China, Hong Kong

As silence is imposed, freedom is a whisper in Hong Kong

6 July 2020

Martin Purbrick looks at the impact of the Safeguarding National Security law in Hong Kong

At 11.00pm on 30 June 2020, Hong Kong people were silenced by the Chinese Communist Party and the concept of One Country Two Systems ended.

At that time the new national “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” was promulgated by Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive. The new law was implemented directly by the Central People’s Government, passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), added to the Annexes of the Basic Law (the constitution of Hong Kong) as a national law to take effect in the Special Administrative Region, and then signed into effect by Carrie Lam.

The implementation was direct and without consultation with Hong Kong citizens. Even the government and business elite were not shown the text of the law in advance of it being approved by the NPC. This illustrated the feeling of the Central People’s Government that not only could the population of Hong Kong not be trusted to be loyal, but the governing elite could not be trusted to competently implement law and maintain order.  Jean Pierre Cabestan, political science professor of the Hong Kong Baptist University has said that “There was a mood among mainland officials that we needed a second handover of Hong Kong to China, and we’re moving toward that”, and that “I don’t think Beijing trusts the Hong Kong elites any more.” [1]

The Safeguarding National Security law takes effect 17 years after the government of Tung Chee Wah, then Chief Executive of Hong Kong, failed to pass a less harsh form of national security legislation and was eventually forced to resign after hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people protested against the proposed law. The new Safeguarding National Security law is far more strict in its terms and severe in its punishments, with some deeply disturbing sections that undermine One Country Two Systems as well as established rights in Hong Kong.

Article 12 requires that a new Committee for Safeguarding National Security must be formed by the Hong Kong Government, but this is to be “under the supervision of and accountable to the Central People’s Government.” [2]  Luo Huining, director of the Liaison Office of the PRC, has been appointed as the National Security Advisor to the Central People’s Government on the Committee, chaired by the Chief Executive. This is another example of the Communist
Party of China senior representative in Hong Kong, Luo, being in a position of authority over the executive government.

Article 16 requires that the Hong Kong Police will create a new department for safeguarding national security, the head of which must be approved by the PRC office for safeguarding national security. “Qualified professionals and technical personnel” from outside Hong Kong may be recruited to provide assistance in safeguarding national security, which will lead to PRC intelligence and law enforcement staff being placed inside the Hong Kong Police. The Police have been given wide powers of search, confiscation of travel documents, restraining property, deleting published information, intercepting communications, and requiring people to answer questions (i.e. no right to silence), without needing authority from a Judge or Court.

There are new criminal offences of Secession (Article 20), Subversion (Article 22), Terrorist activities (Article 24), and Collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security (Article 29).  These offences are not clearly defined and left vague enough for them to be applied based on widely varying circumstances. Life imprisonment can be given to persons found guilty of them.

The Central People’s Government will establish an Office for Safeguarding National Security (Article 48), whose staff will be from the Central People’s Government “national security authorities”. The new office has a wide remit to oversee Hong Kong efforts, to collect intelligence, and to handle complex cases involving foreign countries or serious situations. Most worryingly, such cases will be prosecuted in mainland China (although there is no mention of what legal power will be used to transfer suspects). The staff of the Office will not be subject to any checks by Hong Kong law enforcement and have immunity to local laws.

The leaders of the new Office for Safeguarding National Security indicate what approach this organisation is likely to take. The new head of the Office is Zheng Yanxiong, with Li Jiangzhou and Sun Qingye appointed as deputy heads of the office. [3]  Zheng is best known for his work leading a crackdown on the villagers of Wukan in Guangdong Province in 2011, and his last post is as secretary general of the Guangdong branch of the Chinese Communist Party. [4]  Li Jiangzhou, one of the deputies in the Office, is a senior official of the Ministry of Public Security, experienced working with the Hong Kong Police from the Liaison Office,
who reportedly was previously head of the 1st Bureau, known for domestic security and the pursuit of dissidents, terrorists, and subversives. [5]  Sun Qingye, the other deputy, is believed to be an officer from the Ministry of State Security, which engages in espionage, counter intelligence, and political security. [6]

Taken together, the leadership group of the Office for Safeguarding National Security has experience of Communist Party discipline (Zheng), political policing (Li), and political intelligence (Sun). This suggests the most likely structure of the Office and their priorities.

