Jasper Tsang, one of Hong Kong’s highest-profile pro-Beijing political figures, admits he was shaken by the Tiananmen Square massacre in the Chinese capital on June 4, 1989.
But like many other loyalists who welcomed President Xi Jinping to the former UK colony on Thursday, he does not object to the Hong Kong government’s decision to ban an annual candlelight vigil for the victims of Tiananmen this year.
“I was most worried back then that China would fall into a period of darkness, but that was not the case,” Tsang told the Financial Times last week. “I personally know somebody who got hit by a stray bullet that night in 1989 and died. But China has to move forward. Must we always look back?”
Xi has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on Hong Kong over the past two years, which the Chinese Communist party has argued was a necessary and appropriate response to the large and sometimes violent anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019.
But Xi and the party could not have done so alone. They needed help from supporters such as Tsang, as well as thousands of Hong Kong government officials, police, prosecutors and judges to crush the territory’s pro-democracy movement.
To Beijing, the people doing its bidding in Hong Kong are “patriots”, one of whom — John Lee — will be sworn in by Xi as the city’s new chief executive on Friday. The ceremony also marks the 25th anniversary of China’s resumption of sovereignty over the territory in 1997.
Patriots such as Lee and Chris Tang, security secretary and deputy police commissioner, respectively, during the protests, have been richly rewarded for their loyalty. Tang succeeded Lee as security secretary last year.
But to those who rue the rapid passing of the city’s freewheeling political culture and vibrant civil society after Xi imposed a draconian national security law in June 2020, the president’s patriots are quislings who have aided and abetted the destruction of “one country, two systems”. The arrangement was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s wide-ranging autonomy and civil freedoms for at least 50 years.
The national security law has, for example, overturned the previously routine granting of bail to people accused of non-violent crimes. As a result, most of the 47 pro-democracy activists involved in Hong Kong’s highest-profile national security case, which revolves around their peaceful efforts to win seats in a legislative election, have been imprisoned for more than a year while they await trial.
This practice of effectively “disappearing” political activists for months — and sometimes years — before they are formally convicted and imprisoned is a routine practice in mainland China’s justice system.
One senior counsel, with decades of courtroom experience in Hong Kong, said that “reversing the presumption of bail has had catastrophic effects” for defendants.
“[There is] a deterioration in the appreciation of what ‘rule of law’ means — it seems to me it’s [now] ‘rule by law’,” said the lawyer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“It is much, much worse than it was in 1997. If I had known it was going to be like this 25 years later, I would have left Hong Kong then.”
In December, Andrew Cheung, a Harvard-educated jurist and chief justice of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, as well as CFA permanent judges Roberto Ribeiro and Joseph Fok, ruled that bail could also be denied in a non-violent sedition case that did not fall under the purview of the national security law.
In the case, HKSAR vs Ng Hau Yi Sidney, a group of speech therapists was accused under Hong Kong’s colonial-era Crime Ordinance of writing three allegedly “seditious” cartoon books that help children learn to read. Each of the books is centred on a “sheep village” that is attacked by wolves.
Regina Ip, another prominent pro-Beijing figure and convener-in-waiting of the cabinet body that will advise Lee, argued that in such cases, including the recent arrest of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen for allegedly “colluding with foreign forces”, the Hong Kong government was simply “taking law enforcement action against those who have undermined national security”.
“If Zen is convicted, no doubt the courts will take into account his age and other mitigating factors before sentencing,” Ip added.
Tian Feilong, a senior adviser to the Chinese government on Hong Kong, applauded the way in which “prosecutors and judges have been able to apply the national security law in Hong Kong’s Common Law judicial processes”.
“The institutional integration of the national security law into Hong Kong’s common law system [has helped] the law take root in Hong Kong society,” he added.
“In the midst of the 2019 [protests], did Hong Kong have the rule of law, democracy or human rights? The Legislative Council was stormed and occupied, people who held [pro-Beijing] views were beaten up and intimidated, police officers and their relatives and children were bullied, humiliated and attacked.”
Tsang, a soft-spoken former teacher who got on well with his pro-democracy opponents when he served in the territory’s legislature, said that “Beijing did not make its moves out of the blue”.
“After [the protests in] 2019, how can you blame the central government for taking a stand to resolve Hong Kong’s problems?”
The territory’s pro-democracy activists, he added, became too “reckless”.
But when asked what he felt about seeing so many of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures in jail, he struggled to respond.
“How do you want me to answer your question? How do you want me to answer?” he said, before pausing to gather his thoughts. “Some of them, I think, committed serious mistakes and had to bear responsibility for their decisions. To be frank, though, we also did not see this coming.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing