A graffiti in Wan Chai reads: "I'd rather be ashes than dust." 31 August 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

‘At the precipice of death, we struggle for breath’: New avenues of resistance

The imminent passage of national security laws has not deterred mobilization. What is our next course of action?

Translator’s note: This is a Lausan article originally published in Chinese. If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here. Read this article in Korean.

Translators: yehua, P, ah boat, Hung X. L.

Owing to the resilient struggle of the Hong Kong people and the dedication of its civil society to democratic life, our city has resisted the implementation of Article 23 for a full seventeen years. Today, the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has swiftly moved to clamp down on all the momentum generated by the 2019 anti-extradition movement under the pretext of national security, framing Hong Kong’s pursuit of democratic self-determination as rebellion, subversion, and secession.

But this is not the moment for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement to despair. The CCP’s move here provides indisputable proof that the Basic Law has always been riddled with spots of weakness and incongruent with the welfare of the Hong Kong people. The rule of law has always been a ploy to uphold the status quo; it cannot be relied on to defend the rights of the people.

The Basic Law is a patently unjust law. The way in which Article 23, Annex 3, and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ power for final interpretation leave Hong Kong defenceless to the CCP has raised the most eyebrows, but the Basic Law’s vulnerabilities don’t end there. In addition to stating that the path to universal suffrage must be “gradual,” the Basic Law also inherits from colonial rule the granting of unchecked authority to the Governor: the Legislative Council cannot impeach the Chief Executive, but it can conversely be disbanded by the Chief Executive, unilaterally unseating its power. Moreover, the Legislative Council requires approval from the Chief Executive to introduce motions related to public expenditure, the political structure or operation of the government, and government policies, rendering it unable to remedy Hong Kong’s unjust distribution in resources and power.

The ‘rule of law’ has always stood on the side of the ruling and privileged class. It is an enemy of the people.

What the Basic Law does keep “unchanged for fifty years” is not Hong Kong’s spirit of freedom, but the status quo of a capitalist way of life. This includes maintaining a low tax policy, ensuring the free flow of capital, and providing an economic and legal environment that maintains Hong Kong’s stature as an international financial centre, all outlined in the fifth chapter of the mini constitution. It is unabashedly designed to ensure the upper class’s position of power.

Holding a press conference on the National Security Law, Carrie Lam emphasized that this move “does not undermine One Country, Two Systems; does not change the capitalist economic and legal system as practised in Hong Kong, nor the legal protections of foreign investors.” It’s obvious who the Basic Law is meant to safeguard.

It’s not news that Hong Kong’s judicial system has long used the pretext of the “rule of law” to enact political prosecution, condone police abuse, and crush resistance to systemic violence. Even the most powerful legal tool for checks and balances available to civil society—judicial review—was powerless in the face of the Housing Authority’s selling off of public housing estate retail facilities; the public listing of Link REIT; the demolition of Queen’s Pier; the wasteful construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge; or the denial of residency rights for Mainland-born children of Hong Kong parents and migrant domestic workers. Whether it’s the freedom of expression, political and civil rights, the judicial independence that the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has long treasured, or other issues such as labour rights, gender equality, distributive justice, migrant rights, gentrification, and rights of the elderly, disabled and marginalized, the “rule of law” has always stood on the side of the ruling and privileged class. It is an enemy of the people.

The future of Hong Kong is uncertain, but we can be sure of one thing: The liberation of Hong Kong cannot be conflated with the return to a place where the rule of law and a high degree of autonomy thrived—because it never existed. To move forward, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement must uphold several principles:

1. Rewrite the constitution based on democratic principles

The Basic Law was drafted by British colonists and local elites with the CCP’s blessing, so even were we to obey it to the letter, we will be no closer to real democracy and self-rule. The precondition of democracy is a set of political, socio-economic, and cultural principles formulated through consultation among all people participating in society.

To rewrite these principles for ourselves, we must pay attention to existing inequities in power and resources among various groups in Hong Kong society, aim to redress or eliminate these injustices, and implement these principles indiscriminately. Without this step, democracy in Hong Kong will exist only as a castle in the air.

2. Reject the CCP’s Chinese nationalism

Regarding the CCP’s implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, NPC spokesperson Zhang Yesui stated that safeguarding national security “is the fundamental interest of people of all ethnic groups across China, including Hong Kong compatriots.” This conflates the security of the nation-state apparatus and the dictatorship of the CCP, with the security of the people. This is a blatant imposition of Chinese nationalism onto the people and a naked attempt by the CCP to portray itself as the sole representative of all Chinese people.

We must expose the illogic behind “national security = people’s security” in defiance against the interests of the state bureaucracy and its ruling class—interests that do not attend to the needs of the people. Especially under the duress of totalitarian rule in addition to conditions of extreme inequality in Chinese society, the people’s welfare cannot be achieved by neutralizing security threats to the CCP.

3. Connect with resistance forces in the Mainland

In recent years, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has centred the idea of a “Hong Kong nation,” treating China as a neighbouring country or even its antithetical other. But such rhetoric cannot actually fend off Chinese nationalism; at most, it can only explain that the National Security Law is not applicable in Hong Kong, because the “Hong Kong nation” is different from the “Chinese nation,” or perhaps that Hong Kong is not a part of China (even though this is not factually true).

Yet, does this mean that the National Security Law should apply to other people and communities in China? Do the activists, ethnic and religious minorities, and ordinary people of Xinjiang and Tibet deserve to be criminally labelled as “separatists,” “terrorists,” and “religious extremists” as well?

Do the human rights lawyers imprisoned in the 709 crackdown; Wei Zhili, an editor of iLabour who demanded justice for hygiene workers and workers suffering from pneumoconiosis; the activists and operators of Feminist Voices fighting against sexual harassment and pushing for gender equality; and the students who attempted to organize, defend, and raise awareness of the struggles of JASIC workers, deserve to be silenced and forcibly disappeared for “disturbing social order and endangering national security”, “provoking trouble”, and “subversion of state power?”

Nationalism is only an excuse used by the CCP to maintain the status quo. It does not care about whether we call ourselves Hongkonger or Chinese. In the face of the vast power of the CCP, Hong Kong has no leverage or resources to stand alone and survive. If we pursue independence, we may simply end up replacing Beijing with Washington; and Hong Kong’s corporate masters will simply continue to collude with their new rulers, treat Hong Kong as their own private money-making haven, and dismiss longstanding social issues and political antagonisms.

Instead of wishing for Hong Kong to establish itself as a nation, or thinking that exchanging one emperor for another will bring new horizons, we should unite with people within the Mainland who already face repression in the name of “national security,” and other movements to defend rights and enact progressive change. We should demonstrate with concrete action that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement does not agree that the CCP represents the interests of all people in China. Through such solidarity building, we can consolidate our power, and fight against the rule of the CCP and the development and operation of China’s modern bureaucratic capitalism. 

The author hereby calls on different groups, organizations, and individuals within the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement to carefully think about the pathways of insurrection proposed in this article, and actively engage in open-minded dialogue with each other, unite to build our collective strength, and persevere together for Hong Kong’s democratic liberation.