The content of the law has shocked many Hong Kong people into silence and is likely to inhibit protests against the Hong Kong or Central People’s Governments. The silencing of dissent was swift. Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Nathan Law, the leading members of Demosisto, a pro-democracy youth activist group, resigned from their party positions and the group disbanded. Nathan Law fled from Hong Kong before the law came into effect as he feared that he would be prosecuted for testifying before the US Congress in relation to the situation in Hong Kong. There are many reports of Hong Kong people deleting their social
media histories on Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram, and many switching to Signal (which is reportedly more secure).

Fear is the intended outcome of the Safeguarding National Security law. Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said that the law is “a bloodless version” of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and that the objective is to intimidate and terrify the people so that people don’t even think about protesting again, hence avoiding a repeat of the 2019 pro-democracy protests. [7]

But on 1 July 2020, the first day of the Safeguarding National Security law, despite the refusal of the police to give permission for the long-held protest on the 1 July public holiday, “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day”, a few thousand people protested on the streets and in shopping malls.

The Hong Kong Police said on Twitter that “Around 370 arrests, including 10 (6M & 4F) for breaching #National Security Law, have been made today. A total of 7 officers were injured on duty. Among the serious injuries, one was stabbed by a rioter with a dagger and three were hit by a rioter driving a motorcylce” (sic).

A police officer was stabbed in the shoulder when he ran alone to chase fleeing protesters. That is a crime and the person who stabbed the young officer should be charged with wounding if he is identified and arrested.  It is certainly not, however, “terrorism”, which is what the Hong Kong Police have been labelling some actions by protesters. A protester who rode his motorcycle through a group of police officers has been arrested for “Terrorism” under the National Security law. The motorcycle was flying a flag with the words “Liberate Hong Kong Revolution of our Times”, a popular protest slogan that the Hong Kong Government said on 2 July is illegal to state openly, as it refers to secession and is hence an offence under the National Security law.

To reiterate how people break the law by dissenting, the Hong Kong Police used new flags which state “This is a police warning. You are displaying flags or banners / chanting slogans / or conducting yourself with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offences under the “HKSAR National Security Law”. You may be arrested and prosecuted.”  Hence the intent of the National Security law is made clear.

The creativity of Hong Kong people was shown on 1 July, the first day of enforcement of the National Security law.  The Hong Kong Police proudly announced on their Twitter feed that “A man was arrested for holding a Hong Kong Independence flag in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, violating the National Security Law. This is the first arrest made since the law came into force.”  What the Police did not say (or realise) was that the flag had the word “No” in tiny letters written before “Hong Kong Independence”.

Other people protesting sought to avoid being accused by the Police of the offence of Secession by holding blank sheets of white paper in the air whilst protesting .

Several restaurants that were part of the “Yellow Economy”, referring to the colour associated with the protest movement and the shops that support it, have taken down yellow post-it notes that had pro-democracy and anti-government messages and replaced them with blank notes.

The blank post-it notes summarise the situation that Hong Kong people find themselves in. They can think for themselves, they can dream, but they cannot speak out their views. The Safeguarding National Security law has the effect of silencing a vibrant civil society in Hong Kong that could contribute to the development of China. This is clearly not desirable to the hard-liners of the Chinese Communist Party who dominate policies at the moment. The appointment of PRC officials such as Luo Huining, Zheng Yanxiong, with Li Jiangzhou and Sun Qingye, is indicative of the hard line approach from the administration of Xi Jinping. These are not the pragmatic officials in the mould of Zhou Zhiyang, Wen Jiabao, and Zhu Rongji who led the political and economic opening up of China from the 1980s.

The law is intended to strike fear into people so that they do not protest, and to set an example for others that dissent is futile.  As silence is imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, Hong Kong people must whisper their freedom as they wait patiently for the liberalisation of China that many of us hope will come.

Martin Purbrick

[1] New York Times, In seizing control, China sidelines its allies in Hong Kong, 20 June 2020 ( https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/27/world/asia/china-hong-kong.html )

[2] The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Chapter II, Part 2, Governing Bodies, Article 12.

[3] Xinhua, State Council appoints officials for central gov’t national security office in HKSAR, 3 July 2020 ( http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-07/03/c_139185578.htm )

[4] South China Morning Post, National security law: Beijing appoints tough-talking party official Zheng Yanxiong to lead powerful new agency in Hong Kong, 3 July 2020 ( https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3091664/beijings-top-hong-kong-official-luo-huining-will-be-city )

[5] Matthew Brazil, Hong Kong: Chinese security officials arrive, 4 July 2020 ( https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/hong-kong-chinese-security-officials-arrive-matt-brazil/?trackingId=Q%2FuH656KrcL6WIcQrIrHpQ%3D%3D )

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Atlantic, Hong Kong is a colony once more, 1 July 2020 ( https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/07/hong-kong-china-national-security-colony/613711/ )

 

 

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A Letter from Hong Kong – 21 May 2020

As Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick) leaves Hong Kong he reflects again on Covid-19 and Hong Kong’s relationship with China.

