all to HK government efforts to reorient the economy towards mainland tourism. This has driven up retail property prices, turning central shopping areas into meccas for global luxury brands and displacing many smaller locally owned businesses. Because of the tourists and the immigrants, Putonghua is heard with increasing frequency on the streets of many central areas and in neighborhoods and public housing estates where recent immigrants are clustered.

Business and the economy

These days, however, the sands are quickly shifting beneath the tycoons’ feet. The Party is shunting them aside in favor of mainland companies, many Party-owned or with close links to the Party. According to a Reuters report, “Chinese companies are consuming ever bigger chunks of the city’s key sectors including real estate, finance, power, construction and the stock market.” “Seven developers — controlled by Hong Kong’s richest men — used to win 45 per cent of all residential land sites sold in the city as recently as in 2012. That ratio halved to 22 per cent by [2016]…. Mainland Chinese developers won about one plot out of every three on sale through government tender in 2016.” Mainland banks account for 40 percent of retail bank branches in HK, and mainland companies for over 60 percent of market capitalization on the Hang Seng Index, compared to 20 percent in 1997. In 1997, all top 10 companies on the Hang Seng were HK companies; now 6 of 10 are mainland companies, and 4 of those Party-owned. Last year, 92 percent of all initial public offerings were from the mainland. Especially after the 2008 global financial crisis, when the Party injected large amounts of liquidity into the mainland economy to offset the downturn, money sloshing over the border has been one of the main causes of an increase in property prices that’s put the goal of owning a home far out of the reach of most people and made HK the least affordable housing market in the world.

That HK’s economy has become increasingly dependent on, linked to and colonized by the mainland’s is not entirely due to the gravitational pull of the latter due to its sheer size. It has been driven by government policy on both sides of the border. The economy is the area of mainlandization where the Party faces the least resistance, and this is to due to the fact that most businesspeople either support or don’t dare object to it while HK government officials refuse to use the mechanisms at their disposal to regulate it.

HK could promote a more diverse economy, by both supporting local initiatives and facing outward toward East and Southeast Asia and beyond, positioning itself not as “a China growth derivative” as one market analyst put it but as a regional hub. A developed, post-industrial economy, HK is well-placed to be a regional leader in environmentally friendly urban design. As a city with an English-language heritage and solid universities, it could also be a regional education hub.

Civil Society (the United Front)

The term United Front (統一戰線) refers to the various organizations in HK aligned with the Party and used by it to further its interests. This includes loyalist political parties, the Federation of Trade Unions, the Heung Yee Kuk of New Territories rural committees, and so-called “patriotic” associations often named after the places in China from which their founders originally came. These groups have an especially strong presence in lower-income and working-class parts of the HK, for example, the public housing estates. The Party is attempting to extend its tentacles all the time: Derek Lam of Demosistō recently reported, “Of Hong Kong’s six major religions, five are already firmly under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong is the largest political party in HK. Since HK has no law on political parties (they are registered as companies in the Companies Registry) or on their funding, they are required to divulge only their income, not their funding sources. This allows parties to receive funding in complete secrecy. To get a sense of both sources and size of funding, one can only look at the tip of the iceberg: At the DAB’s annual fundraising auction in 2014, it raised HK$68.38 million, with some of it coming from HK tycoons purchasing auctioned calligraphy and paintings made by Party officials working in HK — a perfect illustration of how the combination of tycoons, Party officials and United Front organizations works. This was in contrast to $2.8 million and $2.35 million raised, respectively, by the pan-democratic Democratic and Civic Parties at their auctions. The DAB’s total income for 2008 to 2014 was HK$460 million. This money is largely used to maintain a permanent presence in as many parts of the city as possible, especially lower-income areas, which in turn function as its vote banks.

As much as anything else, the United Front is meant to promote a Party-friendly environment. Many UF groups are known for their low-cost banquets and excursions for the elderly in parts of the city where there are few other affordable entertainment options. The FTU is known for its adult education classes. People who avail themselves of these opportunities tend to be disproportionately older and relatively uncritical of the Party.

