Dear friends,

This week: more on Hong Kong’s national security law; some important developments in Hong Kong politics; reflections on the June 4th anniversary, including related nourishment & consolation; and the usual mandatory dose of self-promotion.

HK: National security law & US response

If you want to catch up on the background on Hong Kong’s national security law, you might like to read my detailed overview for the New Statesman, published the day that the NPC resolution passed.

Following the US response — with President Trump threatening to end Hong Kong’s special trade status — I wrote an op-ed for The Guardianin which I argued that Hong Kong’s leaders have sacrificed the city’s political neutrality:

Perhaps the most profound impact of the US action may be that Hong Kong, in the very near term, would become globally regarded to be part-and-parcel of China, and to carry with it China’s reputation, for better or worse. In the past, Hong Kong has enjoyed its own, separate, global reputation. […] No matter what was happening in the rest of China, Hong Kong stood apart.

Well, Hong Kong will stand apart no longer.

It may be natural to blame the US for this, and some have already argued that the US measures are pushing Hong Kong closer to Beijing. […]

However, the sad reality is that Hong Kong government leaders have already been doing this themselves, all too willingly stepping into their role as proxies for Beijing, rather than standing up for the people of the city they are supposed to represent. This could not have been more evident than in the last week as Lam and many of her principal officials lined up to praise the new national security law… [And, I should add, when they haven’t even seen a draft of it!]

This is only the most recent example in a long-developing trend in which Hong Kong’s leaders have gradually ceded its autonomy to Beijing. So, should there be any surprise when the Hong Kong they lead is finally treated accordingly?

HK: Important developments

Amidst all this noise, there were a few important developments which are worth highlighting (in particular for this newsletter’s fund manager constituency).

Centralising power over Hong Kong

First: some Chinese Communist Party organisation and personnel developments. (Yes I know this smells of “China Watching” but, trust me, it’s important):

  • It was confirmed by PRC official media that the Party organ overseeing Hong Kong policy was recently upgraded from a “coordinating group” 協調小組 to a “leading group” 領導小組: the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs 中央港澳工作領導小組. In the world of Party nomenclature this is important. It indicates that Hong Kong is now considered an issue of vital national concern at the highest levels of the Party, and the group overseeing it now has more power, authority and resources. In short, this is a sign of increasing centralised power over Hong Kong.
  • Official media also confirmed that Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi 趙克志 is now a vice chair of the leading group. Zhao was one of three people who met with Carrie Lam (alongside chair of the leading group Vice Premier Han Zheng 韓正, and another vice chair of the leading group and director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xiao Baolong 夏寶龍) when she visited Beijing last week to receive marching orders. All this indicates that Beijing is doubling-down on treating Hong Kong as a national security problem. This has implications for both the local activist/dissident community and the foreign business community.

Business, meet Politics

Second: former-Chief Executive C.Y. Leung’s public shakedown-via-Facebook of HSBC has been covered in the media fairly well by now (you can get a quick catch-up via SCMP here). But the important thing to note about the incident is this: international businesses need to get used to the idea that doing business in Hong Kong is now just as politicised as it is in the rest of China. It couldn’t be more stark than this line from Leung’s Facebook post:

It’s been over a week, and HSBC still hasn’t expressed a position on the National Security Law 一個多星期過去了,匯豐銀行還未就國安法表態

(Spoiler: HSBC came out and expressed a position — in support, natch — a few days later.)

The demands for both local and international businesses — and business leaders personally — to “express a position” (表個態) on political issues are now a feature of the Hong Kong business landscape, and will only accelerate.

Further evidence of this came in an article backing up Leung by Peking University law professor Jiang Shigong 强世功 on WeChat available here, which explicitly tied national security to “financial security” and “information security”. Foreign financial institutions, especially UK and US financial institutions, who think they can remain politically neutral are going to be in for a shock. Amidst rising international tensions, their line is going to become increasingly difficult to navigate.

National Anthem Law

Finally, almost as an aside, following the pro-Beijing putsch in LegCo (discussed in my 12th Procrastination), the National Anthem Law was passed on 4th June (as if to underline just how brazen they are). Insulting the PRC national anthem is now a crime in Hong Kong punishable by up to 3 years jail.

And, a few days later, we have the Secretary for Education suggestingthat if school children “show disrespect for our national anthem, and the seriousness of the incidents is so big that it will affect the operation of the school and/or affect other students as well, then the schools…have to call in law enforcement agencies to help them restore order”.


For the first time in thirty years, the annual June 4th vigil in Hong Kong was banned by authorities, on public health concerns.

I wrote a feature article for Coda on the banning of the vigil — and the prospects for a permanent ban on the vigil in future under the national security law:

The aim of the…vigil…is to issue a powerful and highly visible challenge to Beijing’s attempts to rewrite history. It is a challenge that Beijing may, despite its best efforts, find difficult to suppress. “It is in our blood,” says [pro-demoracy activist Bonnie] Leung. “We are guardians of the truth in China.”

And then, something remarkable happened on Thursday night: thousands of people turned out anyway, defying the ban and knocking over barricades to gather in Victoria Park (and, perhaps just as remarkably, police did not soak the park in tear gas to break up the gathering).