It is difficult to describe the Coronavirus situation in Hong Kong when most people in the city remain preoccupied with the continued downward negative spiral of the political situation. Yet now in Hong Kong the Coronavirus pandemic relates to the political situation.

The Coronavirus situation

Hong Kong people have done a remarkable job at minimising the volume of cases in the city. As at 21 May, there have been only 1,064 confirmed or probable cases of Covid-19, with 1.029 patients discharged after treatment, and only four deaths. This data is staggering in comparison to London which by 20 May had over 26,000 recorded Covid-19 cases and over 4,000 related deaths.

Almost all Hong Kong residents wear a face mask when outside, they carry hand sanitiser everywhere, and use alcohol wipes to clean hands, open doors, hold train or bus rails. Companies hourly clean all doors, elevators, common area surfaces, and desks. Restaurants, which have never closed, have provided two sets of chopsticks since 2003 (one to pick up food, one to eat the food) and now also provide an envelope for each diner to put their face mask into and maintain table hygiene. Customers entering restaurants and shops must have their temperature taken, an extraordinary feat in a city with around 15,000 restaurants that is described as a “shopping paradise” for the ubiquity of shops and goods to buy.

Hong Kong residents returning to the city from other countries are required to enter self-quarantine at home. Upon arrival at the airport they must report to the vast hall of the exhibition centre and have samples of throat saliva taken for a Covid-19 test, and then stay at a local hotel until the test results are provided the same day (or overnight).

There have been restrictions on entry to Hong Kong since the start of the crisis. From 27 January, no person from Hubei Province and no Hong Kong resident who has visited Hubei Province in the past 14 days can enter Hong Kong. From 25 March, no non-residents have been allowed entry to Hong Kong, and any non-residents entering the city from Macau, Taiwan or Mainland China cannot enter if they have been to another country in the past 14 days. Hong Kong people have not been locked down in their homes, but the territory of Hong Kong has been locked down and cut off from the outside world.

There is no health-related lockdown for Hong Kong people, but there is an increasingly stringent political lockdown as civil rights are continuously eroded by the exercise of increased authority by the Central Peoples Government over the city.

The political situation

The lack of credibility of government officials has led to a lack of trust in the Hong Kong Government. This is illustrated by the government distribution of cloth face masks to every resident. The “CuMask” is issued to every resident who applies, but is described by local people as being an acronym for the “Chinese Underwear Mask” as the masks look like a large bra cup. Such are the divisions in Hong Kong society that some pro-democracy supporting “yellow” restaurants are reportedly banning any customers who wear the government issued mask. A mobile App is available listing around 1,300 restaurants which are “yellow” and another 1,600 that are “blue” (pro-government).
The lack of trust of government officials results from continual acts that restrict freedoms in the city.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) has been under great pressure following consistent independent reporting of the protests, related violence, and police use of force. That independence is being lost as the Hong Kong and also the Central Peoples Government have criticised RTHK for their reporting. A satirical show has been cancelled after an episode parodied the Hong Kong Police with a police officer wearing a rubbish bin liner and suggesting that the police had plenty of protective gear whilst medical staff did not.  The Hong Kong and Central Peoples Government have criticised RTHK after a reporter asked a World Health Organisation official why Taiwan could not be a member of the WHO, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam called a breach of One Country Two Systems by not following the “One China principle”.

This week the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) released their long-awaited report that found the Police had not acted inappropriately in the major protest related incidents that have caused such anger amongst many Hong Kong people. The IPCC noted some minor areas for improvement by the Police, but generally substantiated Police actions during the contentious incidents.

On the “7/21” when villagers and triads attacked people at the Yuen Long MTR station, the IPCC “did identify deficiencies in Police deployment and other Police action in response to the events.” Yet the IPCC says nothing more about this finding and instead stresses that it is not justified to accuse the Police of “collusion with triads”.

On the “8/31” incident at Prince Edward MTR Station in which video recordings show the beating of protesters, the IPCC stated that this “does not show the whole picture” and that there were “many protesters changing their clothes to disguise themselves as protesters”. This does not quite address the point of why it is acceptable to beat anyone who is not armed and not resisting.

