The Hong Kong protests: A testament to the use of digital diplomacy and a new order of ‘One Country, Two Systems’

by Jeremy Lam

Hong kong

National Day rally in Hong Kong, 1 October 2019. Etan Liam via Flickr

For eight months in 2019–20, Hong Kong citizens chanted the slogan ‘revolution of our times’ in the hope that their protests would democratise Hong Kong. While the outcome of the protests has yet to be seen, they have brought about fundamental changes to the city, particularly in its implementation of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy (OCTS). Throughout the protests, ‘revolution of our times’ also found its expression in China’s unprecedentedly aggressive uses of digital diplomacy. These not only shaped the development of the protests, but also reflected the attempt by China to wield soft power vis-à-vis people subscribing to liberal ideals.

The aftermath of the protests

Before the protests, for 25 years consecutively, Hong Kong was ranked the world’s freest economy thanks to its adherence to the rule of law. The city’s protection of property rights, judicial effectiveness and integrity of government are highly regarded. Given that China ranked 100 in the same table, these characteristics of Hong Kong are incontrovertibly attributed to the steadfast implementation of OCTS.

The policy was put in place at the time of the handover to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy in running its local affairs for 50 years. OCTS has proceeded in three stages since 1997. The first featured minimal intervention from Beijing, which delivered the promise of the former Chinese leader: ‘well water does not intrude into river water’. The first turning point took place in 2003, the year of the SARS outbreak and the government’s aborted attempt to pass the controversial national security law. Half a million people took to the streets, which prompted Beijing’s heightened supervision of Hong Kong’s affairs. Immediately after, Beijing introduced a procedural change for political reform in Hong Kong (Instrument 18 of the Basic Law), so that any reform cannot be initiated without Beijing’s consent. The third stage started in 2013, when Beijing officially asserted ‘comprehensive jurisdiction’ over Hong Kong’s affairs. With the unprecedented pronouncement that the principle of ‘two systems’ is subordinate to the idea of  ‘one country’, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments have urged judges to be patriots, disqualified candidates who have advocated Hong Kong independence or self-determination from Legislative Council elections and sought to pass a bill allowing the extradition of fugitives between China and Hong Kong.

It is worth considering whether the rule of law will remain the city’s uncompromising pillar in 2020

Against this background, the protests broke out in June 2019. They struck the city with a serious erosion of the rule of law. As the Court of Appeal pointed out in a recent case (at §23) involving the activist Joshua Wong, due administration of justice is integral to the rule of law and if that cannot be effectively administered, society will suffer ‘dire consequences’, including: (a) the failure of the judicial system to command respect or confidence; (b) the loss of individuals’ rights and liberty; and (c) consequently, a degenerating business environment.  Traces of these consequences could, unfortunately, be found easily in Hong Kong during the protests – court buildings were set on fire, public and private property like railways, shops and banks were vandalised on a daily basis, the physical safety of pedestrians and protestors became precarious and Hong Kong entered its first economic recession of the decade. As people committing violence were usually masked, most of them could not be identified or arrested. Judges were helpless before the law when cases were not brought to court. The condition was aggravated, according to Hong Kong’s Bar Association, by China’s intervention in the city’s judicial process: Chinese officials mounted severe criticisms of a decision ruling the face mask ban to be unconstitutional when the case was pending appeal. Viewed together, all the incidents show that, despite the Hong Kong leader paying lip service to upholding the rule of law, Hong Kong was enforcing only a ‘thin version’ of it, which lacked the substance of protecting people’s civil and political rights.

As the narrative goes, it would be sensible to say OCTS has entered a new and crucial stage. After eight months of protests, Beijing has been calling for the enactment of national security laws in Hong Kong whilst the opposition recently obtained the people’s mandate with a landslide victory in the District Council election. Increased tensions, if not a new round of conflicts, between the government and the opposition can be foreseen. It is worth considering whether the rule of law will remain the city’s uncompromising pillar in 2020. The prospect will be dim if the turmoil continues and actuates greater hostility and mistrust between the authorities and the people.

The uses of digital diplomacy

The protests in Hong Kong had a global dimension. Amid the trade war between the US and China, Hong Kong protestors were backed by the US government and senators despite China’s trenchant disapproval. Digital diplomacy, which allowed the governments of Hong Kong and China to tailor foreign-policy and nation-branding messages to worldwide audiences through social media platforms, brought the protests and the underlying ideological clashes to life.

Hong Kong and the world

Protestors in Hong Kong utilised social media not only to mobilise supporters, but also to disseminate news and real-time footage to the world. Their uses of social media have been largely successful, with the US enactment of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, support from Lithuanian activists and Catalan separatists and a the influence on Taiwan’s Presidential Election. As resorting to social media and increasing international pressure on the government became the protestors’ strategy, the government had no alternative but to take part in the online discourse. For instance, in January 2020, through an official unit for strategic communication, it released a video on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook which conveyed the message that the protests were ‘inflamed by rampant fake news’ and involved ‘terror and anarchy inflicted by vigilantes’.

China by far failed to deliver a competing narrative of the protests capable of convincing followers of Western ideals

Nonetheless, if we take stock of the protests so far, the government’s uses of online platforms remained sporadic. As a result, international discourse was largely shaped by the protestors and, in turn, fuelled the protests. This was understandable given that global PR companies declined to work for the government for fear of reputational damage. However, due to Hong Kong’s need as a financial centre to restore international confidence as soon as possible, the government may have to step up its efforts to enhance the city’s image through skilled uses of digital diplomacy.

China and the world

Compared to the Hong Kong government, the Chinese authorities were more proactive in their attempt to influence the international discourse. Chinese ambassadors, state media and faked accounts associated with China all discredited the protests on social media.

Nevertheless, China’s efforts were unable to sway international opinion. Apart from the fact that governments and lawmakers around the world (e.g. the US, Italy, Australia, Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan) showed their support for the protestors, online replies to Chinese officials’ tweets were rife with derision. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter also took down Chinese accounts that acted in a coordinated fashion to spread disinformation. These all suggested that China by far failed to deliver a competing narrative of the protests capable of convincing followers of Western ideals. In the face of a new Cold War and growing international pressure arising from the Hong Kong protests and the Xinjiang detention camps, China must enhance its soft power – defined by Joseph Nye (1990) as the ability to set the agenda in world politics through the force of one’s beliefs and values but not military or economic coercion – and better communicate its messages to the world. After all, it is part and parcel of the Chinese Dream that China will gain the recognition and support of other countries who will accept and even import the ‘China model’.

About the author

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Jeremy Lam read Law at the University of Hong Kong and University of Oxford. Apart from law, his areas of interest are global diplomacy and social policy.

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