Room for doubt over the price to be paid for opposing an increasingly authoritarian government has been dispelled following the conviction of nine Occupy movement leaders and supporters this week.

This adds to convictions in 293 cases arising out of the Occupy protests. Then there’s the expulsion of six members of the legislature – with two more pending, the growing disqualification of those running for election, the banning of a political party, the first ever expulsion of a foreign correspondent, the mobilisation of paid mobs to intimidate democracy activists, the chill winds blowing through universities as pro-democracy academics find their careers blighted and the enactment of new laws that bring people in Hong Kong under the jurisdiction of mainland Communist Party-obeying courts.

Next up is legislation, such as the national anthem law, which extends the scope of political offences and transforms the concept of the rule of law into being rule by law.

umbrella movement occupy trial
Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man. File Photo: In-Media.

This litany of repression is quite chilling enough but, as is often the case, authoritarian governments tend to be paranoid so they feel compelled to intrude into every aspect of life.

Thus, we saw the the cack-handed attempt to deny a mainland writer the right to speak at the Hong Kong Literary Festival last year. No activity, it would appear, is safe from political surveillance.

The triumphal response to all this from the enemies of democracy tells you all you need to know about why the juggernaut of repression is set to move even faster.

The gleeful anti-democrats shake their heads in mock regret. They claim that if only Hong Kong people had not been so stupid as to participate in the Occupy protests and had been prepared to pocket a so-called political reform that would have allowed elections for the post of Chief Executive to be confined to candidates backed by the Communist Party, none of this would be happening.

The reality is that the protests may well have accelerated the juggernaut’s progress, but it did no more than head more rapidly in the direction it always intended to reach.

The most absurd suggestion is that the whittling away of Hong Kong’s freedoms and hope of achieving democracy lies with keeping quiet and not aggravating the bosses up North.

Umbrella Movement Occupy Hong Kong
Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong on 30 November 2014.Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Pasu Au Yeung.

This is aggressively stupid and defies everything that has been learned from the history of civil rights movements. What history shows is that all attempts to challenge authoritarian governments are met by heightened repression and that, as the movement grows, the level of repression intensifies.

What we also learn is that repression works and that it is perfectly possible to intimidate and demoralise protestors to the extent that they retreat into sullen silence. At this point, the enemies of democracy make the crucial mistake of assuming that silence equates to acquiescence and that they have won the battle.

This is more or less where we are now in Hong Kong. The level of street protests is well down, a significant number of people who were active in protest movements have either retreated to the shadows or, in some cases, decided to emigrate.

And yet Hong Kong people’s tenacious love of liberty, identification with a unique way of life and aspirations for democracy have far from disappeared. We are now in a lull. Only someone with a dodgy crystal ball will confidently predict when this lull will end.

But it cannot go on forever because the enemies of freedom are fundamentally on the wrong side of history and the system they wish to sustain is simply unsustainable however strong they appear to be.

Hong Kong China flag
Hong Kong and China flag. Photo:

That’s why the Soviet system in Eastern Europe seemed impregnable right up to the point when it crumbled. Apartheid in South Africa seemed to have triumphed because all its significant opponents were either in jail or in exile.

And here in Asia, we have seen seemingly triumphant dictatorships such as that of Sukarno in Indonesia and Marcos in the Philippines being exposed as strongman rule with feet of clay. The marvel is how quickly these “impregnable” systems collapse.

Right now the system in Hong Kong is a great deal less repressive than this grim litany of dictatorships but it is heading in a very bad direction. And morale in the ranks of the democracy movement is pretty low. But the spirit of liberty has not been crushed for the simple reason that the alternative is so compellingly unattractive.

The irony in Hong Kong is that so many defenders of the status quo know in their heart of hearts that it cannot last, that’s why they quietly ship their money overseas, send their offspring to be educated in democracies and make sure that at least one family member has right of abode in these democracies. They clearly are not as stupid as they often appear to be.

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

funding drive press for freedom kong tsung-gan

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship