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Hong Kong’s Hard Line Against ‘Soft Resistance’
Speakers at talk debate chilling effect of National Security Law
By: Toh Han Shih
The Hong Kong government appears to be growing increasingly impatient over the subtle ways common citizens are choosing to defy growing restrictions and have set out to target “soft resistance” without really defining what it is. But whatever it is, it is having a chilling effect, said lunch speakers at a July 25 lunch talk at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC).
The phrase “soft resistance” has found increasing usage by government officials who have criticized subtle defiance by residents for, among other things, spraying water at police officials during a Thai festival in Kowloon, local residents withdrawing from an organ donation program when it affiliated with mainland registries, jeering mainlanders, refusing to sing the national anthem at sports events, and other acts of indirect rebellion.
Emily Lau, a former member of the Legislative Council (LegCo), quoted Hong Kong Security Secretary Chris Tang, speaking on radio on July 25 of “soft resistance,” saying “we must tackle that,” and “he named the news media, and also people in arts, culture, maybe some of the culprits may be guilty of soft resistance.”
“I don’t know whether FCC by hosting these things is soft resistance,” Lau said, laughing ironically. “If Mr Tang mentioned (it) in the news media this morning…I don’t think any journalist should feel safe. I think we should need to continue to fight for space so that journalists and others can operate, and lawyers also, because this is the Hong Kong we all knew and love, and we don’t want it to sink to the bottom of Victoria Harbor.”
Lau is a former chairperson of the pro-democracy Democratic Party. “I am very worried,” she said.
Hong Kong’s own security legislation, Article 23, will have provisions to deal with “soft resistance,” Tang told Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper, on July 3. Tang said Hong Kong had seen “soft resistance” in recent years, as well as online discussions and publications that could radicalise people.
Article 23 is expected to be enacted by early next year. Article 23 is a local complement to the National Security Law (NSL), which Beijing implemented in Hong Kong in the middle of 2020 to quell the protests of 2019 and 2020. In 2003, then Hong Kong Security Secretary Regina Ip tried to implement Article 23, but was met with a protest by half a million people, which caused her to resign.
Chris Tang said certain children’s books which are deemed seditious could cause children to “lose faith in Hong Kong’s judicial system” and instil the idea that “only by using force against organs of state power would they be able to protect their home.”
Tang was echoing Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee at the handover ceremony on July 1, who said Hong Kong must stay vigilant against “soft resistance” and be proactive in safeguarding national security. The directions which Chinese President Xi Jinping gave on what Hong Kong must do, including implementing “patriots ruling Hong Kong,” formed the basis of his governance blueprint, Lee said.
The Hong Kong government first mentioned the term “soft resistance” in July last year, in a statement objecting to what it deemed unfair criticism in a United Nations Human Rights Committee report.
As a sign of fear, there were almost no political books at the Book Fair in Hong Kong from July 19 to 25, Lau said. Lau, a former journalist, pointed out that Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking has “fallen off the cliff”. In the first World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders in 2002, Hong Kong ranked 18th of 139 countries but has plummeted to 140th in 2023.
“Rest assured you can say anything you like in Hong Kong,” said Ronny Tong, a senior counsel who heads a local think tank, Path of Democracy.
The issue of soft resistance “needs to be looked at very seriously,” said John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at Hong Kong University.
Soft resistance allegedly by anti-China seditious elements in education, the media, culture and ideology “is very vague and does not tell us exactly what the authorities are thinking,” said Burns. “This is a worrying development for many in Hong Kong.”
“It’s almost as if the government is saying the word ‘patriot’ is code for you agree with us. If you agree with us, then you can be in the district council, you can be in LegCo, you can be in the election committee and all these things. But if you don’t agree with us, then you’re resisting,” Burns added.
“The government can use its own machinery to promote the right values, the right attitudes,” said Albert Chen, a professor and chair of constitutional law at Hong Kong University.
“The government should use its own means to counter what it considers to be the wrong views on the history of China,” said Chen, a former member of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee. “We should not use the criminal law to prohibit speech or thinking which the authorities dislike.”
“I don’t think there is an offence called soft resistance. I believe you can only be convicted if you have criminal intent to infringe the law,” said Tong. To infer criminal intent, judges have to infer from the surrounding circumstances to what you said, he explained. “If you are confident in yourself, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
National security laws
About 270 people have been arrested since the NSL came into force in the middle of 2020, of which roughly 70 have been tried in court, all of them found guilty, said Lau. “This is a 100 percent conviction rate. I’m not casting aspersions on anybody.”
Hong Kong has an independent judiciary which is world renowned, said Tong, a former judge. “I know many of the judges. I don’t believe any of them are corrupt.”
Violating national security is a serious offence not only in Hong Kong, but also the US and UK, Tong argued. The maximum sentence for violating national security in the UK is life imprisonment, Tong pointed out.
The UK National Security Act of 2023 has extensive provisions against foreign interference, more than Article 23, said Chen.
In early July, Hong Kong’s national security police issued arrest warrants for eight self-exiled activists, including former lawmakers Ted Hui and Dennis Kwok, with a reward of HK$1 million (US$128,000) offered for each of the wanted people. The arrest warrants for these eight fugitives are a warning to people who might support them, including foreign politicians, said Burns.
The UK National Security Bill also has extra-territorial effect, Tong said.
Burns agreed that many countries have their versions of the national security law.
“The question is how is it interpreted,” Burns said.
Press freedom is mentioned in China’s constitution, Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the UN Conventions on Human Rights, but they are interpreted in different ways, Burns pointed out.
“The NSL is used by the authorities to intimidate and this is widespread,” Burns said.
“This kind of intimidation is designed to encourage people to self-censor in the media and everywhere else and of course to change their behavior,” Burns argued.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer living in Hong Kong.