On the firing of tear gas into several MTR (underground) stations, the IPCC stated that “most protesters wore respirators” and “the use of tear gas did achieve the purpose of dispersing the violent protesters who had refused to leave the station.” This does not show any care regarding any innocent people who were not protesters who happened to be in the station, or indeed why it is acceptable to breach police standing orders and fire tear gas into an underground train station at all.

All of these incidents were complicated situations with violence from protesters creating chaos that would test the best of any police officers in the world. But the key point missing from the reaction of the Hong Kong Government, the Police, and the establishment in Hong Kong is that accountability is a concept that must be applicable to all for it to be meaningful. The violent protesters are being held to account for their actions, but the police officers whose discipline lapsed and the police management who failed are not accountable. The Government officials who have proven politically inept remain in post waiting for retirement. This remains the basis of division between the majority of Hong Kong people and those who govern.

The past years of discontent in Hong Kong have worsened to the point where the Central People’s Government has caused local people to cease to believe that One Country Two Systems has any reality or meaning. This was emphasised on 21 May when a spokesman for the National People’s Congress, which is meeting in Beijing, stated that the NPC Standing Committee would put forward proposals to set up legal and enforcement mechanisms in order to uphold national security at the state level in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This means that the Central People’s Government will legislate for national security in Hong Kong without the need for the Hong Kong Government to initiate legislation of its own.

Such national security legislation would most likely criminalise activities or calls relating to secession, foreign interference (which can be widely interpreted), and terrorism, all of which can be defined variously by the Central People’s Government and hence cover acts that are interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party. This is not what was envisioned prior to 1997 as how One Country Two Systems would function, and the promised autonomy for Hong Kong has been gradually eroding for the past two decades.

* * *

After arriving in Hong Kong in 1988 to join the Royal Hong Kong Police, marrying my beautiful wife who is from the city, having two wonderful sons born in the city, and meeting so many great friends and colleagues, it was time for me to leave in May 2020 and return to Scotland. It is sad to go at this time when most Hong Kong people are so fearful for the future as the PRC Government tightens its direct control over the city. There is a feeling of despondency amongst so many Hong Kong people as they fear that the One Country Two Systems concept is dead and the future will bring increasing repression by an autocratic Hong Kong Government dominated by the directives of the Chinese Communist Party.

This is too pessimistic. Hong Kong people have proven themselves to be extraordinarily resilient for over a hundred years navigating the arrival of the colonial British, the decline of the Qing Dynasty, the war with Japan, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, and the long years of turmoil during communist rule. Hong Kong has been a haven for enlightened Chinese intellectuals, for dynamic Chinese businessmen, and for free thinking Chinese people.

The Chinese revolution of 1911 would not have occurred had Dr. Sun Yat Sen not been able to study in the city at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese and plot the overthrow of the Manchu Qing with his associates.

The Chinese economy would not have grown so quickly after the Cultural Revolution if the legion of Hong Kong Chinese businessmen had not invested in their motherland, leading to the growth of Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou into economic powerhouses.

The future development of China will not be as bright without the free-thinking Hong Kong people who meet adversity with creativity and energy. It is the people of Hong Kong who are the future of the country, and no doubt they will show their normal patient resolve to navigate the efforts to suppress them.

加油 香港人 !

Martin Purbrick

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A Letter from Hong Kong – 20 April

Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick), the RSAA’s honorary local secretary in Hong Kong, continues his commentary on life with Covid-19.  Martin is a regular contributor to Asian Affairs

 

 

20 April 2020

The Coronavirus in Hong Kong has led to a new normal lifestyle for us all. Bars, pubs, karaoke lounges, massage establishments, bathhouses, mahjong parlours, and nightclubs (which are not discos, but have Chinese hostesses entertaining male customers) are all closed. Never has vice been so hard hit. Horse racing is however continuing and hence at least people can gamble, which Deng Xiaoping assured when he famously said before 1997 that “Horses will keep racing and nightclub dancing will continue”. (Well, he was right about horses.)

Restaurants are open, but with only 50 per cent of normal seating allowed, tables must be 1.5 metres apart or with a partition, and no more than 4 people may sit together. Face masks must be worn inside restaurants, except when consuming food or drink (thank heavens). There is temperature checking at entrances to restaurants and shops. Face masks are pervasive on people walking on the streets. But business continues and there is no compulsory lockdown.

Thankfully, the situation is far less severe than in many other cities and countries.  By 19 April, there were a total of 1,024 confirmed cases and only 4 deaths. Hong Kong people are doing well at dealing with the crisis.

