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Published: 01:26, September 10, 2021 | Updated: 09:23, September 10, 2021
Hong Kong's civil society is alive and kicking
By Lau Siu-kai
Published:01:26, September 10, 2021 Updated:09:23, September 10, 2021 By Lau Siu-kai

Since the promulgation and implementation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong in mid-2020, numerous organizations that had taken part in the violent turmoil of 2019-20 have either folded or disbanded voluntarily or involuntarily. 

Many of these organizations were formed in the heady days of the turmoil, had actively participated in anti-China and anti-government protests or riots, and are now facing investigations or prosecutions by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government for violating the National Security Law and other Hong Kong laws. The recent disbandment or anticipated disbandment of the internationally known Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, the Civil Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which are the core members of Hong Kong’s political opposition and which have been deeply involved in many of Hong Kong’s large-scale anti-China and anti-government political struggles, has drawn the ire of local critics and Western politicians. They condemned Beijing and the HKSAR government for their “highhandedness” and lamented the “demise” of Hong Kong’s civil society. 

The folding or disbanding of those professional and civic organizations, which have been intensely politicized and radicalized, which are prone to illegal or illicit behavior, and which pose security threats to the country and Hong Kong, will make room for the rise of new organizations. ... A case in point is the expansion of its competitors and the emergence of new educational groups in the aftermath of the downfall of the HKPTU

Apparently, in the minds of these accusers, organizations that do not recognize the legitimacy of Hong Kong’s constitutional order constituted by the national constitution and the Basic Law, and which have or might have engaged in illegal protest activities are bona fide members of Hong Kong’s civil society. At the same time, they are maliciously oblivious to the existence of thousands of other social and cultural organizations, many of which have a long history, in Hong Kong. This is a blatant and insincere misconstruction of the term “civil society”, and, by doing so, local and Western accusers want to mislead people into believing that Hong Kong’s civil society is suppressed brutally by an authoritarian regime and can no longer survive, and that without these folded or disbanded organizations, Hong Kong can no longer claim to be a free and open society.

The term “civil society” is primarily academic jargon and an alien concept to many Hong Kong residents. Even Western academics cannot agree on a common definition of the term and the members of a civil society. Simply put, “civil society” at the very least comprises organizations that are autonomous of or not associated with the state or the government, and they are formed primarily by the voluntary and spontaneous actions of their members. They include non-governmental organizations, professional associations, advocacy groups, civic bodies, pressure groups, cultural groups, religious bodies, local associations, etc. These organizations mediate between the state or the government on one side, and their members or the general public on the other. Most of the time, they represent and reflect the views and interests of their members or the general public. Some of them are active participants in politics and aim at shaping the public agenda and influencing public policies. It is generally assumed or taken for granted, however, that the organizations within civil society operate legally within a widely accepted constitutional order and will not resort to violence or illegal means to achieve their ends. In the West, practically no one will include organizations that call for the overthrow or destruction of the existing constitutional order by illegal means or incite riots and violence as bona fide members of civil society.

Nevertheless, during and after the Cold War, in their vicious and strenuous efforts to export Western-styled democracy and human rights to countries with “authoritarian regimes”, Western countries, the United States in particular, underscore the importance and utility of civil society as a Trojan horse to undermine or overthrow those regimes by basically “non-violent means”. Accordingly, government bodies such as the CIA and the United States Agency for International Development and NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations have played important roles in fostering, financing, defending and guiding the civil societies in “authoritarian” countries around the world. The “color revolutions” in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine are their signature achievements in “regime change”. The “civil society”, as identified, supported, trained and funded by these Western subversive bodies, are mainly made up of organizations that advocate and fight for Western-styled democracy, freedom and human rights, and which challenge the authority and legitimacy of the political regimes of their countries using both legal and illegal means. Most of the time they are trade unions, the media, religious groups, civic bodies, cultural societies, youth/student groups, opposition parties and think tanks. Evidently, it is this distorted and narrow definition of “civil society” that is applied to Hong Kong by local and Western accusers when they equate the folding and disbandment of those constitutional-order-challenging or riot-inciting organizations in Hong Kong with the demise of its civil society. In other words, only those organizations that can launch “regime change”, foment disorder and instigate “color revolutions” are worthy of the name of “civil society”.

In truth, after its return to China, Hong Kong has a vibrant and populous civil society that contributes significantly to the well-being of the community, promotes social stability and serves as a mediator between the government and the governed. This civil society is made possible by the wide-ranging rights and freedoms granted to Hong Kong by the Basic Law, particularly Article 27, which stipulates that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions; and to strike.” The laissez faire, or “limited”, governance practiced by the HKSAR government leads it to rely substantially on the civil society to deliver various services to the people of Hong Kong and to act as a sounding board of public opinion for the authorities. Consequently, the space for the development of civil society in Hong Kong is wide and open. There are thousands of civil society organizations in Hong Kong registered under the Societies Ordinance and Companies Ordinance. There are traditional organizations such as the clansmen’s associations (zongqinhui), fellow district members’ associations (tongxianghui), Buddhist and Taoist groups and modern organizations such as the civic groups and pressure groups; organizations representing the lower strata such as trade unions and grassroots bodies as well as organizations representing the elites such as the professional associations; organizations catering to serious concerns such as public issue advocacy groups and organizations focusing on personal interests such as hobby and recreational groups; and organizations representing different age and gender groups. Some of these organizations are more connected with the government or even funded by it but still maintain their autonomy, while others are more engaged with the community and individual citizens. They differ also in their political orientations. Most importantly, they are not affected or threatened at all by the National Security Law for Hong Kong. On the contrary, the National Security Law has not only restored law and order in Hong Kong, and, inasmuch as it assures Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity, it also provides a favorable environment for the civil society to continue to grow and thrive in the long run. 

Furthermore, the rigorous enforcement of the National Security Law and other local laws geared to safeguarding law and order by the HKSAR government contributes to the healthy development of Hong Kong civil society in other ways. For one thing, the folding or disbanding of those professional and civic organizations, which have been intensely politicized and radicalized, which are prone to illegal or illicit behavior, and which pose security threats to the country and Hong Kong, will make room for the rise of new organizations. These will be willing to operate within the post-1997 constitutional order, to cooperate with the central authorities and the HKSAR government, to promote community well-being or to concentrate on serving the professional and practical interests of their members. A case in point is the expansion of its competitors and the emergence of new educational groups in the aftermath of the downfall of the HKPTU. It is also quite likely that in the new political and legal context, many of those professional and civic organizations that have politicized and radicalized, had played prominent roles in Hong Kong’s unrest in the last decade but had not taken illegal or illicit actions, such as the organizations of the legal practitioners, will undergo processes of depoliticization and deradicalization and revert to their original “non-political” and “non-confrontational” purposes and missions.  

The purge of those organizations which reject Hong Kong’s constitutional order and have committed illegal activities will not only not demolish Hong Kong’s civil society, but instead will assure that a vibrant, law-abiding and healthy civil society, as originally and commonly understood, will continue to operate and grow in the years ahead. This will be to the benefit of Hong Kong and the country as well as contribute to the continuation of the “one country, two systems” policy into the long-term future.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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