UF members and supporters are also mobilized when needed. For example, on the last day of the week-long student strike in September 2014 which eventually lead to the Umbrella Movement, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, a government agency, denied the main venue in Tamar Park where the strike took place to Hong Kong Federation of Students, though it had already been there for three days, and gave it to the Federation of HK Guangxi Community Organizations, an archetypal UF group, to celebrate October 1, though that was still five days away. The United Front is also the primary pool for rent-a-crowd mobilizations when the Party thinks showing a street presence will be of some benefit in projecting an image of a “divided” city. There have been numerous cases of pro-Party “demonstrators” being paid stipends and provided with meals and transportation to attend events. A classic example occurred in the lead-up to the Umbrella Movement, when in August 2014, several thousand were mobilized to march against the movement’s threat of civil disobedience. Out of that arose the infamous interview in which one marcher, when asked why she was there, simply answered in shaky Cantonese, “Shopping.”

The United Front’s biggest challenge is recruiting the next generation. Its membership skews elderly, and most HK young people despise the Party. Recent mainland immigrants (see above) may be its most promising replenishment pool. Its efforts at appealing to the young often take bizarre and maladroit forms such as the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association, of which the wife of former CE Leung Chun-ying is “commander-in-chief”.

As Christine Loh put it in her 2010 book, Underground Front, HK is the only place in the world where the ruling party is underground. That continues to be the case — it’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. It wants to be the air you breathe.

Media and book industry

The Party owns outright its low-circulation mouthpieces, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao. There is a number of other news outlets considered pro-Party, either due to their ownership or their editorial stance or both. There are two reputable neutral daily newspapers, Ming Pao and low-circulation Hong Kong Economic Journal. One of Ming Pao’s editors, Kevin Lau was nearly hacked to death in a cleaver attack while walking on the street in 2014. Another was fired in 2016, supposedly for business reasons, to the outrage of the Ming Pao Staff Association and much of the public. Apple Daily is the only explicitly pro-democracy daily. During the fight for genuine suffrage in 2014, it suffered cyberattacks on its website, its distribution center was picketed by Party supporters, its newspapers were destroyed at pick-up points, and its owner, Jimmy Lai, had his electronic communications hacked, his house firebombed, and was physically attacked by Party supporters at the Admiralty occupation. The biggest English-language daily, South China Morning Post, was bought in 2016 by Alibaba, which has close ties to the Party. It announced it purchased SCMP to, among other reasons, provide a better image of China to the world. Even before that, its editor in chief, Wang Xiangwei, was a mainlander and a representative to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Its owner at the time, pro-Party tycoon Robert Kuok Hock Nien, consulted the Liaison Office before appointing Wang.

While television has always been the least diverse medium, with the fewest outlets, new digital t.v. ventures briefly gave some hope of more variety. One of these was ViuTV which had a show titled “Travels with Rivals”. It had invited Billy Fung, the former head of the HKU Student Union and an advocate of HK independence, and Wang Dan, the 1989 student leader in Beijing, to appear together on a trip to Japan. But after the pair debated HK independence at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, ViuTV suddenly cancelled the show.

Apparently, word had come down from above that no substantive discussion of HK independence, especially by its advocates, could be allowed on television. The largest free television station in HK, TVB, has long been criticized as having an editorial board that hews far too close to the Party line. Indeed, its nickname within the pro-democracy movement is CCTVB, combining the name of the Party broadcaster, CCTV, with TVB. It is owned by mainland media mogul Li Ruigang through a nearly impenetrable web of business relationships and company structures apparently in breach of HK government regulations restricting ownership of HK broadcasters by non-HK entities.

The only other pro-democracy journalism can be found in online-only media outlets. These are the main sources of news for many HK people, especially young people.

The Party’s Liaison Office is HK’s biggest owner of book distributors and retailers. It has an 80 percent market share and owns 51 bookstores. It appears to have deliberately camouflaged its ownership: It owns Guangdong New Culture Development, which in turn owns New Culture Development HK, which in turn owns Sino United Publishing Group, which in turn owns Commercial Press, Joint Publishing, and Chunghwa, three major bookstore chains. Several reports have documented the chains’ censorship of books on “sensitive” political topics, such as the Umbrella Movement, which are not presented from the Party’s point of view. Like Li Ruigang’s ownership of TVB, this ownership structure is apparently in violation of HK law, in this instance Basic Law Article 22.


In his first annual policy address after the Umbrella Movement, in January 2015, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying criticized the HKU Student Union magazine, Undergrad, for publications on self-determination, self-reliance and HK people deciding their own fate. The attack was tantamount to a veiled declaration of war against pro-democracy forces on university campuses.

