Hong Kong’s tyrants in diapers have yet to be fully weaned. In fact, it may never happen because their “parents” seem reluctant to allow them to fully develop as they worry that the offspring might not be up to venturing too far on their own. 

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre) makes a toast following a flag-raising ceremony to mark the city’s handover to China on July 1, 2020. File photo: GovHK.

However, the local Quislings are really trying their best to show their parents in Beijing that they are capable. Sometimes they try too hard and sometimes not hard enough but, all in all, baby steps are being taken to transform that unruly playground once known as the One Country, Two Systems Kindergarten into an entity fit for dictatorship.

On their own the senior Quislings have embarked on dismantling the independence of the legal system, most recently by overriding the long-established Senior Counsel system to allow their own law officers to by-pass the arduous process of gaining admission to the higher levels of the bar. They have simply abolished existing procedures and substituted this process for one that is amenable to a regime that trusts no one but itself.

It was in this spirit that the Orwellian-named Committee for Safeguarding National Security abruptly disqualified legislator Cheng Chung-tai, one of the few democrats who opted for collaboration with the new regime. The point being made was that the mere act of collaboration was hardly enough: what is required is an even greater effort of obeisance to satisfy the new standards set by a regime that will not tolerate even mild dissent.

Cheng Chung-tai. File photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

These are merely recent examples of how the new order is attempting to install an authoritarian regime that will bring joy and pride to its parents. In describing this process, it is always going to be difficult to distinguish between the extent to which the tyrants in diapers are acting on their own initiative and to what extent they are simply doing what they are told.

However, let’s be magnanimous and assume that the Chief Executive in Name Only and her staggeringly underwhelming team of helpmates are actually capable of acting on their own initiative.

Their problem, well, one of their problems, is that there is no standard text detailing how to impose authoritarian rule. Fortunately, the ubiquitous Netflix has recently been kind enough to stream a series entitled How to Become a Tyrant. It takes viewers through the crucial stages of this process, starting with the need to seize power, followed by the crushing of rivals and imposing a reign of terror. This is followed by the classic business of controlling the truth, creating a new society and then ruling for ever – at least, that’s the plan.

So, let’s see how Hong Kong’s infant tyrants are doing. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaking at the National Security Law Legal Forum on July 6, 2021. File photo: GovHK.

They are fortunate not to have to go through stage one all on their own because the process of seizing power was entirely organised and executed in Beijing.

Stage two, the crushing of rivals, only seriously got underway more recently but has succeeded in putting practically every opposition leader behind bars, has destroyed the only mainstream media entity associated with the opposition and is working its way through organisations that have the temerity to be either independent or outright hostile to the regime.

Stage two and stage three are closely linked because the crushing of rivals requires a reign of terror. Besides outright incarceration the regime has closely studied the tools employed by grown up dictatorships, such as introducing a means for citizens to inform on each other, cracking down on the education system in the hope that, as Jesuits like to say, they can get them young and have them forever. Moreover, and this is common practise from Pyongyang downwards, the toddlers have installed a fully compliant legislature to give a fig leaf of legitimacy to each and every act of oppression. 

Stage four, controlling the truth, is and has always been a more complex business but Hong Kong’s mini-me autocrats are doing their best. Most obviously, they have understood the need to stamp out freedom of expression, not just by ensuring that the media is under firm control but by busying themselves with the re-writing of history. Hence the furious attempts to get new textbooks in place to present a shiny new version of history, backed up by a purge to ensure political correctness.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: RTHK Backchat via Facebook.

Stage five, creating a new society, is closely associated with stage four because it requires not just the punishment and elimination of rivals but the creation of new institutions to replace what has been destroyed. In some cases, this means preserving existing institutions but entirely subverting their purpose so that they endure in name only. A good example of this is the steady decimation of the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong to make it, if not an outright propaganda arm of government, at least a neutered shell which will cause no problems. The Legislative Council, shorn of free elections, is another example but increasingly irrelevant to the point of no one caring.

Stage six, the idea of ruling forever, is always in the mind of tyrants from the Nazis who proclaimed their thousand-year Reich, to the Chinese Communist Party which frequently boasts that its New China will last forever.

What, however, all the dictatorships of the modern era have in common is a staggering fragility that is at distinct variance with their aspirations for eternal life. The tyrant’s kindergarten in Hong Kong is still taking baby steps. Let’s see how they do once great big adult steps need to be made.


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Stephen Vines

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