How Hong Kong's Democracy Died (Part II)

Updated: Mar 12

Using the frameworks from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's "How Democracies Die" to analyze Hong Kong’s downfall

In Part I, we established that Hong Kong is now run by an authoritarian government. Here in Part II, we explore how Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and her cabinet utilized the Authoritarian Playbook to perfection and destroyed Hong Kong's limited democracy and freedom in just one year.

Part Two: How Hong Kong's Limited Democracy and Freedom Were Destroyed

Hong Kong was never a democracy, but it had some resemblances to democracies.

In the years prior to 2020, the city was classified as a flawed democracy in the Democracy Index. This was justified by the separation of power in the three branches of Hong Kong’s government: the Executive Council, the Legislative Council, and the Judiciary. Hong Kong's judicial system was also largely respected and enjoyed a high level of confidence (2017: 75%) from the public. In the legislative branch, Hongkongers were able to directly elect half of the Legislative Council, albeit with some signs of electoral frauds.

Then it all changed when the government tried to introduce the controversial extradition law, which led to major protests and ended with the government withdrawing the bill. When the unrest died down, the government spent its energy to turn on its opponents. Suddenly, all freedom and democracy were abolished.

Levitsky and Ziblatt, author of How Democracies Die, explained the playbook of an authoritarian as follows:

"To consolidate power, would-be authoritarians must capture the referees, sideline at least some of the other side's star players, and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage, in effect tilting the playing field against their opponents."

This is Hong Kong's version of the Authoritarian Playbook.

1. Capturing the Referees

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, referees in any society include the law enforcement bodies, the judicial system, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. In Hong Kong's case, the police were captured long before the protests broke out. Meanwhile, the judicial system, arguably still independent, remains under the government's heavy attack.

Police and police supervisory mechanism

Most authoritarians, from Belarus to Thailand, rely on the police force to keep protestors at bay and to strike fear into people. It is no different in Hong Kong, where the police force was deployed against protestors in a series of violent confrontations. As Yanilda González, Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor of Public Policy, pointed out,

“It's a powerful political tool when police cooperate with you, and it's a considerable political threat when police are able to withdraw their cooperation with you as a politician.”

In her book Authoritarian Police in Democracy: Contested Security in Latin America, Yanilda González argued that the police force is well-positioned to extract concessions from the politicians. Because of this, police are often run with autonomy and a lack of accountability. In exchange, the police force becomes part of the authoritarian government, with weapons that are ironically paid for by the public.

The leverage enjoyed by the Hong Kong police force is clear. When the Chief Secretary, Hong Kong's second-highest ranked public official, said that the government should be held accountable for the police arriving 39 minutes late to a massive thug attack, he was blasted publicly by his subordinates in the police unions.

To further appease the police, the government gave them the freedom to act without restraints.

On a tactical level, police identities are now hidden through black masks, police numbers disappeared on uniforms, and public databases about police identities were removed. It became impossible for anyone to pinpoint those who have used excessive force. Police manuals are also now edited at will, rather than being strictly followed.

Hong Kong police brutality, hiding behind masks, how democracies die
One brave soul and two unidentified officers (Credit: 香港浸會大學學生會編輯委員會, CC BY-SA 4.0)

On an institutional level, the government captured the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), responsible for investigating complaints made by the public. This is evident as all IPCC members are appointed by the Chief Executive. The current chairman, Anthony Neoh, sits on the board of the Chinese government-owned Bank of China and China Life.

Following calls for an independent inquiry following the unrest in 2019, a panel of foreign experts was hired by the government to review the conducts of the police. Yet, this panel resigned after it was given no authority to conduct any investigation. Panel members subsequently highlighted how Hong Kong’s police can act with no accountability.

Judicial system

Hong Kong's independent judicial system has always been an important pillar to the city's success. It provided investors with confidence that their disputes, be it with the government or with powerful individuals, will be resolved fairly. In the current storm, the judicial system has been hailed as Hong Kong's last line of defense. But it is under heavy pressure from the government, and perhaps, this line of defense will also be breached very shortly.

Attack on the judicial system began with China's state media, which claimed: "just like the rioters, the judges and lawyers who absolve rioters of their crimes will be despised". Arresting judges and human rights lawyers, of course, is common practice in mainland China. Hong Kong's pro-Beijing lawmakers then also weighed in, complaining about court rulings.

This was followed up by Chinese officials who pressured the court by commenting on the need for the court to "safeguard" China's national security. "Oath optimization, qualification screening, and judicial reforms are the key to perfect the legal system in Hong Kong," claims the deputy director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, an organization that holds significant influence over the government of Hong Kong.

