Hong Kong’s autonomy has been the subject of heated debate for years and has inspired multiple protest movements, the most recent flaring up in late 2019. Last July, BAISmag interviewed Gina van Ling in order to gain a better understanding of the ongoing situation in Hong Kong (read the full 2020 interview here). Half a year later BAISmag reached out again to revisit the topic and learn how the situation has progressed.
1. In our previous interview, you predicted that the international response would be somewhat lackluster – to what extent do you find that your assumption was confirmed?
Considering that the reaction of the international community has remained fairly mild, we can see that this assumption still holds, for the most part. While the United States has sanctioned some of the financial institutions in Hong Kong, resulting in the freezing of the bank account of
Carrie Lam and a few other prominent figures, this is, simultaneously, not something that will greatly impact decision making in Hong Kong. It doesn’t necessarily scare China into doing or changing anything. Actually, in response, China has already retaliated by, for example, refusing easy entry visas for diplomats. This just shows how these sanctions don’t have much meaning, as it just evolves into both sides sanctioning each other.
Europe and the United Kingdom, at the moment, have also not really done much. The United Kingdom has offered special nationality and citizenship for Hong Kongese; however, there are precise rules to it, so not everyone is actually eligible. Nonetheless, many Hong Kongese have applied for this special citizenship. Of course, yes, there is a lot of condemnation, but the current international response, in terms of actions taken, is mostly limited to the UK’s response and the sanctions.
2. On the subject of sanctions: Throughout the protests, there were pro-democracy individuals that were asking or provoking other countries to put sanctions on Hong Kong? To what extent would that actually bring about any change? Or why would they ask for that?
From the protester’s side, they are making a call to action, and therefore, it makes sense that they appeal to politicians. Generally, most protesters also know that in practice, sanctions might not actually lead to a great deal of change, but the fact is that they want to provoke a reaction from the international community. Draw attention to themselves and Hong Kong. Additionally, it’s also not comfortable for nation-states to refuse the protesters. So, other countries will of course have to react by expressing sympathy and condemnation, and that in itself also has an effect. The effect might be minimal–China is not going to bow down because the international community is outraged–but it influences public opinion. It’s questionable to what extent this would influence political decisions, though.
3. In consideration of the new national security law, are there opportunities outside of online and more internationally-oriented activism for pro-democracy protestors to continue to advocate for Hong Kong?
In terms of achieving change in Hong Kong… It’s difficult because the protesting group is large, but it’s not the entire population of Hong Kong. There are plenty of people who support the government or are not politically engaged. Additionally, the pandemic also creates a lot of problems and online activism is usually not as effective as physical activism on the streets.
Also, outside of the national security law, the pandemic also gets used as a way to keep people in line–if you’re gathering outside you’re putting other people’s health at risk, right? This would help the government change the narrative from the issue being about democracy to it revolving around health risk. It is a moral dilemma in a sense: Do you go take to the streets and risk larger infections, or do you not do that? While there are ways of circumventing that, by, for example protesting peacefully with enough social distancing, how the protests are framed in the media is also important.
4. Do you think that we may see a flare-up in terms of Hong Kong protests again, after the pandemic?
While I generally am not big on making predictions, I think we may see this development. The Hong Kong issue is not something that’s going to go away, seeing as the PRC government has been eating away at the democratic institutions that were put into place in Hong Kong. The protests did not resolve the issue, especially when one considers how the national security law is framed.
There are billboards around Hong Kong with the new national security law on them, accompanied by what has become its slogan: Preserve one country, two systems and restore stability. The break up of the protests was influenced by the pandemic and the national security law, but how effective this law will be in the future is debatable due to its nature, as anything can fall under it. Anyone can potentially be arrested, even foreigners, as the law is worded so broadly. That is also one of the concerns I think that we have here at the University. We, as a University, should take into consideration what we teach our students, but I also don’t think we should censor ourselves. But what we say can have consequences and we need to, at least, be aware of what those can be, and consider what methods the University can offer, in terms of protecting staff and students.
5. Is there a possibility for a peaceful or diplomatic resolution, or will the situation just continue to escalate, especially after the pandemic?
In many ways, the protesters don’t really have a way back as long as the government classifies them as a nuisance, and attempts to suppress them. They are seen as fighting against the PRC.
What will happen? I’m not sure because there is some pushback to the pro-government faction
also from the judiciary, so from governmental Hong Kong institutions. There have been some court rulings, either acquitting pro-democracy protesters or condemning the police brutality during the protests, but at the same time, these cases are all quite minor and don’t achieve much. Especially considering that these judges may simply be replaced by people who are more pro-government.
There’s also a current major reeducation campaign taking place; those types of mediums tend to be quite successful in terms of influencing people and might actually lead to fewer protests in the long term because people will have become conditioned to think that certain things are right or preferable. On the other hand: Will it be successful? The people in Hong Kong are also quite determined, as they’ve kept this up for a long time.
I don’t think there is really a peaceful resolution. The only thing that maybe might bring some sort of rest is if we don’t get any new, major law changes. Then, at some point, the interest dies down and things tend to return to normal. Once something controversial happens again, things will reignite.
Gina van Ling is a tutor at Leiden University, who is involved in courses such as politics, history, and culture of East Asia. She has conducted research specifically in terms of Chinese history and identity through narratives present in national museums and therefore is a specialist when it comes to Chinese history and politics.
*DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BAISmag or BASIS.*
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