From Protests To Prosecutions: A Tale Of Modern Hong Kong – Analysis


By June Teufel Dreyer

“This is how the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.” The most famous line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” might fairly be applied to the fate of Hong Kong since 1997.

China’s slow strangulation of the fifty years of liberties it had promised to the Special Autonomous Region have been eroded by fits and starts while the democratic governments of the world look on but are painfully aware that they are powerless to affect the outcome.

The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Lai

The rise and fall of Jimmy Lai, now on trial for violating the National Security Law, mirrors the trajectory of Hong Kong itself: a population of hard-working entrepreneurial refugees creating a spectacularly successful economy under the largely benign influence of colonial British rule, then suffering perhaps irreversible downturns after it came under Beijing’s control. Lai, also known as Lai Chee-ying, was born in 1947 and arrived in Hong Kong as a penniless twelve-year-old stowaway. By dint of ingenuity and hard work he built his factory job into textile empire Giordano, with stores in an estimated thirty countries. The Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 led Lai to become politically active, founding Next magazine a year later. In 1994, Nextcalled Premier Li Peng a “son of a turtle egg”—a scathing insult in Chinese culture since turtles, hatched from eggs, do not know who their fathers are. The Chinese government then began closing Giordano stores and constricting operations in other ways, forcing Lai to sell the company. Undaunted and building on Next’s success, Lai founded Apple Daily, a tabloid whose critical reporting on China made the paper an instant commercial success. But in 2021, with its bank accounts frozen and unable to operate, the board of Next Digital, which managed the publication of the paper, announced the liquidation of the company.

Although the trial has dragged on since December 2023, the verdict is preordained. Even finding counsel was difficult: Senior British barrister David Owen was barred from representing Lai on grounds of national security risks. Since Lai is seventy-six, he is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. In fact, this trial is only the most recent of several. Arrested in 2020, he was initially allowed bail, but it was later revoked due to fraud accusations. Lai has been held in solitary confinement since December of 2020, with even his son unable to visit. In the following year, Lai was sentenced to thirteen months in jail for having participated in a vigil marking the anniversary of the June 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Lai is a British citizen but attempts by UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron to obtain his release have been rebuffed.

The Prelude

As Beijing progressively tightened its control over Hong Kong, so did resistance among its citizenry. When in 2003 the government of then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announced plans to enact laws against vaguely defined crimes including treason, secession, and sedition, over half a million people joined a protest march, some holding slogans printed by Lai’s Apple Daily. Another large rally in 2004 urged the government to implement the universal suffrage that had been promised in the Basic Law of the Special Autonomous Region. Other protests followed in rough proportion to Beijing’s increasing restrictions. In 2014, China announced that Hong Kong could have elections in 2017, but only from a list of candidates pre-approved by Beijing. Large demonstrations against the decision erupted in Hong Kong. They became known as the Umbrella Movement, named after the umbrellas that the demonstrators used to protect themselves from tear gas fired by the police. The protestors managed to occupy the Special Autonomous Region central business district for over two and a half months before government pressure dispersed the crowds after warning of an economic disaster. No concessions were made, though umbrellas became an international symbol of peaceful resistance against the extinction of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom.

In 2019, the issue was the Special Autonomous Region government’s introduction of an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. Opponents feared it would expose political activists, journalists, and others to the unfair trials and violent treatment of the mainland’s justice system. After months of protests and violence against the protestors that included the use of live ammunition, the bill was withdrawn. But, by this time, the protestors had expanded their list of demands, including universal suffrage, amnesty for arrested protestors, and an inquiry into police violence. Following over a thousand arrests and a warning from Beijing’s representative in Hong Kong that mainland forces might intervene, the protests ended.

The Aftermath

In June 2020, China imposed its National Security Law on Hong Kong with neither public consultation nor the involvement of Hong Kong’s legislature. Penalties include punishment of up to life in prison for subversion, secession, terrorism, or collusion, as defined by the Chinese Communist Party and government.

Though Lai was the most prominent of those caught in Beijing’s attempt to bring its Special Autonomous Region to heel, he is scarcely alone. Tony Chung, unlike Lai, had advocated Hong Kong independence and served forty-three months in prison. After Chung was released, he was watched constantly and asked to report to national security authorities regularly to tell them whom he had spoken with and where he went. Still, Chung managed to get permission to visit Okinawa on holidays and from there he went to Britain where he is seeking asylum.

Pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow, a diminutive woman now in her late twenties, was arrested in 2020 but released on bail. She eventually left for Canada to study and publicly shared her fear of returning home. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee’s chilling response was that the government “will pursue her for life.” She and others like her are not necessarily safe from their self-imposed exiles: Hong Kong’s national security police have placed HK$ 1 million bounties on their heads, regardless of whether they have foreign citizenship. Nor are their families safe. The parents and two sisters of Simon Cheng, another dissident currently in exile in London, were detained for questioning.

Neither age nor fame protects from prosecution. In 2022, security police arrested ninety-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cantopop star Denise Ho, as well as prominent academic Hui Po-keung and former lawmakers Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho Hui Po-keung, all charged with endangering national security. They had been trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was set up in June 2019 to provide financial aid and legal advice for protesters who were injured or arrested. In one of the more poignant moments of the episode, Zen asked that his conviction not affect religious freedom. In the end, the five were sentenced to fines amounting to $510 each.

