On Last Week's Arrests in Hong Kong: An Interview with Sebastian Veg

We talked to one of the world's leading experts on Hong Kong protest movements; plus links for the week.

Last week, more than fifty pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were arrested under a new national security law passed unilaterally by the mainland Chinese government in Beijing. We checked in with our friend Sebastian Veg, a leading expert on social movements in Hong Kong, and asked him to explain the arrests. We also asked him how he thinks the situation will evolve from here.

A few key takeaways from the interview:

First, Beijing’s national security law signals an unprecedented shift in the Communist Party’s (CCP) relationship to Hong Kong. This is the first time the CCP has taken on a direct role in the city’s governance. The security law also attempts to restructure Hong Kong by creating a parallel set of institutions not subject to local oversight, including an office for national security that is an organ of the central government—which, Sebastian stresses, is an “organ of the party, not a state organ.”

Second, though Sebastian is a vocal supporter of the pro-democracy movement, he wonders whether the anti-extradition protesters in 2019 didn’t commit several tactical missteps that allowed Beijing to plausibly push the national security law through.

Third, Sebastian reminds us that the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement shouldn’t be seen as “anti-China,” which is the dominant picture painted in the Western media. The reality is much more complex and nuanced, and the ties between China and Hong Kong are more fluid than our narratives allow.

Sebastian Veg is an intellectual historian of China and professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. He has written several seminal pieces on the Umbrella Movement of 2014 in Hong Kong, where he lived from to 2011 to 2015. In 2018 he published the groundbreaking book Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals. Most recently, with Thomas Gold, he co-edited the volume Sunflowers and Umbrellas: Social Movements, Expressive Practices, and Political Culture in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

This is the first installment of a two-part interview. Next week, we talk about Hong Kong civic identity and Sebastian reflects on the Umbrella Movement from 2014. 

Albert: Last week, more than fifty pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were arrested. Can you give us a rundown of what happened?

Sebastian: To understand the events of last week, let me back up. In 2019, a huge social movement took place against a proposed extradition law. A Hong Kong teenager murdered his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan. He returned to Hong Kong, but he couldn’t be charged for crimes committed outside the territory. So the question became: how can Hong Kong extradite him to Taiwan?

To extradite him to Taiwan, the Hong Kong government needed to authorize extradition to China, which has always been a kind of huge taboo. Hong Kong lawmakers have to operate under the fictional premise that Taiwan is part of China.

The question of extradition is not at all new, by the way. I dug into the history of Hong Kong extradition at one point, and there are some really fascinating historical antecedents. Some early communist leaders in Hong Kong were handed over by the British colonial authorities to the Chinese Nationalist (KMT) government in the 1920s and 1930s and executed in China. So extradition from Hong Kong to China has been a century-old question. At the time of the handover in 1997, everyone agreed that it would not be a good idea for Hong Kong to allow extradition to China.

Cai Hesen (left), a Communist leader in Hong Kong, was arrested by the British for his organizing activity and extradited to Guangzhou, China in 1931. That same year, he was executed by the Kuomingtang (KMT) government. His wife Xiang Jingyu (right) had been arrested and killed by the KMT several years earlier, in 1928.

The 2019 proposed law provoked resistance on an unprecedented scale. Maybe there are some comparable movements, but it's really hard to find anything of that scope. There were several marches in which, according to the organizers, up to two million people took part. Hong Kong has seven million inhabitants. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around that scale of social mobilization.

But no one anticipated that with such large-scale protests, the government would remain so unresponsive. If you want to put an optimistic gloss on it, you’d say the government did nothing in the hopes that the protests would go away. If you want to look at it more negatively, you would say that the government did nothing and hoped that by doing nothing, the protesters would commit acts of violence that would alienate them from society. The growing spiral of police violence was also at least tolerated by the Hong Kong authorities, making it more likely the protesters would retaliate.

Certainly, the protesters did cross some red lines. I’m always hesitant to comment on movement strategy when you're not involved in those discussions. But I would question whether it was useful to directly target symbols of mainland presence. For instance, protesters burned the flag and spray-painted the emblem of the People’s Republic of China. Of course, you can say that flag burning is just symbolic protest. But it escalated Beijing’s response. No leading politician in Beijing can afford to say, “Oh, well, they’re burning our flag in Hong Kong, but it’s not a big deal.”

