China tightens grip on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement

China’s annual National Day on October 1 is marked in Hong Kong with everything from official celebrations to protests against Chinese rule. This year, at least 1,500 pro-democracy supporters took to the streets to protest against China’s growing intervention in the city’s internal affairs.

On September 24, Hong Kong banned the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), claiming the party violated a “national security” law outlined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, Article 23, which prohibits “treason, secession, sedition and subversion” against the Chinese government.

Read more: Hong Kong bans pro-independence political party

The ban on the HKNP is the first time Article 23 has been applied and is the first case of a political organization being banned since Hong Kong was returned to China by the United Kingdom in 1997. Under the terms of the handover, Hong Kong enjoys semi-autonomous legal status with rights that aren’t enjoyed on mainland China.

Pro-democracy activists fear the article’s application is the beginning of a more aggressive crackdown from Beijing on Hong Kong’s such civil liberties as freedom of the press and free elections.

Speaking to a small yet energetic crowd prior to the National Day march, Tam Tak-chi, the vice chairman of the pro-democracy party People Power, reminded the crowd that National Day is not a day for celebration in Hong Kong, but rather a day to reject the Chinese government’s attempt to tighten control over the city.

Pointing to the portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam on a giant placard, Tam emphasized that the pro-democracy camp disapproves of how they govern Hong Kong.

“We don’t accept these people and we don’t accept their way of governing Hong Kong,” Tam told DW at the rally.

Hongkong Demonstration am Nationalfeiertag (DW/ Yang Hao-Wei)

Protesters marching against Chinese authoritarianism in Hong Kong on October 1

New ideas needed amid crackdown

However, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy marches in 2018 drew less people than in years prior. Tam noted that the dwindling turnout is a sign that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp needs to offer a new vision to the general public in order to convince people to join these protests again.

“Not many people in Hong Kong support the march, because organizers have been using the same message to communicate with them since 2014,” Tam said. “Since pro-democracy political leaders have no creative ideas, some people may think it’s useless to march or demonstrate.”

Read more: Hong Kong protesters rally against Beijing’s dominance and growing restrictions

Following the ban, the Hong Kong government prohibits the HKNP from recruiting new members and penalizes anyone acting on their behalf or raising funds with a 3-year prison sentence and fines of up to $12,000.

Additionally, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has also emphasized that it is the government’s responsibility to enact national security laws outlined in Article 23.

Despite the growing crackdown on pro-independence organizations and activities, a group of college students from the Students Independence Union still participated in the protest with flags and signs bearing pro-independence slogans.

One student activist told DW that even though the Hong Kong government labels the HKNP and pro-independence activities as illegal, the students are determined to keep championing Hong Kong independence.

“The government’s suggestion to enact the national security law has violated the core of Hong Kong’s Basic Law,” the student said. “We will continue to protest and we will tell the world that China is violating the rights guaranteed through the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Beginning of the end?

However, such efforts may not be enough to stop the government’s crackdown on other pro-democracy figures and organizations.

A legislator suggested last week that the pro-democracy organization Demosisto should also be banned, saying that promoting Hong Kong’s self-determination should be considered the same as championing independence from China. Demosisto emphasizes that they don’t advocate Hong Kong independence.

Read more: Hong Kong pro-democracy movement loses ground in by-election

Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration, believes that the pro-democracy camp faces an uncertain future tangled up in the Mainland’s political atmosphere.

“When the overall atmosphere in China is pessimistic, you can’t be optimistic about the political environment in Hong Kong,” Choy told DW. “Things that are not allowed in China will gradually become forbidden in Hong Kong.”

Searching for a new path

Last weekend also marked the 4th anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, the 79-day pro-democracy protest in 2014 that saw tens of thousands of Hong Kongers taking to the streets demanding freer elections.

Pro-democracy activists organized a rally outside the government’s offices as well as a three-day exhibition that showcases screenshots of social media posts and images during the Umbrella Movement.

Read more: Hong Kong’s 20 years under Chinese rule – A failed project?

Speaking to participants at the rally held on the night of September 28, Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders of the Umbrella Movement and secretary general of Demosisto, told the crowd that the Umbrella Movement wasn’t a victory, but it had a “legendary” place in the history of in Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

However, many in the city have felt discouraged by the outcome of the Umbrella Movement and the subsequent disqualification of several pro-democracy legislators. According to Demosisto’s chairperson Ivan Lam, young people’s willingness to participate in politics has dropped tremendously since 2014, as university students aren’t as interested in running for student council.

4. Jahrestag der Umbrella Movement Hong Kong 2018 (pictue-alliance/AP Photo/K. Cheung)

Pro-democracy supporters make the 4th anniversary of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong on September 28

To better engage the younger generation in Hong Kong, Demosisto is organizing a new strategy.

“We have invested more resources in cultivating engaging social media content and organizing cultural events that can attract the younger generation,” Lam told DW.

Since 2016, two Demosisto members have been disqualified from Hong Kong’s legislative council. They been forced to transition from a political party to a political organization that focuses on community engagement.

Lam said that the transition has made it harder for Demosisto to maintain its political influence, as they have lost resources and leverage. However, as an organization they can continue to enhance their public support and increase awareness and acknowledgement of democracy in Hong Kong.

Read more: Hong Kong’s democracy movement ‘needs new ideas’

“As Beijing tries to shrink the autonomy of Hong Kong’s civil society, we should remind people in Hong Kong that what happened to HKNP will also happen to other parties and organizations,” said Lam. “We should increase the relevance with political messages and pop culture, while cultivating more young political activists.”

Even though he thinks it is unlikely for Hong Kong to have another Umbrella Movement in the next five to 10 years, Lam believes that Hong Kong’s civil society still has the room to regroup as the world gradually realizes the potential negative impacts of Chinese influence abroad.

“As China’s global expansion is starting to receive some pushback from other countries, I think the international community will gradually realize that China is a problem for democracy around the world.”