As Hong Kong began to absorb the gravity of a new national-security law forced upon it by Beijing, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, told a reporter that the city’s residents needn’t worry. The city’s Basic Law, its mini-constitution, she said last month, “clearly stated” that the “people of Hong Kong should be able to continue to enjoy the freedom of speech, freedom of press, of publications, protest, assembly and so on.” Lam was reiterating what she had told the United Nations a day earlier.
But today, Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon who runs the popular prodemocracy newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested at his home and perp-walked by police through his own newsroom, his hands handcuffed behind his back as dozens of officers swarmed the building, rummaging through files and reporters’ desks. Lai was detained, along with at least nine others, on allegations that he had breached the national-security law by colluding with foreign forces, police said. The charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Lam’s statements—and the Hong Kong government’s actions—during the height of the city’s prodemocracy protests last year struck those supportive of the movement as half-measures that came too late to defuse the political crisis at best, and arrogant and uncaring at worst. But with the national-security law in place, her words have at times appeared completely unmoored from the realities unfolding in the city. Lai’s arrest thus served a dual purpose, at once confirming the worst fears about the national-security law’s impact on Hong Kong’s long tradition of maintaining a free press, and offering the latest instance in which Lam’s public remarks seem utterly empty. “This is an outrageous assault on press freedom, on a number of levels,” Keith Richburg, the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong and a former Hong Kong and Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, told me as the arrest unfolded.
The arrest is also an accelerant to the rapid erosion of trust between Hong Kong’s leaders and its people. Last year, as police deployed heavy-handed tactics to quell street protests, trust in the force, once unironically dubbed “Asia’s Finest,” plummeted. A similar popular distrust has grown toward Hong Kong’s government, thanks in large part to Lam’s continuous doublespeak, her top officials’ unquestioning support, and Beijing’s hostile maneuvers. This distrust is now corrosively permeating the court system, the justice department, and the business community, weakening the territory’s core foundations and international appeal, to say nothing of the safety of its residents.The new law has “worsened the trust deficit,” Surya Deva, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s law school, told me. It is, he added, “becoming clearer that the chief executive is mostly a front for Beijing authorities to operationalize their thinking.”
The erosion of the city’s rights and freedoms has proceeded at an alarming rate in recent weeks: Lam had, for example, unequivocally declared that the national-security law would not be retroactive—allowing, she said, the territory to have a fresh, conflict-free start—only weeks before a dozen prodemocracy candidates were barred from partaking in an election due next month. Officials responsible for screening the candidates often cited candidates’ public comments and months-old social-media posts, made before the national-security law existed, as evidence that they would not do their duty in upholding it or the Basic Law more broadly. Tiffany Yuen, one of those disqualified, told me that the evidence against her included an Instagram post from January, six months before the law was unveiled, of a popular protest slogan, which she had not deleted until she was warned to do so by an official. Her reluctance to remove the post, the official reviewing her application wrote in rejecting her, was evidence “that the candidate has never wanted to dissociate from her political stance, that is, to overthrow the current Government or to advocate the separation” of Hong Kong from China. “This whole thing is definitely a witch hunt,” Yuen said.
Then last week, Lam sat flanked by senior officials in her administration to tell Hong Kongers what most of them already knew: The election would be postponed. Delaying the polls for two weeks at a time could be viewed as an abuse of power, Lam said, invoking instead a colonial-era ordinance to postpone them for an entire year. She blamed the delay on Hong Kong’s coronavirus outbreak, which is already showing early signs of improvement. It was the second such time she has needed to rely on the drastic piece of legislation to move forward her agenda. Immediately, prodemocracy advocates and Western governments leapt at the decision, calling it an effort to further curb the city’s limited democratic freedoms under the guise of pandemic safety. Leaders’ words, in times of crisis, are ideally meant to reassure and calm their populations; Lam’s words most often have the opposite effect. (Beijing also clearly doesn’t trust Lam, who was sanctioned by the U.S. last week, along with 10 others for restricting freedoms in Hong Kong and undermining the city’s autonomy, to govern effectively without overt guidance from above. The young activists disqualified from running in the election see the Legislative Council—Hong Kong’s mini-parliament, which functions with a limited degree of suffrage—merely as a prop in an elaborate role-playing game, better used as a platform for protest than a forum for lawmaking and governance.)
If Lam is leading the effort to undermine Hong Kong’s unique story, perhaps no one embodies that story more than Lai. After fleeing the mainland during his youth, he worked his way up through the garment industry, eventually founding the clothing retailer Giordano. Indeed, if not for his political leanings, he would be held up by the government to illustrate the "Lion Rock spirit,” the sense of community and perseverance ascribed to the hardworking Hong Kongers who helped propel the city’s global rise. Rather than use his wealth and position to cultivate a cozy relationship with Beijing, as most of the city’s business elite did, Lai instead donated money and clothing to the prodemocracy movement. He was deeply affected by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, telling The New York Times Magazine that year that he no longer focused on making money just for the sake of it: “Now I make money with an ideal.” Lai eventually built a prodemocracy media business that spans Hong Kong and Taiwan, and more recently, the septuagenarian has often been seen marching alongside demonstrators a quarter his age.
During the protest movement last year, Lai also met with senior U.S. officials in Washington, including Vice President Mike Pence, incensing Beijing and its backers in Hong Kong, who insist the protests were funded and fomented from abroad. His activism has for years made him a persistent target of Chinese state media, leading to harassment and significant financial costs, including being forced to sell his clothing business. When asked during a Facebook Live chat this month about the government’s targeting of overseas activists with the new law, he presciently warned, “I think they will continue to censor people they consider detrimental to the [Chinese Communist Party’s] international standing.” Lai is unlikely to be granted bail.
The Public Opinion Research Institute, an independent polling outfit, found last month that about 60 percent of Hong Kongers surveyed distrust the Hong Kong government. Though their trust in the central authorities had enjoyed a period of increase from 1997 to 2008, since then, it has continuously declined, says Christoph Steinhardt, an assistant professor in the department of East Asian studies at the University of Vienna, who has studied the relationship between Hong Kong identity and government trust. “Beijing has seemingly decided that efforts to sway the population in Hong Kong have failed,” he told me. “Unfortunately, the period until 2008 shows that this is not true, but that is a message Beijing cannot or does not want to hear.”
Closer to home, the lack of trust has come into sharper focus in recent weeks. The city’s head of public prosecutions resigned last month, saying he had been sidelined from cases involving the national-security law, and writing in an email that he could no longer work with the justice secretary, Teresa Cheng. Cheng joined Lam on the U.S. sanctions list, along with the current and former police commissioners. While the government has dismissed the “so-called” sanctions as meaningless, they put Hong Kong officials among the ranks of military chiefs accused of genocide and the heads of narco militias. International banks, which underpin the city’s status as a finance center and gateway to China, have become skittish of the law and of getting caught between Washington and Beijing. Deva said that statements from Hong Kong and Beijing do not give foreign companies operating in the city “any confidence that the law will target only an ‘extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts and activities,’” as the government has insisted. This, he said, would further imperil Hong Kong’s reputed judicial independence from mainland China and, in turn, its status as an international financial center. “While the chief executive continues to assert that all decisions are being taken strictly in accordance with ‘one country, two systems,’ no objective observer is willing to buy this narrative,” Deva told me, referencing the manner under which the city was supposed to be governed by China until 2047.
Lam is perhaps growing wise to the blatant contradictions in her words and actions. When she was asked how the government would address the legislative vacuum caused by the postponement of the Legislative Council session, Lam said she believed that the current session should be continued, but quickly added that this was only her personal opinion. Ultimately, she admitted, it would be up to Beijing to decide how things are handled.