Hong Kong has moved “from chaos to order” under the national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020, according to the city’s leaders. The pro-democracy protests that brought millions to the streets have been quashed; critical media outlets have been silenced; opposition politicians have all been jailed, forced into exile, or barred from contesting office.
Yet enemies of the state only seem to multiply.
This mix of triumphalism and paranoia among Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed elites demands the creation of new threats to justify a crackdown with no end in sight. Zhang Zhigang, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and head of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, has identified its latest target: “long-distance resistance” (遠對抗), a companion to the now frequently invoked threat of “soft resistance” (軟對抗).
In a July 27 editorial for Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, Zhang wrote that “soft resistance” is like an amoeba; “long-distance resistance” is just one “genetic variation” thereof. Many self-exiled activists, he says, are continuing to oppose the government from their new bases abroad, beyond the reach of national security police.
The government’s concern with “long-distance resistance” was underscored earlier in the month by the arrest warrants and bounties issued on the heads of eight prominent overseas activists from Hong Kong, including the territory’s youngest elected lawmaker Nathan Law. Family of the “Hong Kong Eight” have since been taken in by police for questioning, and another five people have been arrested for running a shopping app accused of aiding Law, a resident of the UK since 2020.
Zhang said he has been vindicated by the emergence of these new forms of resistance: he predicted, when the national security law was first promulgated, that the opposition would not simply “go quiet and go into hiding.” On the contrary, they would “study the law thoroughly” and become “more and more sophisticated” in how they express dissent.
Despite continuous invocations from top leadership in Hong Kong, “soft resistance” remains poorly defined. But far from a bug, this ambiguity is its main feature: it can be used to describe any form of disagreement with the government no matter how mild or, even in the current hostile environment, lawful it may be. “Long-distance resistance” is similarly vague — Zhang at one point gestures merely to “insufficiently patriotic behavior” (不夠愛國的行為) — but it is ultimately more concerned with where than what.
In an article in August 2023 for Think Hong Kong, Chan Hoi-man, a prominent pro-establishment commentator and member of the Beijing-based Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies, characterized the national security law’s inability to neutralize critics abroad as a legal “loophole” waiting to be plugged. Writing that amendments to the city’s Crimes Ordinance regarding seditious intent do not specify their extraterritoriality in all provisions, he argues that supplementary local legislation “could clarify that all provisions have extraterritorial effects.”
In Hong Kong, talk of a locally legislated security law is a reference to Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that came into effect with the 1997 transfer to Chinese sovereignty. This commits local authorities to pass their own national security legislation — a move hitherto stalled due to overwhelming public resistance. When then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa attempted to pass a security law under Article 23 in 2003, half a million Hongkongers rallied against it. It was the biggest protest the Special Administrative Region had ever seen, and it forced the government to shelve the bill indefinitely.
But according to the new, official version of events, this historic display of people power was actually a foreign plot to force a “color revolution” on the city. In a video published on Facebook one day before Chan’s article, the city’s security chief Chris Tang said the 2003 march was a test run of Hong Kong opposition “cultivated” by foreign forces to endanger national security — a dramatic revision of Tung Chee-hwa’s reaction at the time, when he said he “fully understood” and even shared the human rights concerns of “fellow Hong Kong citizens” who joined the rally.
All this adds to the steady, growing drumbeat of rhetoric under Chief Executive John Lee backing a revival of Article 23 to plug every “loophole” left by the already wide-ranging national security law and further intensify the government’s crackdown. In his Ming Pao piece, Zhang Zhigang writes that “the old ways cannot be relied upon” to deal with the threat of “long-distance resistance.” He suggests that constantly widening the scope of the national security law is “exactly what the opposition wants” since it makes the case for them that the law is simply a bludgeon to crush any and all dissent.
Zhang’s solution, however, is even more unsettling: the creation of a social, political, and educational environment in which the national security law itself is rarely needed since critical thoughts about “changing the way the power structure in Hong Kong is formed” are neutralized in their infancy — before they can coalesce into competing schools of thought, much less political action.