The Hong Kong Government’s Coronavirus catchphrase is “Together we fight the virus”. This collaborative approach does however continue to be distracted by the political tensions. The Liaison Office of the Central Peoples’ Government stated last week that they can comment on and supervise any issues concerning the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing. This may contradict Article 22 of the Basic Law, the Hong Kong mini-constitution, that requires that PRC government departments do not interfere in Hong Kong affairs. This followed comments made by the Head of the Liaison Office about legislators who he suggested may have breached their oaths of office by filibustering new legislation.

On 14 April, Reuters reported that senior judges in the city had told reporters that “The independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system is under assault from the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.” The article relayed concerns from interviews with judges that there is a concerted effort by the Central Peoples’ Government to restrict the Hong Kong Judiciary by using the PRC state-controlled media to issue warnings, to limit the scope of the Judiciary to rule on any constitutional matters, and to assert the rule of law as a tool to preserve the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

The next day happened to be “National Security Education Day”, seemingly a new festival in Hong Kong that has not been in the traditional Chinese calendar in the past. Both Hong Kong and Central Government officials made statements about the auspicious day. Carrie Lam, Chief Executive, said that “National security is an important cornerstone for peace and stability and “social events” in the past year have given the society a deeper understanding of the importance of national security.”

Luo Huining, Director of the Liaison Office of the Central Peoples’ Government in Hong Kong, said on 15 April that “If the anthill eroding the rule of law is not cleared, the dam of national security will be destroyed and the well-being of all Hong Kong residents will be damaged”, and that “There is a need to put effort into maintaining the national security legal system and enforcement system as soon as possible.” Luo was referring to the calls by the Central Peoples’ Government for Hong Kong to enact new national security legislation.

Celebrations of National Security Education Day in the PRC included suggestions by the Ministry of State Security as to why this is such an important subject. The MSS are usually quite a serious bunch but in cartoon videos released on their website they referred to Superman, Mr. Bean, The Joker, and Spongebob Squarepants to illustrate why the Counter Espionage and National Security Law are really very important. (1)

The videos encourage citizens to identify foreign spies in their everyday lives and explains that many people think of the FBI, CIA, Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, and Captain America as spies, but the superheroes have in fact been laid off and are unemployed. It seems that even the serious spies at the Ministry of State Security has been watching a few too many Hollywood movies during their prolonged time locked down because of the coronavirus.

There is a long tradition in China of warning the population to beware of “foreign forces”. On the 2018 National Security Awareness Day, Chinese citizens were warned to be alert for friends who wear masks, spies who come as tourists, journalists, researchers, or diplomats.(2)  In the 2017 campaign, the authorities offered cash rewards for providing intelligence about foreign agents. The first campaign, in 2016, warned female citizens of the “Dangerous Love” from dating foreigners. The risks were illustrated in a cartoon showing a poor civil servant named “Little Li” who engaged in a romance with a visiting foreign scholar called David. Miss Li’s job is to write reports for senior Communist Party leaders, which the devious David asks her to share with him after he plies her with walks in the park, flowers and dinner dates. This does of course end in tears as David stops calling Miss Li once he has some reports, and the police arrive to arrest the poor girl whilst telling her how naïve she is.

It seems that old people can also be a danger to National Security.  On Saturday 18 April, the Hong Kong Police arrested Barrister Martin Lee (age 81), Barrister Margaret Ng (72), former legislator Yeung Sum (72), newspaper owner Jimmy Lai (71), former legislator Albert Ho (68), former legislator Cyd Ho (65), politician Leung Kwok Hung (64), trade unionist Lee Cheuk Yan (63), and a few other local politicians.  All were arrested on suspicion of taking part in an Unlawful Assembly in August 2019. None had committed any violence and did not encourage violence, but they were at a protest involving a few hundred thousand people that has been declared an Unlawful Assembly by the Police.

It is always helpful to look back at history in China to understand the current political situation. Confucius is helpful when considering governing, and in the Analects, written around 500 BCE, “The Duke Ai asked, saying, “What should be done in order to secure the submission of the people?” Confucius replied, “Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit.”  Rather often in the history of China the teachings of Confucius are more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Laws in China were codified during the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first great emperor from 221 BCE, but according to the “Legalist” philosophy. Legalism contended that people were more likely to do wrong rather than right because they are self-interested and hence the threat of severe punishment is the best way to maintain order. Legalism was prominent during the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi and other philosophies were banned, books detailing them destroyed, and non-conforming writers executed. Punishments were severe, ranging from beatings, hard labour (for instance on the Great Wall and Grand Canal), banishment to frontier regions (terribly hot), flogging, amputation (of hands, feet, nose), and castration.