Attendees at the impromptu vigil were — far more than usual — drawn mostly from young protesters, who in recent years had explicitly rejected the Vigil as being either too passive or simply irrelevant to their concerns here in Hong Kong.

Even more notable were the slogans that they were chanting: many with an explicit “Hong Kong independence” bent, including “Without two countries, how can there be two systems” (沒有兩國哪有兩制?) and, interestingly, a further evolution of a previous protester slogan: What began as “Hong Kongers, add oil!” 香港人加油 and (as I chronicle in my book) evolved during last year’s protests to “Hong Kongers, resist!” 香港人反抗 and then “Hong Kongers, revenge!” 香港人報仇 has evolved again. Now they are chanting: “Hong Kongers, nation-build!” 香港人建國

It is by now trite to observe that no one is doing more to stoke separatist sentiment in Hong Kong than the Hong Kong government and Beijing themselves. But so it continues.

“It is my duty!”

A clip that does the rounds this time of year, and was circulating again this year (and inspired some nice protest art, see below), was this one from 1989. A foreign reporter asks a young man, “Where are you going?” Here is his reply:

There’s something about this clip. Perhaps it is the sense of innocence, idealism and hope exuded by the young man, sharpened with pathos by our knowledge of what comes next. But there is also something metonymic about him: he represents a China of another era, a China for which many of us — for various reasons — feel some nostalgia.

This week I have been thinking also about his phrase: “It is my duty!” The Vigil has always been about a duty to remember: to be a guardian of history and memory. But in today’s Hong Kong, what is our duty? Not just in relation to the Vigil, but more broadly. For the Hong Kong government, and people like C.Y. Leung, our duty is to speak out in support of the government and the national security law — even in a state of blind ignorance. For others, speaking out, whether against the law or for other beliefs, comes with new — and equally unknown — risks. What does that mean for their duty?

What is our duty? Each of us will have our own answer to that question, and it underlies another question some in Hong Kong have been asking each other over the past few weeks: What will you do? Will you stay or go?

@averageguy_art via Twitter
@averageguy_art via Twitter

This week’s Nourishment & Consolation comes from some Hong Kong artists with a very clear sense of their duty.

Nourishment & Consolation

To mark the June 4th anniversary, last Wednesday night Hong Kong theatre company Stage 64 gave a special online livestream performance of the play May 35th by Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong Mui-ngam 莊梅岩.

“May 35th” of course refers to the unspeakable date of June 4th, and the play — which enjoyed a sold-out run when it debuted in Hong Kong last year — centres around an elderly couple who lost their son at Tiananmen and have had to repress their mourning for 30 years.

Highly recommended. Without wanting to give away any spoilers, the play has strong resonances with Hong Kong — and listen especially for the gorgeous solo cello score which, present throughout the play, provides the emotional climax.

As I was reflecting on the theme of duty, this quote from the playwright Candace Chong in an interview with Holmes Chan for Hong Kong Free Press last year felt apt:

In China, as well as Hong Kong, people are always teetering between whether to resist or not. People choose to acquiesce all the time, but at some point, they realise they can’t take it anymore…But if you ask them to push back, by then it seems too late.

And as a postscriptStand News reported this dramatic incident that occurred during a performance of the play last July, in the midst of the protests:

During curtain call, the playwright Candace Chong mounted the stage, and told the audience that, while she was researching and writing the play, she was contacted by a Mainland man who made vague threats, suggested she not write about June 4th, and asked what foreign forces were funding her to write the play. Chong then announced: That man is in the audience tonight. She switched from Cantonese to Mandarin and said:

“I want you to feel fear. I could point you out, let the whole theatre know who you are. But I won’t. This is my final act of mercy to you. Now you are here, you can see what kind of people are here, at this moment in Hong Kong. Go on a protest march, experience the feeling of the crowd, what kind of people they are, what their aspirations are. And whether or not they have been paid.”

Out & About

I had the pleasure of doing a “Lunch with” interview with Michael Ruffles of the Sydney Morning Herald a few weeks ago. We chatted about Hong Kong, my book and matters arising. You can read it here.

I also had the pleasure of speaking at an online event for the USC US-China Institute at the kind invitation of Clayton Dube. We covered a lot of ground, and engaged with some great audience questions. You can watch a replay here.

Finally, some more nice reviews of my book City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong:

  • Library Journal, in a Starred Review, wrote: “This fascinating read is essential for anyone interested in the current affairs of Hong Kong, specifically, and China, generally.”
  • Nat Brown writing in The National Review called the book “magnificent” and “a gripping account of last year’s protests… [T]he definitive account of China’s biggest political crisis since Tiananmen”.
  • In a combined review/interview for the Japan Times, Nicolas Gattig praised the book’s “smooth, heady prose that blends legal scholarship with the romanticism of a battle for independence”.

Thank you to the very generous reviewers.

And finally…

Some photographs of June 4th Vigils past.

credit: Antony Dapiran
credit: Antony Dapiran
credit: Antony Dapiran

This has been A Procrastination. Thanks for reading.


Article originally appeared in Hong Kong Citizen News on 8 June 2020