An Uncertain Future for Liberal Democracy in Hong Kong
The arrest of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai made waves in international circles as the latest act in the ongoing saga of tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China. He was arrested at his home on August 10 on charges of colluding with foreign forces.
After making his fortune in the garment industry with the fashion brand Giordano, Lai’s next venture was his media company, Next Digital. He launched Next Magazine in 1989, and followed up with the launch of tabloid newspaper Apple Daily in 1995. While popular, his publications have been criticized on grounds of sensationalism and political bias, and fomenting chaos and violence. Lai is also known in Hong Kong as a pro-democracy activist and prominent opponent of the Chinese government. He has previously been detained in relation to illegal protests.
On the same day as Lai’s arrest, over 200 police officers descended on the offices of Next Digital in an extensive raid. Four senior executives at Next Digital were also taken into custody. The high-profile operation was conducted under the purview of the controversial national security law passed in June 2020. Officially entitled “The Law of the People's Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”, the legislation punishes four acts in broad terms: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers.
Lai has been arrested under the fourth provision of the national security law, under suspicion of conspiring against the government. Chinese state media have labelled Lai a member of a new “Gang of Four”, a group of dissidents, in reference to his activism in Hong Kong. The original Gang of Four was a radical political faction that played a key figure in implementing Mao Zedong’s anti-capitalist Cultural Revolution from 1966-76, before being convicted of treasonous activities by Mao’s successors. The revival of the moniker appears to be part of Beijing’s strategy to target specific individuals and label them as troublemakers while the protest movement stirs up civil unrest in Hong Kong.
The Chinese government has also alleged that Lai is a “black hand” of the U.S. and represents the interests of anti-Chinese parties. In July 2019, Lai travelled to Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. In addition, his closest aide, Mark Simon, has ties to the CIA and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Lai and Simon have previously been connected to prominent Republican politicians, such as the former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense under the Bush administration. And a few months before Lai’s arrest, Apple Daily published a letter on its front page addressed to President Donald Trump, asking him to denounce the Chinese government’s impositions in Hong Kong. The letter ends with the words: “Mr. President, please help us. Thank you, and God bless.”
On his part, Lai denies that he has used his political connections to support and secure funding for protests in Hong Kong. In an interview with Bloomberg Television, he called the charges against him “trumped up” and lacking evidence. Lai, who was released on bail, also described his arrest as a violation of due process.
Opposition figures in Hong Kong expressed their alarm and dismay at what has been called an infringement of the city’s autonomy and its democratic governance - a view that Lai’s arrest and the raid on Next Digital seems to have bolstered. The former British colony was handed over to China in 1997, and has been granted the status of a special administrative region under the “one country two systems” constitutional principle, enabling it to have its own economic and governmental systems. The Hong Kong Basic Law lays out the distinct autonomy of the region and is set to expire in 2047. Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Legislative Council is tasked with enacting national security laws. However, the recent passage of this legislation indicates that the mainland has abandoned hopes of any such law going through at the local level.
Another concern with the law is its global jurisdiction. The language of the bill says that the law applies to non-residents of Hong Kong and to offenses committed outside the city. This extraterritorial application could impede international solidarity for the people of Hong Kong, leaving much room for the authorities to stifle dissent.
So far, the international community has been largely critical of the national security law as overly vague and broad. Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. released a joint statement expressing deep concern at what they call the erosion of “the Hong Kong people’s fundamental rights and liberties”. The European Union also made a similar statement, saying that they would broach the issue in international dialogue with China.
The political and economic implications of the new state of affairs in Hong Kong will be far-reaching but murky. As China rises to challenge the dominance of the U.S. and the West, Hong Kong appears to be caught in the crossfire. Although its importance has waned in recent years, it remains an economic lynchpin that provides the mainland with access to foreign capital. A year of protests and demonstrations, combined with frequent spats between Beijing and Washington, has already created uncertainty for financial institutions in Hong Kong. The damage has only been compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, with the city’s GDP plummeting to record lows.
Since the beginning of the recent wave of protests in 2019, pro-democracy activists have been fleeing Hong Kong in large numbers. Many fear being sent to the mainland and facing an unduly harsh punishment at the hands of the judicial system. The arrest of Jimmy Lai validates many of these fears. But beyond that, the Chinese government has made a powerful statement to Hong Kong, and the rest of the world about the lengths that they are willing to go to in order to consolidate their rule.