Day 6

Facing new security bill, protesters in Hong Kong plan to use the region's financial power against China

Hong Kong-based journalist Mary Hui says pro-democracy demonstrators are considering a plan to target China by inflicting economic pain. She says many younger protesters are no longer interested in working within the "one country, two systems" framework.

Journalist says many protesters subscribe to 'laam caau', a strategy of inflicting economic pain on Bejing

Protesters carry the flag which reads "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time." (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Hong Kong-based journalist Mary Hui says many young, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong seek to use the region's financial power to destabilize China's economy in a brinkmanship-style effort to maintain freedoms.

The protesters, Hui says, are following a strategy known as "laam caau" that aims to inflict as much damage on China as it inflicts on Hong Kong.

This comes after China passed legislation on Tuesday broadly criminalizing subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and outlines severe penalties, including life imprisonment.

Hui, who writes for Quartz, tells Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong about the mood in the Hong Kong streets since the laws have taken affect, and the different strategies protesters are implementing.

Below is part of that conversation.

A man is being arrested by riot police during a demonstration against the new national security law on July 1, 2020 in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

In an interview with ABC this week, you said that Hong Kong went overnight from being a partially free society to "a city under authoritarian rule." What does that actually feel like?

It feels surreal, I would say. It is not surprising, given all the signs that Beijing has been giving us in Hong Kong and giving to the world throughout the course of the past several months, especially as the rest of the world has been distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.

They've really used these couple of months to increasingly crackdown on Hong Kong, most prominently right before the national security bill, [they] rounded up more than a dozen opposition figures and politicians in one of the most aggressive moves we've seen from them in a long time. And that's only one of the moves that they've made.

So, Beijing was ready to take a much more aggressive stance, and by the time they announced that they were going to unilaterally establish a national security law — and finally this week approve it, and then have Hong Kong sign it into law — people here were already very much expecting this to happen.

But I would say that despite this lack of surprise, it doesn't take away from the shock of it all. And that shock, I think, continues to reverberate across the city. 

These laws, people are calling them draconian and far reaching. I want to dig down on how they affect these protests because there were a sort of set of rules in place around them. They were fluid before; they've certainly changed now. In what ways have the rules that govern these protests now been altered?

I suppose previously we still — here in Hong Kong — ostensibly had some degree of freedom of assembly, although that itself had already been steadily eroded over the course of the past year. But beyond that, people still had the freedom of speech.

Protesters could say things like "Hong Kong independence," "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times," "One nation, one Hong Kong."

Now, however, the very slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" has been banned by the government because it is seditious and subversive in its messaging and hence in breach of the national security law.

And that officially is the first thought crime that the Hong Kong government has created, and I'm sure it won't be the last.

You've been out there taking the temperature of people, sensing their mood — and quite possibly the mood swings, as you say, that shock and seeing what we all kind of expected to happen. How would you describe how people out there are feeling?

A large, strong sentiment, I think is fear. But also anger and a sense of being, I think, violated that suddenly all these rights and freedoms that people had held so dear here had suddenly just been taken away from them, with the rug just pulled out from underneath them. 

People are still coming up with creative ways to skirt political censorship. For example, there were at least eight protesters standing out in this busy intersection with a blank piece of white paper, each signifying the eight characters that make up the Cantonese version of the slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times," which had just been banned, as I mentioned earlier. 

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong shout slogans " Stop One Party Rolling" as they march on the anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to China. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

That itself, I think, is highly symbolic that protesters now have to come up with these coded ways of messaging. Things that mainland Chinese activists and dissidents have long had to figure out how to do, and that Hong Kong activists and protesters, I don't think, had ever considered being a possibility that they themselves would have to do things like this. And, of course, that reality has now hit home. And the censorship is here and it's only going to get worse, I think.

You've written about something ... called "laam caau", which is something of a strategy that's becoming popular among protesters. What is it?

It is both a strategy and the philosophy that many protesters subscribe to.

At its core it's this understanding that working within the system — the "one country, two systems" framework — there's this broad understanding that that entire framework is rigged, is flawed. 

So instead of continuing to function under the system and try to preserve freedoms, a lot of protesters believe that they need to basically rewrite the entire playbook. Try and leverage the international position of Hong Kong as a global financial centre, and as a place where the majority of foreign direct investment into China flows through — to use Hong Kong's status as an international financial hub to hit China where it hurts so that China can no longer use Hong Kong to power its global economic ambitions, while at the same time systematically dismantling the freedoms that people enjoy here. 

And so instead of kind of holding out hope that things could get even slightly better, they want to make China hurt, if China is going to make Hong Kong hurt. 

We have seen this pretty widespread international condemnation of these new laws. The U.S. has actually brought in some new sanctions. Various countries are offering safe haven to people who do feel they need to leave Hong Kong.

Canada is one of the countries that has offered condemnation. But is there a sense among the protest movement that they need solidarity among the international community, from the West, to try to keep this movement going under these new laws?

Very much so. I think going back to that strategy and philosophy of "laam caau", the protest movement really is carried out along three battle lines.

Protests on the streets of Hong Kong. Another is international outreach. And the third is local politicians here trying to carve out some kind of role within the system here and getting seats in the Legislative Council with Hong Kong's version of the parliament. So those three things come hand in hand. 

Written by Lito Howse. Produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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