On an ethical level, the protesters got out of hand with acts of retaliation against things that I would classify as freedom of speech. If a business leader or the owner of a business supports the extradition law, you might disagree with them, but I’m not sure that allows you to burn down their stores. The protesters sorted stores into different colors. One color indicated stores they wanted to support. And then they had stores that they wanted to boycott, which, of course, is totally fine. And then they labeled stores that they wanted to “redecorate.” They would go and stick Post-it notes over them. But then there were stores that they wanted to “refurbish,” which meant trashing them. That was problematic.

Overall, despite these controversial tactics, surveys show that there was still strong support for the “five demands.” Besides the withdrawal of the extradition bill, it included a demand for universal suffrage and inquiry into police brutality.

Even though public opinion didn’t turn against the movement, it gave the government an incentive, a plausible reason to step up repression. And that created this kind of spiral. Furthermore, the movement didn’t really have an exit strategy. The district council elections, which took place in November 2019, might have functioned as an exit point, since they gave the pro-democracy camp a big victory.

Ultimately, the movement did obtain the withdrawal of the extradition agreement. So it was not entirely a failure. Just as the Umbrella Movement in 2014 obtained the withdrawal of the plan for electing the chief executive by universal suffrage only after the vetting of the candidate by a pro-Beijing committee.

One of the anti-extradition protests from 2019. In some demonstrations, up to two million protesters—roughly one out of four Hong Kongers—participated. Photo credit: Sam Tsang

But after the movement died down, and COVID came along, the Hong Kong government and the central government in Beijing started to envisage ways in which to retaliate more structurally against the social movement.

Let me first say that I hesitate to frame the national security law as solely a response to the movement because, of course, the movement should not be made responsible for Beijing’s repression. The anti-extradition movement of 2019 was a response to an erosion that had been going on for several years. It was an attempt to slow the erosion of the “one country, two systems” framework as well as the erosion of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.

But some of the things that happened in the movement gave the central government a perfect opportunity to further erode the framework. In particular, they focused on issues of national security. Again, I don’t want to come off as blaming the protesters here—no one can suspect me of being a sympathizer of the Hong Kong government’s response. But when protesters are attacking the offices of the central government, I don’t think anybody should be surprised to see that the subsequent laws were framed as a national security issue.

So in May and June 2020, the National People’s Congress in Beijing adopted a resolution to legislate directly for Hong Kong on issues related to “national security.” The whole legal framework is very questionable. I won’t go into the details. You can read people like Johannes Chan, a law professor in Hong Kong, who has questioned the legal arguments of the new law.

At heart, Chan argues, the new legislation contradicts the Basic Law, the legal framework set up during the handover from Britain to the PRC. In the Basic Law, the central government in Beijing does have the right to legislate directly on certain questions that are not within the scope of Hong Kong autonomy—for instance, foreign affairs and military affairs. The Basic Law also outlines a couple of instances of “shared sovereignty,” or a shared remit between the Hong Kong and central governments—immigration being the big one. The central government does retain some control over immigration issues according to the Basic Law.

But national security, although shared, is special because there is a specific article in the Basic Law—Article 23—which stipulates that the Hong Kong government must legislate on national security. That means that issues of “national security” can’t be decided unilaterally by the central government in Beijing.

Beijing’s argument is that because of the political paralysis in Hong Kong, its government has been unable to adopt legislation on national security since the handover. The massive protests, Beijing argues, have made this question urgent. The central government’s tactic has been not so much about persuading public opinion as it is about presenting a plausible argument. And I think that argument was plausible enough for something that the central government had been eager to do for many years.

The national security law does two things.

First, it criminalizes four types of behavior: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Second, it also criminalizes incitement to those four types of behavior.

AW: Incitement seems like a pretty broad category.

SV: Exactly, and some of those things can be defined very broadly. Terrorism basically is described as any damage to public property. Worse, in some cases, the crime requires an aspect of illegal behavior, but not in all cases.

The other aspect of the National Security Law is that it restructures Hong Kong. It creates a whole new set of institutions. It creates an office for national security in Hong Kong, which is an organ of the central government. And although it’s not entirely spelled out, it’s in fact very probably an organ of the party, not a state organ.