Upon the request of the government’s Education Bureau, the HKU governing council, dominated by government appointees, made repeated attempts to punish Benny Tai and the HKU Public Opinion Programme for conducting the OCLP referendum in June 2014 in which nearly 800,000 people voted for real universal suffrage, this in spite of the fact that the HKU administration under vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson had already cleared Tai of any wrongdoing. Benny’s been singled out for attack in Party-owned newspapers and, most recently, by pro-Party Legco member and Lingnan University governing council member Junius Ho, who in a rally dedicated to driving Benny from the university also said independence advocates should be killed.

The Party and HK government have pressured public university governing councils to play a more pro-government role. The Chief Executive is nominal chancellor of all public universities. By tradition, this role has largely been ceremonial. Leung Chun-ying used it to drive his political agenda, for example by appointing Arthur Li head of the HKU council over the objections of large numbers of students, faculty and alumni. Li compared students who participated in the Umbrella Movement to Cultural Revolution Red Guards, The head of HKU, Peter Mathieson, resigned prematurely, supposedly because of the attraction of an academic post elsewhere, but one couldn’t help but think the constant political interference from above must have been stifling. His own governing council, which appointed him, blocked his preferred candidate for pro-vice-chancellor, Johannes Chan, who was head of the HKU law faculty and also happened to be Benny’s boss and pro-democracy himself. Thus, during Mathieson’s whole tenure, he was never allowed to put his own leadership team in place.

Resistance to the political interference has been strong, with calls to end the CE’s position as chancellor of all public universities and for diversification of university councils. This has headed off greater incursions, at least for the time being. But as has been seen in the recent controversy surrounding the appearance of HK independence banners on campuses in the first week of the school year, the pressure has chilled university administrations into falling into lockstep with the Party line and students know they will likely be punished for making political statements to which the Party takes exception (in particular, for advocating independence — tellingly, the banners appeared anonymously). Much circumstantial evidence suggests that professors consider the “sensitivity” of an issue when deciding whether or not to pursue research, organize conferences and teach it. The Party’s effort to control universities is a long-term project. The ultimate aim is to get universities to practice more extensive self-censorship similar to the media.

The Party’s efforts to mainlandize secondary and primary schools are long-standing. In 2012, a large campaign by a coalition of civil society groups forced the HK government to all but scrap its about-to-be-implemented Moral and National Education subject, the impetus for which was a statement by then Party General Secretary Hu Jintao that HK had to foster “a strong sense of national identity” amongst young people. The subject was regarded as brainwashing by the pro-democracy movement, for which the government’s climb-down was a significant victory, but the government has said that it still intends to introduce elements of national education into the school system through a variety of avenues, and there are frequent protests against introduction of new materials, such as those meant to promote the Party line on the Basic Law or, most recently, a booklet intended to promote Chinese identity.

Language is a political battleground in Hong Kong. Cantonese is widely considered central to Hong Kong identity. There is persistent controversy surrounding the HK government’s long-standing policy, going back to 2003, of promoting the teaching of Chinese in Putonghua, even though there is no scientific research that shows HK children learn Chinese better in Putonghua than in Cantonese, the native language of 90 percent of them. While the decision is ultimately left up to individual schools, HK government efforts to promote teaching Chinese in Putonghua had by 2015 resulted in 72 percent of government-funded primaries and 37 percent of government-funded secondary schools teaching Chinese in Putonghua. Some, especially secondaries, have recently switched back to Cantonese after becoming disillusioned with the results of teaching Chinese in Putonghua. But given government backing, the pressure to teach Chinese in Putonghua is bound to continue.

Judiciary and rule of law

While most of HK responded with varying degrees of shock and indignation to the White Paper on HK issued by the Party in June 2014 (it provoked a backlash days before OCLP’s scheduled referendum on genuine universal suffrage), the legal community in particular was up in arms since the White Paper characterized the HK judiciary as an “administrative” body that had to cooperate with other parts of the HK government and be “patriotic”. Lawyers, who were not given to street protest (indeed, this was only their second since the handover), demonstrated by holding a silent march dressed in black suits from HK’s High Court to its Court of Final Appeal. To the legal community, the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law were sacrosanct.

Since, then, the Party has pushed HK to fulfill to its vision of the judiciary articulated in the White Paper. The HK government originally planned to use prosecutions of the more than 1,000 arrested during the Umbrella Movement to test judicial independence, but the majority of its cases were so weak, it never got far with that plan, prosecuting upwards of 250 people and getting convictions of around 85. The Party and HK government labelled the whole movement “illegal”, but they couldn’t prove that in the courts.