The Chief Executive also applied further pressure by openly stating that there is no separation of power in Hong Kong. This comment came despite previous comments from top judges, who had argued that judicial independence was the most basic feature of Hong Kong’s common law system. Pro-Beijing lawmakers are now championing a series of reforms to the judiciary.

Should the process of capturing the courts fail, the Hong Kong Government still has one last trick. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the rulings of Hong Kong's top court can be re-interpreted by China's parliament. So, if the referee in Hong Kong does not want to cooperate, a new Chinese referee could be appointed, and the game can be re-played to achieve the ideal result.

Foreign judges who serve in Hong Kong are now considering their future. One Australian judge has resigned, and the UK is considering the removal of all British judges.

2. Hurting the Opponents

Hong Kong government's opponents include the entire pro-democracy camp, from lawmakers and media outlets to popular opinion. Opponents are arrested (sometimes without being charged) to create both financial and mental stresses. Any crowdfunding efforts are targeted via anti-money laundering laws. Even if the opponents would win their court cases, the government relentlessly appeals the decision to create yet heavier burdens. On the other hand, the government rewards its supporters by pardoning their unlawful actions.

Silencing the media

Carrie Lam's government attempted to silence the media through three separate paths: violence, regulations, and control.

Reporters have been repeatedly targeted by police since the protests began in 2019. Those dutifully reporting on the front line were repeatedly subject to verbal and physical abuse by the police. This included one journalist who was shot blind by a rubber bullet. Police now regularly show up in force to raid media outlets and intimidate the press, citing investigations into unlawful activities.

Following the protests, the government implemented a series of new guidelines to obstruct the media. The police no longer recognized all media outlets, thereby creating a filtering system under which only certain outlets would be allowed on the scene of a protest or a police operation. At public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the government appointed a team to review RTHK's governance.

Loyalists were also placed into top management positions. They would then apply increased pressure on journalists to commit to self-censorship. "Inappropriate" and "illegal" programs were replaced. Those who do not follow these guidelines were simply fired.

Disrupting mass opposition efforts

The concept of "Yellow Economic Circle" was born in 2019 during the unrest. The idea was to build an ecosystem of organizations and merchants who are sympathetic to the democratic movement. Consumers could then choose to spend their money inside this economic circle, with the intent of using this money to strengthen the democracy movement.

To disrupt the momentum, the police targeted merchants with "enforcement" of regulations which ranged from social distancing to building permits to even the national security law. Anti-money laundering regulations are frequently used against crowdfunding for individuals and organizations, including the freezing of assets against a church that had provided support to young protestors.

Individuals who voice their opposition can also face charges simply for the words they use. Freedom of speech no longer exists, and protestors now use blank signs to avoid prosecution.

Selective arrests and prosecution based on political views

The government also selectively arrests and prosecutes. By doing so, the government wishes to send a message to the public: thou should not be in the opposition.

Oppression begins with leaders in the pro-democracy camp. Arrests have been made against prominent, veteran figures, but also new generations of activists, such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow. After a brawl in the legislative council between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers, pro-democracy lawmakers were singled out and arrested. The media is also targeted, including journalists who were filming or investigating police misconducts.

Selective prosecution also applies to the public. The Department of Justice selectively appeals against cases in which pro-democracy supporters are cleared by the court. This includes a social worker who was charged for rioting when he simply called for the police to calm down during their operations. On the other hand, the Department forcefully closed a private prosecution against a taxi driver who slammed his taxi into a crowd of protestors.

All this is clear. Anyone who holds a different view would no longer be tolerated in Hong Kong.

3. Changing the Rule of the Games

Authoritarian governments often sought to change the rules of the game in their favour. In some governments, it is done so to help them stay in power through rigged elections. In Hong Kong, elections are less of a concern as the legislative branch has long been controlled by Beijing. Rather, when rules are changed, the government can target its opponents with more powerful ammunition, while maintaining the propaganda to foreign investors that Hong Kong is a lawful society.

A new interpretation of the existing rules

Changing the rules of the game does not have to involve passing a new law or changing the existing laws. Sometimes, it is sufficient to simply undermine the spirit of existing laws.

Hong Kong was handed over from the British to the Chinese under the principle of "One Country, Two Systems". Under this principle, Hong Kong people were to enjoy their own governmental system, and their freedoms and rights were not to be changed upon the handover.

Yet, over time, authorities began twisting the meaning of such principle. A caveat was put in claiming under "One Country, Two Systems", "One Country" must be prioritized since it “comes first”. As such, China and Hong Kong could have two systems, but "One Country" prevails when the two systems come into conflict. Such interpretation clearly undermines the original spirit. As one can imagine, "One Country" now prevails every time.