I get irritated by all the media commentators who keep talking about how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does this, the CCP does that. Obviously, we all know that the Chinese government is controlled by the Communist Party, but in most instances, the Chinese government chooses to operate through its state institutions rather than through a party institution. So if you describe everything as the CCP, you lose a tool of analysis. You lose the distinction where in certain cases the party will step up directly into the limelight. And those cases are particularly significant.

So Xi Jinping created a National Security Commission, which is a party organ. It’s not spelled out officially, but the Hong Kong National Security Office is thought to be reporting to the party’s National Security Commission.

These actions break historical precedent. The party has always kept out of Hong Kong on an official level. Of course, the party operates in Hong Kong. A funny quirk of the British colonial legacy is that the Communist Party has no legal existence in Hong Kong, so it operates through its underground members. Some may be very prominent politicians, but they don’t disclose their party membership.

The National Security Law ultimately has created the conditions for the party to become directly involved in the governance of Hong Kong.

The law also creates a parallel set of national security institutions. There’s a National Security Committee within the Hong Kong government. There’s a special section of the prosecution under the Department of Justice. There’s a special department within the police for national security issues. And the commissioner in the National Security Office, who is a mainland official, can unilaterally, without involvement of any member of the Hong Kong government, decide to preempt a national security case and send it for trial in the mainland.

So that, of course, is something that a lot of people are very scared of.

The pro-Beijing legal scholars have said that this is something that will never be used. It’s akin to the state of emergency. They argue further that the central government already had the ability to declare a state of emergency in Hong Kong and suspend the functioning of laws. But it was understood that only the situation of war or insurrection could trigger this suspension. They argue it’s not really a departure from what was previously in the Basic Law. I think that’s a questionable argument.

At the very least, a huge chill has set in.

And after the law was passed, the government began arresting people, lots of people.

Michelle: Were the new national security institutions being set in motion?

SV: Yes, the new institutions are being used in the sense that the chief executive has designated a set of judges who are allowed to judge national security cases. It’s also the first time that the chief executive has had a direct role in designating judges for a set of specific cases.

And about two or three hundred people have been arrested under the national security law. The police show up at their home, take them to the police station. They register their cases within the special national security system with the special police and the special prosecutor.

But most of these people are not immediately charged. There have only been three or four people who’ve actually been charged for national security crimes. They may be charged later with national security or other crimes.

MK: How is this related to the freezing of assets?

SV: I mean, so that’s another issue. Again, under national security, the police can freeze assets without the authorization of a judge.

AW: That’s terrible.

SV: But again, I don’t entirely understand the mechanism here. If there is no charge, how is it determined that it’s actually under national security? The National Security Committee probably plays a role. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to challenge it and the courts to sort it out.

MK: Or maybe this is just a pure intimidation tactic.

SV: Exactly, a lot of it at this stage is intimidation.

So finally getting to the answer to your question, the fifty-three people who were arrested last week were arrested mostly on “suspicion of subversion.” Last July, they organized a primary election to designate the candidates in the pro-democracy camp in the legislative elections that should have taken place in early September but didn’t take place.

In April, Benny Tai, the law professor who was involved in the Umbrella Movement, wrote an op-ed in April 2020 called “ten steps to burning together (Lam chau 攬炒).” In the op-ed he set out a path in which the pro-democracy camp could legally paralyze the government, consistent with the Basic Law.  The Basic Law says if the Legislative Council (LegCo) rejects the government budget twice, then the chief executive has to step down. So this was set out in Tai’s op-ed.

The primaries took place. Again, the facts here are a bit murky. I don’t know if everyone actually signed a written pledge or not. But the candidates more or less were coordinating in order to aim for a majority in the Legislative Council, something the pro-democracy camp has never achieved.

So the charges of subversion are justified by the idea that the pro-democracy activists were purposely seeking to paralyze the government. Benny Tai was, of course, arrested, but again the connection between him and the pro-democracy primaries is more a matter of speculation.

Out of the fifty-three people arrested, no one has been charged. All but three were released on bail.

But all of these people had their electronic equipment confiscated: their computers, their hard disks, and their phones. So there is a discussion now going on about whether the national security police is able to send those devices to the mainland for analysis. The Hong Kong government is saying yes, because they don’t have the technical abilities in Hong Kong.

