Timothy McLaughlin for theatlantic.com, | October 20, 2021

How Hong Kong’s Elite Turned on Democracy

Beijing’s bludgeoning of the prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong would not have been possible without the enthusiastic help of willing collaborators.

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A core member of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy camp stood on the balcony of the city’s legislature a quarter century ago, his fist raised in the air, and promised to continue to fight for universal suffrage. Today, he promotes the destruction of what limited voting freedoms Hong Kong has.

Among the loudest present-day advocates for the national-security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong last year is a high-profile lawyer who took up politics explicitly to fight against such legislation.

A lawmaker who now boasts about the benefits of Beijing’s crackdown and pushes anti-American conspiracy theories was once widely praised for her turn toward democracy while studying in the United States, part of what her thesis adviser called a “political and intellectual journey.”

From afar, it may appear as though China’s reengineering of Hong Kong involves two parties: the authorities in Beijing, and a populace up in arms over the curbing of its freedoms. Yet the former could not have so easily succeeded in bludgeoning the latter into submission without a third group—Hong Kong’s ruling class. These officials, politicians, and commentators employ a combination of historical revisionism, double standards, gaslighting, and whataboutisms, carrying out Beijing’s mission of transforming the city while attempting to maintain the veneer of democratic competition and convince residents their freedoms have not been eroded. The messages they push, delivered straight-faced, beggar belief: A less representative election is actually more democratic; Hong Kong has never been as safe and stable, but the threat of terrorism has never been more dire; even as organization after organization is forced to close, civil society is as vibrant as ever.

These collaborators come in as many varieties as Hong Kong’s famed dim sum. There are the cheerleaders for patriotic state education who send their own children to international private schools and sit on the boards of universities overseas, and the elites whose family members reside in the same countries that they allege meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs. And there are the law-enforcement leaders who claim that the U.S. is trying to destroy Hong Kong but know the enemy well, many having studied there or even trained with the FBI.

In Hong Kong, some once-outspoken pro-democracy veterans now appear to suffer from sudden political amnesia. Officials who obediently worked for the British colonial government are clambering over one another to prove their nationalist credentials to Beijing. And those who decried the British, their heavy-handed laws, and the colonial police officers who enforced them now applaud the use of those same regulations as they pursue their political enemies. (A few of the British officers are still on the force.)

The speed and zeal with which Hong Kong’s leaders have acquiesced have been jarring, given its history. When the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the city was left with a strong court system, a tradition of free speech, and leaders educated in an open society with international connections. Hong Kong is showing with remarkable clarity that there is no need for violence or revolution if elites and politicians are willing to go along with a crackdown.

“The lesson for us all is that even though you think your society would be immune to appeals to create a kind of authoritarian regime, look out,” Michael Davis, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C., and the author of Making Hong Kong China, told me.

One thing that Hong Kong has never been is a full democracy. The colonial government lacked popular legitimacy and instead co-opted business elites. Under the “one country, two systems” framework enacted when Hong Kong was handed back to China, tycoons and magnates continued to command outsize say in the government, shifting their loyalties as the flags changed over the city.

Technically, Hong Kongers can still vote, though these ballots carry far less power now than in previous years. Under a system meant to ensure that only “patriots” run Hong Kong, the number of people allowed to choose the city’s election committee has been curtailed from 233,000 electors to just 4,800—equivalent to 0.06 percent of the city’s population. One voter, the former head of the police-oversight board, arrived at the polls last month wearing a baseball hat commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, lest there be any confusion about who was calling the shots. Barely a fifth of the city’s legislature will be directly elected at the next set of polls in December, down from half previously. No pro-democracy parties have yet put forward candidates.

The city’s administration is led by a chief executive handpicked by Beijing. Those who have held the role have never possessed particularly refined or impressive political skills, yet they have the extremely challenging job of balancing two distinct constituencies—the people of Hong Kong and the bosses in Beijing. This relatively underdeveloped, partially democratic system helps to explain why the drastic changes have been so accepted by those in power and others seeking it.

In Twilight of Democracy, the Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum observes that in order for democratic governments to slide into authoritarianism, they “need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do.” She continues, “They need members of the intellectual and educated elite, in other words, who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.” Hong Kong may not have had a fully democratic system for Beijing to dismantle, but the types of individuals described by Applebaum are plentiful in the city.

Law Chi-kwong, for example, was described in the late 1990s as one of the “best-known advocates for democracy and the rule of law” in Hong Kong. A founding member of the city’s largest pro-democracy party, the longtime academic was denied entry to Shanghai in 2004—a badge of honor of sorts. But in 2017, he quit the Democratic Party to serve as Hong Kong’s secretary for labor and welfare. Two years later, as pro-democracy protests took hold, he told concerned residents that they had more to worry about from barbecue smoke than from the thousands of rounds of tear gas police had fired at demonstrators. More recently, he has been deployed to trumpet Beijing’s line about the overhaul of the electoral system. When questioned regarding his about-face, he awkwardly dodges inquiries. Asked about the legality of the city’s annual vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which he had participated in for years, his response was tautological: “Everything that’s illegal is illegal.”

Prodemocracy figures weren’t the only ones shocked and outraged in 1989. Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative on China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, has always been a staunchly pro-Beijing figure, but that year he denounced the crackdown and signed a petition against Beijing’s actions. Yet this year, after the organizers of Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen vigil were arrested under the national-security law, their organization was struck from the city’s company registry, and a museum dedicated to the 1989 protests was raided by police, Tam told reporters that the authorities were just following the law. When I asked Tam about this recently, he said that back in 1989 he hadn’t known all the facts about what had happened in Beijing.

Others are more loquacious in their defense of the Chinese government. Ronny Tong, a lawyer and an outspoken critic of an unsuccessful push in 2003 to pass a previous set of national-security laws, entered politics explicitly to combat such proposals. Tong stepped down as a lawmaker and joined the current administration in 2017, and since the arrival of the current national-security law has positioned himself as one of the government’s loudest attack dogs, often appearing on international TV talking over other guests and lambasting hosts. This time last year, he argued that the reaction to the security law was alarmist: “There are no mass arrests of dissidents and no shutting down of media,” he said.

Three months later, 53 people, including some members of Tong’s old party, were arrested for violating the national-security law; their alleged crime was taking part in an unofficial primary vote for an election that never happened. “Of course I’ve been correct,” Tong told me when I asked him if he stood by his statement. “The Hong Kong police are not going around the place knocking on everybody’s door and arresting everybody left, right, and center on trumped-up charges,” he said. Tong told me that my standard for the term mass arrest was “really, really low.” More than 100 people have now been arrested under the security law. And to his point on the media, Apple Daily, a prodemocracy newspaper that was Hong Kong’s largest newspaper by circulation, was forced to close in June when authorities arrested its top editors and froze its assets.

When I asked Fred Li, a former pro-democracy lawmaker turned business consultant, why so many people, including his old party comrades, had gone along with Hong Kong’s reengineering, he responded simply, “Do they have a choice?”

Those who wish to resist the changes sweeping across so many facets of Hong Kong can, of course, follow multiple paths, but none is particularly appealing. The options are jail, fleeing abroad to pursue activism in exile, or staying in Hong Kong and stepping away from politics (with the knowledge that past actions could at some point be used against you). And a final option: servility.

Lee Morgenbesser, a senior politics lecturer at Griffith University, in Australia, who studies authoritarian politics, told me that many people go along with the types of dramatic political overhauls being carried out in Hong Kong for one of three reasons: benefit, fear, or ignorance. For existing political elites, he said, the question to ask is how they stand to benefit. “If they are complicit and demonstrate loyalty, they get to keep their job, the salary, the perks of office that go with it,” he told me. If you opt out of politics, but move to the intertwined business community, “you are not going to get a contract for a job or tax benefits in any particular area without also demonstrating loyalty to the process that is under way.” People’s backgrounds are of little consequence, because ultimately, he said, “if you want to survive and you want to maintain your livelihood, you need to bend with the political wind.”

That wind is blowing from the north. Holden Chow, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, will bend as far and fast as needed to please the bosses there. When he was elected in 2016, Chow spoke of serving as a bridge between the mainland and Hong Kong. Those efforts have been tossed aside in favor of a more bombastic approach. Chow is now one of the loudest and most performative members of the pro-Beijing camp, staging protests outside the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong and taking to Twitter to launch barbs at anyone who offends China and to post celebratory messages when pro-democracy figures are arrested or jailed.

Chow is far less abrasive in person, but, as if trying to live up to his online persona, he referred to himself as a “patriot” no less than a half a dozen times during a recent conversation we had. One of his main talking points is the need for patriotic education in Hong Kong schools, the logic being that young students will thus be more amenable to Beijing’s ways, and less prone to calling for democracy like the hundreds of thousands of students who took to the streets in 2014 and 2019. It is a theory that is paradoxical in relation to his own life experience: Chow attended a posh English boarding school and then the London School of Economics.

He told me that he had come to the realization that Hong Kong needed to bolster its Chinese nationalism while working a short stint at a most American institution—Cedar Point, a sprawling amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, home of the Iron Dragon roller coaster and delicacies such as powdered-sugar-topped funnel cake. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played every morning and the American flag was raised. It was different from Hong Kong, Chow said, where people “don’t know you should respect the national anthem and national flag.”

When I told Chow that the U.S., unlike Hong Kong, does not criminalize destroying or burning the flag, he seemed taken aback. “That is not correct, is it?” he asked. A few weeks later, he voted in favor of a law that makes it illegal to demean the Chinese flag online. Violators face up to three years in prison.