Other new laws bind Hong Kong as a whole more closely to China. Schools must teach love for China and reverence for Xi Jinping, prompting some education-conscious Hong Kong parents to send their children abroad for schooling. Secondary school textbooks now state that Hong Kong was never a British colony since the Chinese government did not recognize the unequal treaties that ceded the city to Britain. A new postage stamp showing students saluting the Chinese flag changed the color of their shirts from yellow to white, presumably since yellow was the color of many of the umbrellas wielded by the 2014 demonstrators. One man received a four-month sentence for importing children’s books deemed suspicious since they metaphorically portrayed Hong Kong residents as sheep defending their village from evil wolves allegedly representing the central government. Beijing’s crackdown has forced many prominent educators to leave.

The December 2023 election, the first held under new laws that stipulate that only patriots, as defined by the Chinese Communist Party, can run for office, resulted in a record low election turnout of 27.5 percent, as opposed to the record 71.2 percent during the height of anti-government protests in 2019, when the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory. Chief Executive John Lee described the election as “good,” avoiding comparisons with the past, saying that attention should be focused on the fact that Hong Kong now had a constructive district council rather than what used to be a destructive one. Lee has confirmed his intention to tighten national security laws saying that the city “can’t afford to wait.” His government is moving forward with a $75 billion project in the ocean waters off the city that will see the creation of three new islands to be connected to the mainland. This will further erase the borders between Hong Kong and mainland China.

The reforms have returned Hong Kong to stability, but not to the vibrant job market it once enjoyed. The government issued about 2,600 work visas to overseas financial workers in 2021, down nearly 50 percent compared with 2019. According to the UN Population Fund, more than 140,000 residents of the Special Autonomous Region’s 7.5 million population emigrated from 2020 to 2022, mainly relocating in Britain, Canada, and Australia. Foreign professionals are among those who have departed, fearing for their safety, that of their clients, and their records under the National Security Law. In a three-month period, three British judges resigned from Hong Kong’s top court citing security law concerns. A fourth British citizen who was an ex-chief of the bar association left  after hearing he had been summoned by police. When the staff of a prominent human rights lawyer notified him that someone believed to be from state-backed media was waiting for him at his office he went straight to the airport, where a phalanx of people met him at the check-in counter asking questions like “are you leaving because you are a traitor?” The concern for personal safety is such that an American who served on the Manila government’s legal team in the suit against China over the nine-dash line will not even transit through Hong Kong’s airport.

There has been an exodus of foreign capital as well, exacerbated by the declining mainland economy. January 2023 saw what London’s Financial Times called a punishing sell-off by international investors. Foreign investors, who by the end of 2023 had sold about 90 percent of the $33 billion of Chinese stocks they had purchased earlier in the year, have continued selling this year.

Foreign tourism has decreased markedly. Tourism as a whole is still not up to pre-pandemic level, and in 2023 78.7 percent of those who visited came from mainland China. This is despite the government initiating a worldwide “Hello Hong Kong” campaign that year that included 500,000 free airline tickets and consumption vouchers.

Ignoring these metrics, Beijing and Hong Kong governments declare that the new National Security Law has made the Special Autonomous Region a safer place to do business. The city’s luster as the “Pearl of the Orient” has only been enhanced and any statements to the contrary are “sour grapes” by the West. Veteran Hong Kong legislator Regina Ip dismisses the exodus, saying that as some leave, others will move in. That is true, but the government’s pronouncements that tourism is doing well with mostly visitors from China, and that mainland Chinese are filling professional jobs vacated by those who have relocated abroad, are belied by the “Hello Hong Kong” campaign and by the decision to cut the stamp tax for non-permanent residents by half to attract more foreign professionals. At the same time, Singapore, which had reaped the benefits of many international firms seeking to retain a presence in Asia, doubled its stamp tax from 30 to 60 percent in an effort to cope with rising prices from the new arrivals. Hongkongers and mainlanders alike have relocated to Singapore, the latter group including wealthy individuals hoping to shield their assets from Xi Jinping’s crackdown on major businesses. As another marker of the government’s desire to unduly avoid alarming foreigners, a long-term Caucasian resident of Hong Kong describes a sign that says in Chinese “be sure to report on terrorists; if you don’t, you may be the next victim,” but in English it says, “united we stand.”

The Future

Whether motivated by sour grapes or realism, the assessment of Hong Kong in Western and Japanese media is definitely downbeat. Metaphors abound. In one, Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, wrote that the United Kingdom gave China the key to a Rolls Royce but instead of simply turning over the ignition, it took the car apart and removed its engine. A newspaper showed a photograph of a deflatedgiant rubber duck that met its end in Hong Kong harbor in June 2023, with the headline “nothing has changed except for everything.” Reinforcing the message, the accompanying story likened what is happening in Hong Kong to a scene from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which large numbers of the faithful gather at the bier of a monk, expecting that his body was exempt from putrefaction. Although the odor of decay soon becomes sickening, believers in the new Hong Kong ignore it and pretend nothing is happening: the one country, two systems formula remains and the economy will soon return to its pre-COVID-19 vibrance.


A series of protests in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region against Beijing’s progressive erosion of the freedoms have resulted in failure and the imposition of stricter controls. Foremost among these was the enactment of a National Security Law in 2020, which resulted in a substantial exodus of tens of thousands of the city’s best and brightest and the erosion of legal standards. Business confidence has been undermined, with many corporations transferring their assets elsewhere. The absorption of Hong Kong into China is now essentially complete.

The United States can do little except protest. Great Britain has offered asylum for those who seek to leave. As Washington continues to seek better relations with China, the lessons of Hong Kong should be borne in mind: Treaties can be ignored or repudiated, as the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 has been. Many Hong Kong advocates have sacrificed their careers and freedom for democracy. Lai’s rise and fall occurred in parallel with that of Hong Kong itself. Lai will be remembered as the foremost martyr to democracy, but the future of Hong Kong is far less certain.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the author: June Teufel Dreyer, a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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