One of the small-print clauses in the national security law claims that the national security police can engage the help of experts from “outside Hong Kong.”

So that’s also one of the possible reasons for these mass arrests.

MK: Right, to figure out information or map out networks.

SV: Exactly. Even if in the end the judge acquits all of them, the police will still have gained a very large amount of information.

AW: I thought I followed the situation pretty closely, but this is more grim than I thought.

MK: What do you see as Beijing’s endgame here? Do you think the strategy is just to slowly suffocate the pro-democracy camp?

SV: Yeah, I think that’s the strategy. I don’t think Beijing is just targeting a small number of cases and plugging legal loopholes and so on. We really have to envisage that this is a full-scale institutional restructuring of Hong Kong. Hong Kong civil society is going to be operating under a major new set of constraints.

MK: Is there any hope for the pro-democracy camp?

SV: I think it’s looking increasingly slim. Electorally, there are still the District Councils, which are 100 percent directly elected by geographical constituencies and by a first-past-the-post system. In the district councils, the Democrats won about 80 percent of seats with about 57 percent of the vote. They control seventeen out of the eighteen district boards.

But the Hong Kong government has been looking to limit the scope of the District Councils’ powers, which are already very narrow. It will probably look to disqualify some or most of those elected members on national security grounds. So I don’t think that that will be a perennial site of resistance. I think the Hong Kong government will not allow it.

In the aftermath of the anti-extradition movement, a lot of grassroots organizations have appeared, especially in work settings in which previously, you know, pro-Beijing views dominated. Medical workers are a prominent example, because they mobilized to have the border closed when COVID first broke out. The Hong Kong government, which was very keen to keep the border with China open, was forced to concede. So I think there’s some space for grassroots organizations, as long as they’re not too overtly political. There’s also been the movement toward a “yellow circle economy”: relying on personal networks or dedicated apps, people decide to patronize only “yellow” (pro-democracy) shops or businesses.

AW: Is there an endgame for the pro-democracy camp?

SV: Several strategies have emerged among the pro-democracy camp since the anti-extradition movement. I’m quite skeptical of all of them. The first is “burning together,” pushed by the so-called Phoenix faction. People think that once they’ve burned down Hong Kong, Hong Kong will somehow be reborn from its ashes. I’m not really sure how that’s supposed to work.

Another strategy has been the so-called “international front.” Here Taiwan has been held up as a model. But again, I’m not sure Hong Kong is analogous to Taiwan—Taiwan was in a very different kind of geopolitical situation.

Moreover, I think the Hong Kong protesters have learned some of the wrong lessons from Taiwan. Much of the international front has tried to connect Hong Kong’s struggles to politics in the U.S., which is necessarily to some extent partisan. I think this is a dangerous strategy. So, of course, a lot of the activists try to keep things bipartisan, as Taiwan has also done. But I think this is easier said than done. For example, Senator Josh Hawley traveled to Hong Kong and took a picture of himself in front of LegCo. I didn’t know much about him at the time, but now we all know a little bit more about him. So even if you’re remaining in a bipartisan framework, your most vocal allies are Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley.

And in terms of international pressure, a lot of scholars of international relations argue that sanctions are inefficient in achieving internal political results. The sanctions on top-level Chinese officials are the least objectionable part of the U.S. response. But they don’t seem to be having any kind of restraining effect on the Hong Kong government. And two days after they announce sanctions on the Chinese officials, they put Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on the same sanctions list. That’s just a field day for the Chinese government. It’s so easy for them to come out and say that these sanctions are partisan posturing and meaningless. Trade sanctions are even more counterproductive. They really risk targeting the people of Hong Kong rather than the politicians.

MK: There’s been an explosion of journalism on Hong Kong in the past couple of years. What do you think the Western mainstream media gets wrong about Hong Kong?

SV: Yeah, that’s a tricky question. Overall, I don’t think that the reporting has been completely off. There’s been good reporting in the local media. The local English-language media has been very helpful and it has a wider reach. And then there’s the international media, which has also been doing pretty well, I think, because they have people in Hong Kong who are familiar with the situation there. Sometimes there can be an overemphasis on the “new cold war” and geopolitics, in which the views of the Hong Kong people get lost.