Then along came their godsend, the Chinese New Year 2016 clashes in Mong Kok between police and protesters. If there’s anything the generally conservative judiciary abhors, it’s violence by non-state actors. The HK government’s been aggressively prosecuting Mong Kok defendants and getting a much higher percentage of convictions than usual as well as long prison sentences of three years each for “rioting”. This seems to have shifted the priorities of at least some in the judiciary away from paying due regard to civil rights and toward “deterrence”, a word that’s crept into many decisions as if implanted there.

With newfound confidence, the HK government appealed the community service sentences of 15 activists (and suspended sentence of one) in two separate cases, one related to the Umbrella Movement, one preceding it, and got prison sentences for all 16, ranging in duration from six to thirteen months. This, even though the crime committed by all 16 was the nonviolent unlawful assembly, and most sentences for this crime in recent years have ranged from fines to three weeks to three months in prison. Both High Court judgments made reference to “violence”, though the crimes of which the 16 were convicted did not involve violence. Parts of the judges’ rulings sounded politically biased, referring to “unhealthy trends in society” (civil disobedience and what they saw as disrespect for the law) and again invoking “deterrence” to justify the much harsher-than-usual sentences. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that HK now had its first full-fledged political prisoners, serving prison sentences not based on the nature of their crime but on the lead judge’s views on the “health” of society. It was as if these defendants were being held responsible not for unlawful assembly but for the “unhealthy trends in society”. None of the judges mentioned the “unhealthy trend” of HK still being denied universal suffrage in contravention of both international and HK law.

Probably the single most damaging act against the independence of the judiciary has been the NPCSC’s interpretation of the Basic Law, handed down in the midst of an on-going court case brought by the HK government against Legco members Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching over their Legco oath-taking. The interpretation was retroactive since it supposedly only clarified what was stated in 1997, in clear contravention of a basic judicial principle that new laws should not be applied retroactively. It all but compelled the High Court judge to decide in favor of the HK government and disqualify the two from Legco. For the second time in less than three years, the law community marched against the interference. But the HK government wasn’t done there. Flush with its success, it applied to the High Court to disqualify four more elected members of Legco, and the High Court gave them the boot as well. An unelected government, with the indispensible help of a dictatorship’s ruling, was using the High Court to kick democratically elected representatives out of office.

Whatever else may be said about the High Court’s disqualification of six elected Legco members, it is clear that it has not protected the rights or interests of voters, and therefore has failed to protect the few, highly circumscribed democratic rights HK people enjoy, deciding that a dictatorship’s edict has far greater legal weight. Indeed, one of the most troubling aspects of rule of law in HK has been the inability to hold those who most egregiously refuse to follow the law accountable. In continuing to deny universal suffrage in line with international law and standards to the people of HK, the Party and HK government are in breach of the Basic Law, yet there is virtually no legal recourse to justice in regard to this breach which deprives an entire population of a basic human right. There is the great irony that those protesting the denial of that right have been convicted and imprisoned while those who continue to deny that right are above the law. What does that say about the state of rule of law in HK?


Some might argue that closer ties between a country, such as the PRC, and its newly incorporated territory, such as HK, are both inevitable and normal. But the pattern mapped out here shows not closer cooperation but imposition. And the whole point of “one country, two systems” and a “high degree of autonomy” was that such imposition should not occur.

A substantial number of HK people have concluded not only that “one country, two systems” isn’t working properly but that it really no longer exists and the Basic Law has failed HK. One increasingly hears phrases like “one country, one-point-five systems” which will eventually lead to one country, one system. More HK people feel compelled to look for other solutions, whether self-determination or full independence, as the only means of preserving what they thought had been promised to them and protecting and achieving their basic rights.

This article is the third in a 5-part series on the Umbrella Movement three years after its beginning in September 2014. The first article is “Why I wrote ‘Umbrella’, a 600-page account of the Umbrella Movement”; the second, “The Umbrella Movement after three years: So much accomplished, and much still to do”, and the third, “Three years on, the Umbrella Movement fallout determines Hong Kong politics today”.

Kong Tsung-gan is the author of Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong. He envisions a day when September 28 will be HK’s national day and “Raise Your Umbrellas” its national song.

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Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store