The Qin Dynasty ended in 206 BCE and was succeeded by the Han Dynasty that continued until 220 CE. During the Han Dynasty “Legalism” was replaced by Confucianism as the leading philosophy and the country thrived with the development of the Silk Road, the establishment of the Imperial Examinations, the expansion of art in calligraphy, painting, pottery, and sculpture, which established China as such a great civilisation that thrives when its people are allowed to express themselves.

1. Quartz, China is using Mr Bean and Batman to help explain the importance of protecting state secrets, 15 April 2020 (https://qz.com/662802/china-is-using-mr-bean-and-batman-to-help-explain-the-importance-of-protecting-state-secrets/)

 2. The Guardian, China’s anti-spy campaign: cash rewards and warnings of dangerous times, 10 May 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/10/chinas-anti-spy-campaign-cash-rewards-and-warnings-about-red-heads)

 

Martin Purbrick

 

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A letter from Hong Kong

Coronavirus may be keeping us at home, but the RSAA is lucky to have members who can give us views from across Asia.

This contribution is from Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick), honorary local secretary in Hong Kong.  Martin is a regular contributor to Asian Affairs

 

4 April 2020

GKpGPNBL_400x400The Coronavirus affecting us now is not the first time that we have lived through an epidemic in Hong Kong, and not likely to be the last. Hong Kong people have experienced Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H5N1 Avian Flu in 1997 (killing six people and the first human transmission of this virus), and the “Hong Kong flu” in 1968 (named as the first reported case was in the city) which affected half a million residents.

We started to hear about Covid-19, the new Coronavirus, at the end of December 2019 (which seems a lifetime ago). In early January those of us working in large organisations activated our response plans, with employee communications, face masks distributed, frequent cleaning of everything (door handles, lift buttons, tables, toilets, etc), all of the things that we had learnt during SARS. Hong Kong people reacted quickly for one reason – They were scared. We were all scared not only because we know the death that epidemics can bring to large cities, but also because we have experienced the difficulty of trusting information from the government in mainland China.

Covid-19 came after six months of violent political protest and a crackdown by the police that seemed would never end. News media reported nothing else, people at work talked of nothing else, and we were all obsessed (and divided) by nothing else. Yet in early January the large protests stopped. This was due to more than the Coronavirus. The police have arrested over 7,000 people since June 2019 when major protests started, which has helped stop violence. The protest movement, which involves a wide range of civil society groups, changed strategy after success in the District Council elections and is now focussed on the September elections for the Legislative Council in which they aim to defeat pro-establishment parties and embarrass the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing. Yet protests continue, despite social distancing from fear of the Coronavirus.

On New Year’s Day the police dispersed a large peaceful march numbering according to the organisers hundreds of thousands. On 3 January, 20,000 teachers protested against government “white terror” (referring to efforts to silence people). On 19 January, tens of thousands attended a rally against the Chinese Communist Party, that was cleared by police firing tear gas. Small scale protests still occur frequently, usually to commemorate protest events such as the 21/7 attacks in the Yuen Long MTR (train) station, the 31/8 incident at Prince Edward MTR station, and the 8/1 2016 riots in Mong Kok.

The anniversaries of protests events illustrate the Chinese love of numerology. The protest events are remembered as 21/7, 31/8, 8/1, etc.  Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Government, is referred to by most local people as “777” (“chat chat chat” in Cantonese), which refers to the number of votes she obtained in the election for her position. The Cantonese in particular use the sounds of some numbers to associate with names. Cantonese for Four is sei, which sounds like the word for death. Eight is baat, which sounds like the words for prosper and wealth (I confess that I added 888 pounds to the bidding price for my flat in Edinburgh in an effort to have luck with the purchase!).


Protest slogans are widely popular, and have become virus slogans. During the protests people would chant in Cantonese “Heung Kong yan ga yau” (“Hong Kong people add oil”, meaning “keep going”). In July 2019, a Cathay Pacific pilot became a local hero when just before landing at the Hong Kong airport he said in a pre-landing announcement “Heung Kong yan ga yau”. Ironically, this also became the rallying cry in Wuhan when the locked down population started to shout out of their high-rise apartment windows “Wuhan ren ka yau” in Mandarin (“Wuhan people add oil”). In March residents from Hubei Province fought against Public Security Bureau (police) officers from Jiangxi Province after marching with police officers from their own area across the Jiuliang Yangtze River Bridge that joins both provinces, chanting “Hubei ga yau” (“Hubei add oil”). The cause of the clashes between Hubei and Jiangxi people (and police) was a tangled web as such incidents often are in China, but it brings us back to the Coronavirus as Hubei people who have been locked down for three months in their homes vented their frustrations.

