Foreign forces helped fuel a mass protest in Hong Kong back in 2003 as a “trial run” and have continued to threaten national security on several occasions over the past two decades, according to the city’s security chief.

The 2012 protests against national education, the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 2016 Mong Kok unrest and the 2019 extradition bill protests were the other incidents cited by Secretary for Security Chris Tang in a video on his Facebook page published on Wednesday.

Secretary for Security Chris Tang in a video published on August 2, 2023.
Secretary for Security Chris Tang in a video published on August 2, 2023. Photo: Chris Tang, via Facebook video screenshot.

In 2003, the government’s attempt to pass the city’s own security law in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law sparked a massive street protest on July 1, with organisers estimating that over 500,000 people took to the streets.

The protest led to the resignation of then-secretary for security Regina Ip, and successive governments shelved the Article 23 issue, until Chief Executive John Lee’s current administration. In the meantime, China imposed its own security law on the city in 2020.

See also: Two decades on, Hong Kong’s homegrown security law – Article 23 – is back in the spotlight

Following the mass protest in 2003, the then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said in a statement that night that he understood why people had taken to the streets.

“To those who have participated in the rally and to all my fellow citizens of Hong Kong, I clearly hear your views. I understand your aspirations,” he said.

In the Chinese-language statement, Tung also said that the administration “fully understood” that residents valued human rights and freedom, adding that “the government shares the same view.”

“We will continue to actively maintain and protect human rights and freedoms, and gradually develop democracy in accordance with the Basic Law,” the statement read.

Article 23 national security
The July 1, 2003 protest.

In the video with English subtitles on Wednesday, Tang said the 2003 protest was a test run of Hong Kong opposition “cultivated” by foreign forces to endanger national security.

He said external forces had been attempting to “make use of Hong Kong” to harm national security even before the city’s Handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

“As early as in 2003, external forces already cultivated some local opposition groups in Hong Kong to organise large-scale anti-government processions,” Tang said in the video in Cantonese.

“The anti-Article 23 legislation procession at that time was a trial run for them. They found out that if social issues could be manipulated to create conflicts, they could call on many people to come out, making administration difficult for the government.”

The security chief also said agents for foreign forces had incited Hongkongers to use violence, starting with the 2016 Mong Kok unrest.

Violent clashes between protesters and police broke out in Mong Kok during Lunar New Year that year after authorities attempted to clear street hawkers.

civic square
Student-led protests against national education legislation at the Civic Square in 2012. File Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Dozens of protesters were jailed for involvement in the clashes, including prominent activist Edward Leung, who served a six-year jail term for taking part in a riot and assaulting a police officer.

In 2019, those agents also incited Hongkongers to protest against the extradition bill by “releasing fake news, false information and advocating violence,” the security chief said.

“External forces also made use of their media to make inaccurate and biased reports around the world,” said Tang, a former police chief.

“This rapidly fuelled the momentum of those advocating ‘Hong Kong independence,’ and resulted in the unprecedented large-scale riots in Hong Kong and gradually pushed the city towards the direction of ‘colour revolution’.”

Mass protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. While some protesters backed independence, it was never a call of the movement.

extradition road occupation
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

Following the 2019 protests, Beijing in June 2020 inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature.

It criminalises subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.