But generally I don’t think the reporting has been so much the issue. It’s been more about how these narratives are picked up by op-ed writers or politicians. There have been some unnecessary discussions about aligning the Hong Kong cause with, for example, Trump and populism.

Of course, I don’t want to argue that the activists in Hong Kong should be shielded from scrutiny. We know that quite a few people in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, and also dissidents in mainland China or former dissidents who moved overseas, supported or support Trump. But I do think that a lot of these discussions have been a little sterile and ultimately not very useful.

For example—and I can’t even recall how it was formulated—there has been a recurrent argument from the beginning that basically asserts that the Hong Kong movement is an anti-mainland movement.

And the argument here is that there are racist undertones—or racism might be the wrong word, given the context. Or they say there is bigotry or discrimination against mainland Chinese.

I don’t think that argument really holds water. Certainly there’s a small group of people in Hong Kong who are anti-mainland activists. And they might or might not align with the pro-democracy movement at different moments.

But taken as a whole, I don’t think anyone has done more to defend Chinese dissidents, the memory of June 4th, or people who are discriminated against in the mainland than the Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. That’s a very unfair argument given this whole history.

It's true that localism has become a very basic tenet of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. A localist movement appeared in the 2010s and it certainly gained momentum because of the difficulties the Umbrella Movement encountered in 2014. At first, activists argued that you can’t have democracy in Hong Kong without fighting for democracy in China. And some of the so-called localists started saying things like, “We’ll never achieve democracy in China. We need to focus on Hong Kong.”

And I don’t think that’s an illegitimate argument (although I’m not sure they have been more successful than the previous generation). But at the same time, you also have to recognize that many people in the pro-democracy movement continue to fight for democracy in China.

So if I had to single out one thing that the Western narratives get wrong, it’s the idea that the Hong Kong democracy movement is an anti-China movement. These movements in Hong Kong have a long history, a very complex history. And they’re changing over time. Their relationship to China changes over time. The definition of China itself changes over time.

Next week: in part II, we explore shifts in Hong Kong’s civic identity and Sebastian reflects further on the Umbrella Movement from 2014.

Links for the Week

  • Our dear friend Jake Lamar has a beautiful essay at The New Republic on August Wilson. We were especially struck by this quote from Wilson:

    “A stagnant body of critics,” he said, “operating from the critical criteria of 40 years ago, makes for a stagnant theater without the fresh and abiding influence of contemporary ideas.… The critic who can recognize a German neo-Romantic influence should also be able to recognize an American influence from the blues or Black church rituals.”

    Jake’s piece inspired us to cue up the debate at New York’s Town Hall in 1997 between TNR’s theater critic Robert Brustein and Wilson, which, as Lamar writes, “the chattering classes greeted with an excitement usually reserved for Ali-Frazier prizefights.” (Brustein comes across as an incredibly pompous ass.) As Lamar observes, Wilson’s insistence on Black-owned theaters and Black directors for his work drew skepticism in the 80s and 90s. Declining offers from well-known white directors, he never saw his plays made into films during his lifetime. “Today,” writes Lamar, “Wilson’s decision to hold out is reaping luscious fruit.”

  • The psychologist Joshua Coleman, the author of the forthcoming Rules of Estrangement, has a widely circulated essay in The Atlantic that explores why more people are cutting off contact with their parents, and whether reconciliation is in the cards. “Both parents and adult children often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century,” he writes. Coleman’s compassionate approach to both parents and children comes from decades of experience as a family therapist.

  • The historian Jeremy Best, Albert’s old archival buddy, has a book out. Heavenly Fatherland: Germany Missionary Culture and Globalization in the Age of Empire is about German missionaries in East Africa and more broadly race, religion, and colonialism. We’ve ordered it and can’t wait to read.

To keep you sane during these insane times…

Our friend K. sent along this amazing animal video (spoiler alert: a goose and a puppy). We watched it way too many times. Did this really happen!?!?

And we are so glad you’re interested in the book club. More on the timing soon, but please start reading Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat (short) and Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (long). We are reading translations by Pevear/Volokhonsky and Seidensticker but haven’t, like, compared translations or anything. Yay, books!