Taking advantage of crises

In his book On Tyranny, 20 Lessons from the 20th Century, Timothy Snyder, a historian who specialized in studying the holocaust, warned people to be wary of any crisis facing the society, as it is likely to be leveraged by an authoritarian. Just as how the Nazi regime quickly expanded its power after The Reichstag was set on fire in 1933, the government in Hong Kong quickly moved to curb civil liberties following the 2019 unrest.

Lam’s government invoked emergency powers to ban face masks and to empower police to remove items covering anyone's face. Then the Covid-19 pandemic offered a convenient excuse for the Hong Kong government to altogether ban protests, including the Tiananmen Vigil which has been held every year since the massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Legislative Council election, originally scheduled for September 2020, was also postponed with the government citing risks relating to the pandemic.

Hong Kong protest, illegal national security law, social distancing, how democracies die
Now illegal in more ways than one. (Credit: doctorho from Hong Kong, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Implementation of a new National security law

But the most significant change came on June 30, 2020, when the Hong Kong national security law was passed, by the Chinese Congress. This new law was broad, vague, and imposed detrimental consequences to those who are charged. As Rupert Colville, UN Human Rights Spokesperson, pointed out,

“This [The national security law] may lead to discriminatory or arbitrary interpretation and enforcement of the law, which could undermine human rights protection.”

The broad and vague nature of the law allowed it to target almost any behaviours from the opposition. Lawmakers have been charged for attempting to block the financial budget from passing. Citizens have been charged for displaying pro-independence slogans. One could also be accused for following Taiwan's president or the US Secretary of State on Twitter. Clearly, no crime is too small for the National Security Law.

Human rights are also not protected at all under this law. The authorities can now search properties, prohibit travel, freeze or confiscate assets, censor online content and engage in covert surveillance, including intercepting communications all without a court order. Those who are charged are also unlikely to be offered bail while they wait for their court date.

In a clear departure from the spirit of providing a fair legal proceeding, trials could be heard behind closed doors, by judges specifically appointed by the Chief Executive. Some cases could even be tried in mainland China, where courts are controlled completely by the Communist Party. The law has created a way to completely sidestep Hong Kong's British-style judicial system, the last defense of the previous free system.

Moreover, through this law, the Hong Kong Government set up new bodies that are not subject to any oversights. The new Committee for Safeguarding National Security has been given a budget that is not subject to legislative scrutiny and does not have to disclose its work. The Committee’s decisions also cannot be rejected by the court.

Who has been arrested under this law? Hong Kong's most prominent media tycoon Jimmy Lai, dozens of pan-democratic leading figures, professors, and even those who were just merely holding flags and slogans.

How Things Can Fall Apart So Quickly

It was extraordinary to see how Hong Kong's freedom and democracy can completely collapse in just one year. Everything started with the first major protest against the Extradition Bill, in June 2019, and the collapse was almost complete with the passing of the national security law, in June 2020.

There was no doubt that this was aided by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the world being distracted by a virus that originated from China. Yet, hindsight would have noticed that various trojan horses were in the system early on.

As early as 1987, Deng Xiaoping, China's then-leader, rejected the idea that Hong Kong's different governmental branches shall have separation of power. This rejection was hidden and intentionally not advertised until it became convenient for Carrie Lam's government to reject the separation of power in 2020.

Similarly, Hong Kong's national security law was passed by the Chinese Congress and enacted by decree, which means it completely bypassed Hong Kong's legislative council. The ability for China to do so was long embedded into the mini-constitution, even before the 1997 handover.

Lastly, from early on, the Chinese and Hong Kong government had sought to capture key pieces in the system. This ranges from appointing loyalists to the police supervisory board to buying out media outlets. With clear erosions in its foundation, the collapse of Hong Kong's democracy and freedom was always just one crisis away.

The Lesson from Hong Kong

It takes decades, perhaps centuries, to build up a functional democracy. Yet, an authoritarian can destroy it overnight by following the authoritarian playbook. For those who live in a democracy, you can draw important lessons on the tools and methodologies used by the authoritarian government. There are always loopholes that they may take advantage of.

Always remain vigilant. Take note of the key guardrails of your democracy. Understand your constitution. Pay attention to the key institutions. The authoritarian may have already made his move.

If you have never read Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's "How Democracies Die", you can get a copy of the New York Times Best Seller here, through Amazon. I will receive a small commission for your purchase made through this link at no extra cost to you.