10 minutes

The Fracturing of Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement

Andrew Chiu, a prodemocracy district councilor in Hong Kong, was attempting to stop a knife-wielding assailant from attacking protesters in November 2019 when the attacker broke free and lunged at him. The man pulled Chiu close in a belligerent embrace, sank his teeth into Chiu’s left ear, then snapped his head back and, as Chiu reached up to find blood spilling from his head, spat a sinuous chunk of flesh onto the brick sidewalk.

An attempt to reattach Chiu’s ear was unsuccessful. He spent 19 days in the hospital recovering. Later, during his attacker’s trial, Chiu gave testimony recalling the grotesque “pluck” sound he heard as his appendage was ripped from his head. The assault fleetingly elevated Chiu in the leaderless prodemocracy movement, his ordeal held up by protesters as an example of the viciousness of supporters of the Chinese Communist Party. Chiu continued his activism, campaigning and making public appearances with a large bandage covering the left side of his head until he was arrested in 2021 for violating the national-security law imposed by Beijing.

Then Chiu did the inconceivable. He flipped.

One of the most notable characteristics of the 2019 mass demonstrations in Hong Kong was their unity. The movement drew millions of protesters from disparate age and socioeconomic groups. Prodemocracy politicians, too, put aside long-running differences. Social movements tend to splinter when some participants turn to radical tactics such as violence and vandalism, but Hong Kong’s movement was remarkably coherent. On the streets, “Brothers climbing a mountain together, each one with their own effort” became a popular refrain. Another was more simple: “Do not split.”

Four years later, Beijing hasn’t only silenced dissent and wholly restructured China’s freest city. It has also managed to crack this unity. Chiu, who is 37, is a key witness for the government in a sweeping trial that could see the bulk of the city’s most prominent prodemocracy advocates jailed, where the penalty could be up to life in prison. He is among a number of opposition figures who have swapped sides and are now assisting the government they once fought. Three others charged in the case have also cooperated, with one going as far as to post speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping on social media. A number of editors from the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper will likely testify against their old boss, the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, later this year, as will two other young men who the government alleges are part of a tentacled conspiracy that casts Lai as mastermind of the protests.

Hong Kong offers an example of how authoritarian regimes globally, from Belarus to Beijing and beyond, work to crush popular movements from the inside, turning onetime supporters into collaborators to sow discord, fracture unity, and stoke uncertainty. The effects are demoralizing and discombobulating for those who watch their former compatriots move against them and the broader movements they once supported.

The tactic is twofold, Lee Morgenbesser, a comparative-politics professor at Griffith University, in Australia, whose research focuses on authoritarianism, told me. Flipped witnesses help governments “sell the story that the movement is not worth supporting because of its criminal underpinnings,” and they plant the idea that “current acquaintances can become future informants,” which can deter participation in demonstrations.

“These testimonies effectively put pressure on the level of trust between potential collaborators,” he said, “making citizens doubt the political relationships they rely upon.”

Chiu, who pleaded guilty, provided more than two weeks of testimony this spring, centering on his role in an unofficial prodemocracy primary vote held in 2020, days after the national-security law was handed down from Beijing. The vote was part of a brash plan, devised by a former law professor, to carry the protest movement from the streets into formal halls of government. The hope was that prodemocracy candidates would secure a majority in the city’s legislature, where they would vote down bills and eventually force the chief executive to step down by blocking the city’s budget. The prodemocracy movement held a primary to choose the most popular possible candidates.

More than 600,000 city residents voted in the unofficial primary over two days in July 2020. But numerous candidates who took part were disqualified from standing in the election, scheduled for that September. The city’s leader then used a colonial-era law to postpone the polls, citing the threat of the pandemic. When the elections were held the following year, they had been reengineered to ensure that only “patriots” could participate and to produce an opposition-free legislature.

Chiu was one of 47 people, including lawyers, labor activists, and pro-LGBTQ advocates, arrested for standing in the primary and charged with conspiracy to commit subversion. Most have been held without bail since February 2021; 31 have pleaded guilty. According to dozens of pages of testimony reviewed by The Atlantic, Chiu, who was a longtime member of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s largest prodemocracy political party, has cast himself as a mostly hapless bystander who went along with what the government describes as a secret, sinister scheme. In reality, the poll was a simple exercise in democracy.

The collaboration of Chiu and several others has incensed and dejected activists and onetime friends. News of it comes at a time when Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement is at its nadir within the city, global attention to the city’s plight is waning, and activist groups abroad have fractured through infighting.

