In recent months, Hong Kong officials have vowed to take a hard line against “soft resistance,” but failed to define what is meant by the term.

Hong Kong China flag patriotic national security
Chinese national flags and HKSAR regional flags. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

HKFP examines when it first emerged, what it has been applied to, and what legal scholars make of it.

What is ‘soft resistance’?

On April 15, 2021, the then-director of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong Luo Hui-ning warned that Hong Kong must crack down on any behaviour that threatened national security, which he described as “hard resistance.” He was making a speech to mark the city’s National Security Education Day almost a year after the sweeping legislation came into force.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism.

The city must also regulate “soft resistance,” Luo said, without elaborating.

Luo Huining
Luo Huining. File photo: GovHK screenshot.

Following Luo’s speech, pro-establishment commentator Lau Siu-kai told HK01 that hard resistance referred to pro-independence forces and those promoting separatism and violence. Soft resistance focused on ideological work, including “disseminating disinformation, creating panic, maliciously attacking the SAR government and the central authorities and distorting the Basic Law.”

Lau pointed to the media sector and accused some outlets of engaging in “opinion manipulation” and spreading hatred. He claimed there were also teachers who “disseminated misleading information” in schools and made statements which amounted to “distorting history.”

Those were the major causes of the unrest in Hong Kong in recent years, Lau said, but they belonged to the “ideological realm,” which was “difficult to be fully addressed through the law” and hence needed to be regulated.

2021 LegCo Election vote counting
Chairperson of the Electoral Affairs Commission Justice Barnabas Fung and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang opening the first ballot box in Hong Kong’s first “pariots-only” legislative race on December 19, 2021. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Another pro-establishment figure Stanley Ng, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, told HK01 that inciting blank votes at an election could be an example of soft resistance.

When did the Hong Kong government start using ‘soft resistance’?

According to the Hong Kong government press release archive, the term soft resistance was first used in Chinese by Secretary for Security Chris Tang on July 3, 2021, during a speech he gave in Cantonese at a legal forum about the Beijing-enacted security law.

Chris Tang
Secretary for Security Chris Tang. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Although the national security law curbed “flagrant illegal behaviour” of pro-independence forces in the city, they did not “give up entirely,” the minister said. He pointed to street booths set up by organisations advocating Hong Kong independence, documentary screenings and the sales of protest-related books as examples of “glorifying rioters” and “infiltrating violence through culture.”

”Therefore, we must remain vigilant and also urge the citizens of Hong Kong to stay away from activities that are hijacked by ’Hong Kong independence‘ advocates. They should not be used as a shield for the ’Hong Kong independence‘ movement,” Tang said.

The term first appeared in the press release archive in English in August 2021, when Tang was responding to questions from then-lawmaker Horace Cheung who was concerned about “young people’s minds being poisoned by terrorist ideologies.”

The minister said at the time that student concern groups, political bodies or even tutorial schools “wantonly instilled among students improper values and disseminated false or biased messages.” They promoted such “extreme ideologies” through producing biased teaching materials, holding street booths and through the internet, Tang alleged, without naming specific groups or individuals.

independence january 1 civil front causeway bay
Hong Kong protesters display pro-independence flags during the 2019 extradition bill unrest in 2019. File photo: May James/HKFP.

“Also, ideologies endangering national security are still infiltrating via the media, culture and arts, and other ‘soft resistance’ means to poison young people,” he added.

On April 15 this year, Beijing’s top official overseeing Hong Kong and Macau matters, Xia Baolong, again warned the city to be vigilant against soft resistance.

“Everyone needs to be vigilant against the resurgence of street violence, be wary of ‘soft resistance’ causing chaos in secret, and be alert to activities disrupting Hong Kong overseas from pouring back to Hong Kong,” the Chinese official said.

He added: “In particular, some anti-China and anti-Hong Kong activities are highly deceptive. They claim to be fighting for human rights, freedom, democracy, and people’s livelihoods. We must not take them lightly.”

Who has used the phrase ‘soft resistance’?

Top Beijing officials in Hong Kong and Hong Kong government officials – particularly Chief Executive John Lee and Tang – are among its frequent users.

john lee press conference
Chief Executive John Lee. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Police top brass, including Edwina Lau, former head of the police National Security Department, also included “soft resistance” in their speeches, media interviews and interviews published in OffBeat, a publication issued by the police public relations team.

Alleged acts of ‘soft resistance’

The publication of a series of illustrated books for children has often been cited as an act of soft resistance. Five members of the speech therapists union behind the books were jailed last September after being found guilty of sedition.

The sedition case was mentioned by security minister Tang last month, when he told Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao that tackling acts of soft resistance was necessary and the authorities would not compromise.

HKCTU supporting the speech therapists sheep story books
Members from the disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions held up paper masks of sheep at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on July 23, 2021 to show solidarity with the speech therapists. FIle Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

He cited the District Court’s judgement handed down in September last year that the children’s books were able to, in effect, brainwash young readers. The judgement said the publication spread rumours and disinformation, making people lose trust or even hate their governments and causing serious social upheaval, Tang told the paper.