The protests seem a very long time ago, although most of us fear that they will return in the summer as the government refuses to seek reconciliation and the protest movement is readying for the next round. No doubt when major protests do return they will replace the Coronavirus in the 24-hour news cycle. The top stories in the South China Morning Post this morning are “Is Hong Kong’s Basic Law standing firm at 30?” and “Hong Kong bars and pubs shut as coronavirus tally rises by 43”.

The first story refers to the 30th anniversary of the endorsement of the Basic Law, the constitution of Hong Kong, by the National Peoples’ Congress of China on 4 April 1990. The Basic Law is the foundation of “One country two systems” which was the basis for the return of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China. Following the violent political protests of 2019, the dire unpopularity of the local government, as well as widespread local antipathy towards the governing system and culture of mainland China, many have suggested that “One country two systems” is not working. This issue remains the single greatest challenge facing Hong Kong in the long term.

The other story is of course about Covid-19, which has taken over all of our lives in Hong Kong and around the world. The number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong has reached 845. Hong Kong is doing well with a relatively low number of confirmed cases and only 4 deaths. Clearly that number can change and we all continue social distancing and careful hygiene.

Today is Ching Ming (Qingming), falling on the 15th day of the Spring Equinox, when Chinese people gather in family groups to sweep the graves of their ancestors and make offerings. This ancient Chinese tradition is affected as less people will travel to mainland China to visit tombs of ancestors and the government has banned gatherings of more than four people, which will cause them to stay away from graves. But Chinese tradition endures. Shops in Hong Kong selling paper products to burn for their ancestors to use in the afterlife, such as banknotes and expensive luxury items, are this year selling paper face masks, paper health care products, paper drugs, and even paper dolls dressed as doctors and nurses to assist the dead against the Coronavirus. Thankfully, Chinese culture has a solution to every problem.

Martin Purbrick

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Hong Kong

Sir David Akers-Jones GBM KBE CMG

Sir David Akers-Jones, local honorary secretary of the RSAA in Hong Kong, died on 30 September. Martin Purbrick, a regular contributor to Asian Affairs, remembers his life.

 Sir David Akers-Jones, who has died aged 92, lived in interesting times on the south coast of China and was part of some of the key moments in the modern history of Hong Kong as a colonial civil servant from 1957 to 1987.

Sir David Akers-JonesBorn in Surrey, England, in 1927, Akers-Jones left home in 1945 to join the British India Steam Navigation Company, paying 50 Guineas to be indentured as an apprentice for four years during which time he sailed around the coast of India, to Australia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, the Seychelles, and the east coast ports of Africa. After sailing the Indian Ocean for four years, he returned to England to study at Oxford where two fortuitous events occurred. Firstly, he met and married Jane, the love of his life. Secondly, he joined the Royal Central Asian Society (now the Royal Society for Asian Affairs) after a conversation about Asia one evening at the gate of his college with a man walking his dog. He stayed with his true love Jane for 45 years until she passed away in 2002, and was an active member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs almost until his own death.

Akers-Jones joined the Malayan Civil Service as a Cadet in 1952 and first attended the School of Oriental and African Studies to learn Malay before starting to learn the Chinese Hokkien dialect when he arrived in the colony.  He was first posted as District Officer in Alor Gajah, Malacca, for only a year before Malayan independence and then decided to accept a transfer to Hong Kong in 1957. After a brief spell in the Commerce and Industry Department, Akers-Jones was appointed in 1959 as District Officer for Tsuen Wan, a rural area fast developing with new industry and urban housing. He recalled that his work involved setting out terms for the removal of villages, finding land for a community centre, persuading the meat merchants to take their pigs to the slaughterhouse, building a temporary market for the butchers, fixing the boundaries of a Taoist institute, convening the first meetings of a hospital board”, and a long list of even more diverse tasks that no one person could ever be trained for. He also served in Islands District in 1961 and then Yuen Long District from 1962 to 1967.

From 1967, during the communist inspired unrest fomented by the Cultural Revolution, Akers-Jones was Deputy District Commissioner in the New Territories and was a key part of government response to the communist bombing campaign, liaison with the British military, and negotiations with Chinese officials that started with listening to readings from Chairman Mao’s red book of writings. Such was life in the New Territories that the sensitive border work often involved such delicate tasks as in October 1966 negotiating with a fleet of mainland fishermen who claimed that they in fact owned the oyster beds off the coast of Yuen Long.

