With China now firmly in control of LegCo, the body will soon be indistinguishable from the National People’s Congress in Beijing: another rubber-stamping organ of the Chinese Communist Party.
That was always the game plan. As I’ve written before, imperial China had a practice of incrementally absorbing recalcitrant peoples on its periphery before fully subjugating them. This ancient precedent is the prototype for what is happening in Hong Kong today: The “one country, two systems” principle supposedly meant to protect the city’s semi-autonomy until 2047 really was designed to bring about the seamless convergence of Hong Kong’s system with China’s. What took some dynasties several centuries to accomplish, the Chinese Communist Party hopes to achieve in just a few decades.
But authoritarian repression only engenders more resistance, visible or not.
A new wave of pro-democracy activists who cut their teeth on the 2014 Umbrella Revolution have turned the legacy movement on its head. They junked the “loyal opposition” concept and, in particular after their demands for true universal suffrage went unanswered, many began to embrace various separatist stances, claiming that “Hong Kong Is Not China.”
As an ascendant movement, this new wave has borne the brunt of the government’s crackdown in recent years. Members who clamored for outright independence for Hong Kong were the first to be barred from contesting LegCo elections; those who could run and were elected were then banned from taking office or later removed. Many of the more prominent activists have since been arrested, or have gone underground or into exile.
This movement is not easy to recognize; it is too fluid for that (Bruce Lee’s admonition, “Be water,” is one of its mottos). It has no leader and no name. And it is resilient and combative, young but steely and already battle-tested.
What will this pro-democracy vanguard do now that repression is both relentless and mundane?
It will probably look like various opposition movements in other authoritarian states, such as Poland from 1939 to 1990 (first against fascism, then Communism) or Taiwan under Kuomintang rule (1945-87): An underground branch in Hong Kong will quietly bide its time while gaining strength; a more vocal overseas branch will canvass international support.
Hong Kong’s new pro-democracy movement may be small, but it is critically important, fighting on the front lines against an aggressively expanding China. It is also full of life and ingenuity: Even with all those Chinese big guns trained on it, it will survive.
Yi-zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics and a contributing opinion writer.