Even though Hong Kong was gradually returning to peace and stability, “the seeds of unrest” still existed and there was an urgent need to prevent any riots and social turmoil breaking out in the city, Tang added, citing the judgement.

“It is imaginable that if we… disregard the behaviours of ‘soft resistance,’ it will create gaps in safeguarding national security or lead to a return of turbulent times. We must remain vigilant at all times,” he said.

The speech therapists’ case was also mentioned by Edwina Lau in April this year when she gave media interviews before her retirement. She said those involved in the case had organised events to encourage kindergarten students and their parents to read the illustrated books, but the “seditious” content might lead the young readers to become “anti-government” or develop hatred against law enforcement personnel.

Steve Li
Steve Li, senior superintendent of the Police National Security Department, at a press conference on Thursday explaining allegedly seditious children’s books. Photo: Hong Kong Police, via Facebook screenshot.

“While it may seem to be harmless, in reality planting provocative ideas in the minds of children can have long-lasting harmful effects. This is a prime example of a signature case of ‘soft confrontation’,” she said.

Lau, speaking to reporters, also gave another example of soft resistance. She pointed to a series of national anthem blunders at international sporting events, where organisers wrongly played Glory to Hong Kong, the unofficial anthem of the 2019 protests, as the city’s national anthem, rather than the Chinese national anthem March of the Volunteers.

She questioned whether the blunders were premeditated, despite repeated statements from organisers that the mix-ups were an honest mistake.

Hong Kong rugby Glory to Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s national anthem was labelled as “Glory to Hong Kong” in a match between the city’s team and Portugal held on November 6, 2022. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Lau said although the city appeared calm on the surface, there were “hidden undercurrents” and the city must be cautious about potential threats to national security in the form of soft resistance.

Criticism and response

Concern over the definition of the term was raised last month by former Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau, at a panel discussion hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) relating to the third anniversary of the national security law.

Lau, who worked as a reporter in the 1970s, made reference to recent remarks by the security minister, in which he mentioned the media and the cultural sector when talking about soft resistance. She said she did not know the definition of soft resistance, adding that she did not think any journalists “should feel that you are safe.”

The FCC event was held a day after the security chief rejected suggestions that actions against soft resistance would “stifle” the city’s soft power.

YouTube video

“When faced with such erroneous behaviours of ‘soft resistance,’ we must make every effort to confront them head-on,” he told Sing Tao.

Tang said soft resistance had been an underlying cause of social unrest in Hong Kong over the past two decades, including the large-scale extradition bill protests that erupted in June 2019.

“The underlying cause of these incidents was individuals utilising ‘soft resistance’ methods through media, cultural arts, and other means to incite hatred towards the central government, SAR government, law enforcement officers, to promote violence, and encourage others to breach the law,” Tang said.

The minister also rejected claims that describing various acts as soft resistance was an attempt to “control the citizens’ thoughts.” The national security law did not restrict residents from exercising free speech or criticising the government, Tang said, nor did it affect academic freedom and creative work.

“Combating ‘soft confrontation’ does not mean prohibiting all forms of criticism,” Tang told Sing Tao.

A flag-raising ceremony to celebrare National Security Education Day at the Hong Kong Police College on April 15, 2021. Photo: GovHK.
A flag-raising ceremony to celebrare National Security Education Day at the Hong Kong Police College on April 15, 2021. Photo: GovHK.

At the same FCC discussion, John Burns, emeritus professor and honorary professor of the Department of Politics and Public Administration of University of Hong Kong, said the term “soft resistance” was “very vague” and did not convey exactly what the authorities were thinking.

“I am unaware that these things have been codified in the law, so this is a worrying development for many in Hong Kong…” he said.

Burns said the word “patriot” was code for “you agree with us,” and “resistance” was used to describe those who did not agree with the authorities.

“If you agree with us, then okay, then you can be in the District Council, the LegCo, the Election Committee, all these things. But if you don’t agree with us, well then you are resisting. Hard resistance, soft resistance, I am unclear what it means,” he said.

Constitutional law expert Albert Chen of HKU, another speaker at the FCC event, said he did not know the definition of soft resistance, but it could mean the government using its own means to counteract what it perceived as the “wrong view of history, China, or whatever.”

Albert Chen University of Hong Kong HKU national security law education course
A screenshot of Albert Chen, professor and chair of constitutional law at the University of Hong Kong, presents the first lecture for HKU’s national security course. Photo: Supplied.

The alternative methods that could be deployed by the authorities included classroom education, government-funded programmes and cultural activities, he told the South China Morning Post after the FCC event.

Article 23

Soft resistance would be tackled by provisions in Hong Kong’s homegrown security legislation, security chief Tang said last month. In an interview with state-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao, he said Hong Kong had seen “soft resistance” in recent years, as well as online discussions and publications that could easily radicalise people.

See also: What is Article 23? Hong Kong’s homegrown security law finds itself back in the spotlight

Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the government shall enact laws on its own to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against Beijing. Its legislation failed in 2003 following mass protests and it was not tabled again until after the onset of the separate, Beijing-imposed security law in 2020. Pro-democracy advocates fear it could have a negative effect on civil liberties.

After shelving the legislation for more than two decades, the city’s leader vowed it would be enacted this year or next.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.