The city’s authorities, meanwhile, have recast the 2019 demonstrations as a violent, foreign-backed “color revolution” and seek to snuff out its memories and erase its talismans. They have shifted focus to what the government describes as “soft resistance,” a nebulous term that encompasses seemingly any activity that expresses dissatisfaction with the power structure. In court, the government is hoping to score an injunction that will prohibit the broadcast, publication, or distribution of a popular protest anthem. Police earlier this month issued arrest warrants and a bounty of about $130,000 for eight activists who are living abroad, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The eight stand accused of violating the national-security law, which has global reach, and John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has called them “rats in the street.”

“In a city once known for its vibrant and diverse public square, no one feels comfortable sharing critical or even lightly satirical remarks or cartoons about the government in public, or sometimes even among friends in private,” Johannes Chan, the former dean of law at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a recent essay examining the impact of the national-security law after three years.

Chiu was politically ambitious. In 2007, he was elected as a district councilor, becoming one of the city’s youngest, at 22. His drive grated on some within the prodemocracy camp, according to a close friend, who, like others I spoke with, requested anonymity in order to avoid possible repercussions. Chiu yearned for the limelight and felt slighted when he was not given the attention he thought he deserved and didn’t move up the political ranks as quickly as he anticipated. These resentments made him an attractive target for cooperation, his friend told me: “He became weak. Once you give in … the pressure will be greater and greater. And you will concede more and more.”

“It is very sad,” a lawyer involved in the case told me recently. “I understand why they have done it; no one wants to stay in prison any longer than they need to.” Chiu and others likely hope that cooperating will spare them the harshest prison terms, and under Hong Kong’s common-law court system, a holdover from British rule, pleading guilty in a criminal case would normally have this effect. But under the national-security law, which melds the city’s common-law heritage with Beijing’s authoritarian judicial system, the conviction rate for national-security cases is 100 percent, and the advantages of cooperation are not clear, because there is no precedent or case law.

The value of Chiu’s testimony to the government’s case is evident. Over the course of the months-long trial of the 47 primary candidates, prosecutors have used the defendants’ social-media posts and public statements as evidence of conspiracy. “This has to be the first conspiracy ever in the world where everyone involved was telling anyone what they were intending to do,” the lawyer told me recently. Testimony from Chiu, as well as others like Au Nok-hin, a Ph.D. student and former prodemocracy lawmaker, adds a nefarious behind-the-scenes animation to a publicly known plan with claims about its planning and intent. “The whole case rests on those witnesses,” the person familiar with the case told me.

Although the use of such tactics is a new, and ominous, development in Hong Kong, it is widespread elsewhere. Beijing has long used forced confessions to splinter movements on the mainland that it perceives as threatening. Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian activist who was arrested two years ago when the plane carrying him was forced to land in Minsk, earlier this year secured a pardon from the dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. Opposition activists have accused Protasevich of betrayal and collaborating with the government he once fiercely criticized. What type of treatment he may have been subjected to while jailed is unclear.

Testimonies from former members of opposition movements are “designed to reveal, mitigate, and fracture,” Lee Morgenbesser told me. They hang over the movement, where “the very presence of informants sows distrust among key members and disrupts future plans.”

The bounties Hong Kong has placed on the eight overseas activists serve a similar purpose. Given that the countries in which these activists reside have suspended their extradition agreements with Hong Kong, the call for their arrest is mainly about showing political muscle and inflicting psychological damage. The city’s authorities have already arrested five Hong Kongers accused of aiding the activists and, adopting another mainland tactic, questioned the family of one. Having contact with the exiles will “bring disaster to their loved ones,” and making them pariahs will hurt their “mobilization capabilities,” Lau Siu-kai, an adviser to the government’s in-house think tank, wrote in a recent state-media opinion piece. Authorities are creating a “climate of distrust and denunciation,” where “the government focuses citizens’ attention on what it alone identifies as being dangerous to the state,” Morgenbesser said.

Chiu has earned a special animus among his former colleagues in the democracy movement by being sneering and spiteful of his onetime compatriots. Other defendants have at times openly heckled him, scoffed at his testimony, and called him names in the courtroom. His friend told me that once Chiu is freed, he will likely need to leave Hong Kong. His testimony has been disjointed and at times completely at odds with his past stated political positions. Even the panel of judges handpicked by the chief executive to handle the case have at times appeared frustrated and exasperated with his ever-shifting narrative.

The lawyer involved in the case told me that Chiu’s turn has been so complete, making full sense of it is difficult. He is, the lawyer said, like “someone who used to smoke, but now can’t stand the smell of smoke anywhere near him.”

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