After the turbulence of communist disturbances ended in 1968, Akers-Jones became Principal Assistant Colonial Secretary (Lands), a very grand title that according to him involved a never ending stream of paper and files. This was in fact a critical role and he navigated the renewal of Kowloon land leases that expired in 1973, sensitive as the Chinese always considered the land to be a part of China and only under British administration. He was part of the momentous period of development of Hong Kong led by the Governor Sir Murray MacLehose, which involved building housing for 1.5 million people in urban areas and another 300,000 in rural areas, leading to the construction of “New Towns” that dominate the landscape of modern Hong Kong.

He continued his long association with rural communities and in 1973 was appointed Secretary for the New Territories where he led the building of the Sha Tin New Town, which is now home to a population of over 650,000 people. In his 12 years in this role he led an administration that built new homes for 1.5 million people, mostly new immigrants from mainland China. What an extraordinary achievement. His civil service career continued as he was appointed as a member of the Executive Council (advisors to the Governor) in 1978, as Chief Secretary (the most senior civil servant) in 1985, and was acting Governor for six weeks whilst Sir Edward Youde was on leave.

Akers-Jones not only contributed to the Districts to which he was posted, but also worked with several friends to form ‘Outward Bound Hong Kong’ in 1970, which he recognised could be of immense benefit to young people who grew up in crowded urban environments with limited physical exercise and activities. He was a lifelong supporter of Outward Bound, having formed the branch in Malaysia whilst a District Officer, and later become Honorary President of Outward Bound Hong Kong.

Akers-Jones was a “friend of China” and in the early 1970s was one of the few British colonial officials to visit mainland China on multiple occasions and be welcomed by the authorities. He saw first-hand the changes taking place in China in the 1980s and revelled in the stunning scenery, travelled the Silk Road, and revered the ancient culture paying his respects at the grave of Confucius at Chufu.

During the early 1980s, Akers-Jones was at the heart of discussions between the British and Chinese governments regarding the issue of sovereignty of Hong Kong after 1997, resulting in the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 between the two countries. He was critical of efforts by the British government after 1984 to expand the electorate, first increasing elected representatives on District Boards and later under Governor Chris Patten adding voters to “functional constituencies”. In this regard Akers-Jones was an administrator and not a politician, a product of colonial rule rather than democracy.

The career of Akers-Jones was best summed up by former Governor Sir David Wilson, who wrote that “He must rank as one of the last of that great breed of District Officers who knew intimately the people and the area for which he was responsible.” He was a capable colonial administrator who became close to the people he worked with, learning first Hokkien and later Cantonese, but he was not a bureaucrat and the words of Akers-Jones himself from his memoire are a telling reminder for the current government of Hong Kong:

“Papers on policies and projects did not gather dust: government was a living, bubbling thing and needed these spontaneous injections of both ideas and energy to keep pace with the challenge of the need, without any significant natural resources, to provide a livelihood for the swelling population, and to keep stoking the fires of burgeoning prosperity.”

We could benefit from his experience and wisdom now during these troubled times in Hong Kong. Sir David Akers-Jones will be missed as an exemplary civil servant who was dedicated to the people in the communities he administered, as a member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for over 50 years, and as a decent man who lived in the most interesting times.

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China, Hong Kong

China and Hong Kong in Asian Affairs March 2015: Comment

Kenneth C. Walker, an academic and former diplomat who sits on the Editorial Board of the Asian Affairs Journal, takes issue with articles on Hong Kong and China in the March 2015 issue of Asian Affairs. He puts a different point of view here, and Dr Stephan Ortmann, author of the article on the Democracy Movement in Hong Hong, makes a reply below.

Ken Walker:

I was surprised by some points in two articles in the March 2015 issue of Asian Affairs.

In Stephan Ortmann’s article on Hong Kong I wondered how he could have formed the view that the Chinese “were able to dictate most of the conditions” in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. China’s decision to “resume the exercise of sovereignty” in 1997 and the main principles of its policy on Hong Kong were stated in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of the Declaration. But Annexes which are integral to the Declaration set out in detail measures to protect Hong Kong’s system and the freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. It was well-known at the time that these measures resulted from intensive negotiations in which the input of the senior British diplomats representing Hong Kong’s interests was crucial. Moreover, it is obvious from the amount of detail that the wording could only be the result of intricate negotiations to protect Hong Kong’s interests. Hence my surprise at Dr Ortmann’s view.

Dr Ortmann rightly says that the Joint Declaration did not provide for “full democracy”. Clearly, there was no chance of achieving that.  Continue reading

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